In 1937, a high school teacher named Abel Meeropol published a poem called "Bitter Fruit" in the union magazine The New York Teacher. According to the wiki, it is commonly thought that he was reacting to a widely circulated photo of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two black men who were pulled out of jail, beaten with sledgehammers, and hung from a tree in Marion, Indiana in 1930. Such photos were sold as postcards and were wildly popular, because people are ghouls and that was true then like it's true now. Meeropol set the song to music and performed it in New York.
Billie Holiday began performing the song, retitled "Strange Fruit," at Café Society, New York's first integrated nightclub, in 1939. Peter Daniels, writing for World Socialist Web Site, notes that the song faced major resistance: it received scant radio time, and Holiday was forbidden to perform it at some clubs. The Rapp-Coudert Committee, a precursor to the McCarthy hearings, interrogated Meeropol on the origin of the song, apparently seeking a way to ban it.
"Strange Fruit" was one of the first pieces of popular culture to protest the practice of lynching. If you've heard it, you know how haunting it is. Daniels describes it as "unusual...not in the folk song tradition, not quite jazz." To my ear it sounds very old, as old as injustice itself.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop