21 April 2012

Strange Fruit

In 1937, a high school teacher named Abel Meeropol published a poem called "Bitter Fruit" in the union magazine The New York TeacherAccording 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.


Strange Fruit 
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


Red Tash said...

Racism, UGH. Hatred is the most horrific force imaginable, isn't it?

Mark K said...

Gruesome to even think about. Pardon my language, but what bastards to do that to a fellow human being!? It makes my blood boil. Very interesting indeed, and surprisingly shorter than your normal offering?

Mark K said...

PS: 'Dangerous Minds'!? Madam, what are you inferring?

Traci Kenworth said...

I cry to think of the abuse/gruesome happenings back then. We are all God's children, no one more special than another.

Bushman said...

How awful. Words we should all read.

Luanne G. Smith said...

That is haunting. Never heard it before, and I can't believe you found footage of Billie Holiday. I don't think I've ever seen her in video before. So very cool.

Cassandra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cassandra said...

Love Billie Holiday and you are absolutely right that this song is haunting. I think I first stumbled upon it when I was writing a paper about race conflicts in the deep south and Emmett Till. If you don't know who Till is, he was a 14-year old black boy who got tortured to death and thrown in a lake because he had the odasity to wolf-whistle at a white woman.

Cherie Reich said...

I hadn't heard of the song before. Such terrible but important to read lyrics.

blankenship.louise said...

I'll always remember the first time I heard this song, because Billie Holliday isn't my sort of thing and I wasn't interested in hearing it.

It stopped me in my tracks.

Unknown said...

Billie absolutely sets my bones on fire... in a great way! Ongoing debate in our home: Billie or Ella? Billie just has such an edge to her, like eating a hot pepper. Ella is like eating a red velvet cupcake--smooth and sweet. I relate everything back to food when I'm hungry, by the way. : )

We forget that artists are usually the first to tackle tough societal issues. I think it's because writers, musicians, etc. can wrap it up in something sweet to mask the bitter taste, if that makes sense. They make injustice, etc. palatable to the point we're willing to truly examine it instead of spitting it back out.

Told you it all goes back to food... : ) Really enjoyed the post and song.


Laura S. said...

Hello, Elizabeth! In college I read the book "Strange Fruit" by Lillian Smith. The title is inspired by Billie Holiday's song. If you haven't read it, it's a great book which I recommend!

Hope you're having a lovely weekend and happy A to Z!

Amanda Heitler said...

Speechless, as so often after reading your posts.

Fantasy Writer Guy said...

Thank you. That was unpleasant and necessary. How ghastly these glimpses of the horrors of the past. Worse to consider those glimpses one day given us for the horrors we still don't see, for which we all bear guilt. How far we haven't come.