Strange Fruit

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"Strange Fruit"
Single by Billie Holiday
A-side Fine and Mellow
Released 1939
Format 78 rpm
Recorded April 20, 1939[1]
Genre Blues, jazz
Label Commodore
Writer(s) Abel Meeropol
Music sample

"Strange Fruit" is a song performed most famously by Billie Holiday, who first sang and recorded it in 1939. Written by the teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem, it exposed American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans. Such lynchings had occurred chiefly in the South but also in other regions of the United States.[2][3] Meeropol set it to music and with his wife and the singer Laura Duncan, performed it as a protest song in New York venues, including Madison Square Garden.

The song has been covered by artists, as well as inspiring novels, other poems and other creative works. In 1978, Holiday's version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.[4] It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Poem and song[edit]

The photograph that was cited by the songwriter as the inspiration for the song: Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, August 7, 1930.[5]

"Strange Fruit" is a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx and a member of the Communist Party, as a protest against lynchings. He sometimes published under the pen name Lewis Allan, after two sons who were stillborn.[6][7]

The lyrics, very similar to those of Théodore de Banville's poem "Le Verger Du Roi Louis" written seventy years before, are under copyright but have been republished in full in an academic journal, with permission.[8] In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings. He had seen Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana.[7] He published the poem under the title "Bitter Fruit" in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine.[9] Though Meeropol had often asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set "Strange Fruit" to music himself and the piece gained a certain success as a protest song in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.[10]

Billie Holiday's performances and recordings[edit]

Barney Josephson, the founder of Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, New York's first integrated nightclub, heard the song and introduced it to Billie Holiday. Other reports say that Robert Gordon, who was directing Billie Holiday's show at Cafe Society, heard the song at Madison Square Garden and introduced it to her.[9] Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939. She said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation but, because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing the piece making it a regular part of her live performances.[11] Because of the poignancy of the song, Josephson drew up some rules: Holiday would close with it; the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday's face; and there would be no encore.[9] During the musical introduction, Holiday would stand with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer.

Holiday approached her recording label, Columbia, about the song, but the company feared reaction by record retailers in the South, as well as negative reaction from affiliates of its co-owned radio network, CBS.[12] Even John Hammond, Holiday's producer, refused so she turned to friend Milt Gabler, whose Commodore label produced alternative jazz. Holiday sang "Strange Fruit" for him a cappella, and moved him to tears. Columbia allowed Holiday a one-session release from her contract in order to record it and Frankie Newton's eight-piece Cafe Society Band was used for the session. Because he was worried that the song was too short, Gabler asked pianist Sonny White to improvise an introduction so that Holiday only starts singing after 70 seconds.[9] Gabler worked out a special arrangement with Vocalion Records to record and distribute the song.[13]

She recorded two major sessions at Commodore, one in 1939 and one in 1944. The song was highly regarded and the 1939 record sold a million copies,[7] in time becoming Holiday's biggest-selling record.

In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday suggested that she, together with Meeropol, her accompanist Sonny White, and arranger Danny Mendelsohn, set the poem to music. The writers David Margolick and Hilton Als dismissed that claim in their work, Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song writing that hers was "an account that may set a record for most misinformation per column inch". When challenged, Holiday—whose autobiography had been ghostwritten by William Dufty —claimed, "I ain't never read that book."[14]


Numerous other singers have performed the work. In October 1939, Samuel Grafton of The New York Post described "Strange Fruit": "If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its 'Marseillaise'."


In popular culture[edit]

  • The 1944 novel Strange Fruit by author Lillian Smith, was said to have been inspired by Holiday's version of the song.
  • The opera Strange Fruit was adapted from the novel by Lillian Smith (above). A commissioned work, it premiered on June 15, 2007 at the Long Leaf Opera Festival[18] in Chapel Hill, North Carolina starring: Charles Stanton, baritone, and Erina Newkirk, soprano. Chandler Carter was the composer and Joan Ross Sorkin was the librettist.
  • Rapper Danny! recorded "Strange Fruit," a song about his encounter with a racist hotel manager who prevents him and his friends from checking into a reserved room after discovering they were black.
  • UK record company Strange Fruit Records was named after the song.



  • Clarke, Donald: Billie Holiday. Wishing on the Moon. München, Piper 1995. ISBN 3-492-03756-9
  • Davis, Angela: Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. Diverse Ausgaben, z. B. Vintage Books 1999 ISBN 0-679-77126-3
  • Margolick, David and Hilton Als: Strange Fruit. Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights. Running Press. ISBN 0-7624-0677-1 (hardcover, 2000)
  • Margolick, David and Hilton Als: Strange Fruit. The Biography of a Song., Ecco. ISBN 0-06-095956-8 (paperback, 2001)
  • Holiday, Billie (with William Dufty): Lady Sings the Blues (autobiography) Edition Nautilus, 1992. ISBN 3-89401-110-6


  1. ^ "Billie Holiday recording sessions". Retrieved 2011-04-20. 
  2. ^ "Lynching Statistics for 1882-1968". Retrieved 2013-07-21. 
  3. ^ "War and Social Upheaval: the American Civil Rights Movement - lynching". Retrieved 2013-07-21. 
  4. ^ Grammy Hall of Fame[dead link]
  5. ^ "Strange Fruit: Anniversary Of A Lynching". NPR. 2010-08-06. Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  6. ^ David Margolick, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2000), pp. 25-27.
  7. ^ a b c Moore, Edwin (18 September 2010). "Strange Fruit is still a song for today | Index Strange Fruit is still a song for today". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 September 2010. 
  8. ^ Meeropol, Abel (12 July 2006). "Strange fruit". International Journal of Epidemiology 35 (4): 902–902. doi:10.1093/ije/dyl173. Retrieved 6 January 2013. 
  9. ^ a b c d Lynskey, Dorian (2011). "33 Revolutions Per Minute". Faber & Faber Ltd. ISBN 0-571-24134-4. 
  10. ^ Margolick, Strange Fruit, pp. 36-37.
  11. ^ Margolick, Strange Fruit, pp. 40-46
  12. ^ Margolick, Strange Fruit, pp. 61-62.
  13. ^ Billy Chrystal, 700 Sundays, pp. 46-47.
  14. ^ Margolick, Strange Fruit, pp. 31-32
  15. ^ Billy Chrystal, 700 Sundays, p. 47
  16. ^ "100 Songs of the South |". Retrieved 2011-04-20. 
  17. ^ Smith, Ian K (25 March 2010). "Top 20 Political Songs: Strange Fruit". New Statesman. Retrieved 25 March 2010. 
  18. ^ "Home, Season, News". 2011-02-12. Retrieved 2011-04-20. 
  19. ^ "163 CD tracklisting includes 'Strange Fruit' covered by Siouxsie and the Banshees", Mojo, June 2007
  20. ^ "Singles: Under the Pink. Cornflake girl". Retrieved 2011-04-20. 
  21. ^ "Live & More overview". 
  22. ^ "Marcus Miller - Tales (CD, Album) at Discogs". Retrieved 2013-07-21. 
  23. ^ Karaoke Union Songs. People's Progressive Karaoke
  24. ^
  25. ^ Retrieved 15 October 2013

External links[edit]