Strange Fruit

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"Strange Fruit"
Single by Billie Holiday
B-side"Fine and Mellow"
Format78 rpm
RecordedApril 20, 1939[1]
GenreBlues, Jazz
Songwriter(s)Abel Meeropol
Billie Holiday singles chronology
"I'm Gonna Lock My Heart"
"Strange Fruit"
"God Bless the Child"
Audio sample
"Strange Fruit"

"Strange Fruit" is a song performed most famously by Billie Holiday, who first sang and recorded it in 1939. Written by teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem and published in 1937, it protested American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans. Such lynchings had reached a peak in the South at the turn of the century, but continued there and in other regions of the United States.[2][3] According to the Tuskegee Institute, 1,953 Americans were murdered by lynching, about three quarters of them black.[4] The lyrics are an extended metaphor linking a tree’s fruit with lynching victims.[5] Meeropol set it to music and, with his wife and the singer Laura Duncan, performed it as a protest song in New York City venues in the late 1930s, including Madison Square Garden.

The song continues to be covered by numerous artists, including Nina Simone, UB40, Jeff Buckley, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Dee Dee Bridgewater and has inspired novels, other poems, and other creative works. In 1978, Holiday's version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.[6] 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. Lyricist E. Y. Harburg referred to the song as a "historical document".[4] It was also dubbed, "a declaration of war ... the beginning of the civil rights movement" by record producer Ahmet Ertegun.[4]

Poem and song[edit]

Meeropol cited this photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, August 7, 1930, as inspiring his poem.[7]

"Strange Fruit" was originated as a poem written by Jewish-American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings.[8][9][10] In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana.[9] He published the poem under the title "Bitter Fruit" in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine.[11] Though Meeropol had asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set "Strange Fruit" to music himself. His protest song gained a certain success in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.[12]

The lyrics are under copyright but have been republished in full in an academic journal, with permission.[13]

Billie Holiday's performances and recordings[edit]

Barney Josephson, the founder of Café 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.[11] Holiday first performed the song at Café 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.[14] Because of the power 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.[11] During the musical introduction, Holiday stood 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.[15] When Holiday's producer John Hammond also refused to record it, she turned to her friend Milt Gabler, whose Commodore label produced alternative jazz. Holiday sang "Strange Fruit" for him a cappella, and moved him to tears. Columbia gave Holiday a one-session release from her contract so she could record it; Frankie Newton's eight-piece Cafe Society Band was used for the session. Because Gabler worried the song was too short, he asked pianist Sonny White to improvise an introduction. On the recording, Holiday starts singing after 70 seconds.[11] Gabler worked out a special arrangement with Vocalion Records to record and distribute the song.[16]

Holiday recorded two major sessions of the song at Commodore, one in 1939 and one in 1944. The song was highly regarded; the 1939 recording eventually sold a million copies,[9] in time becoming Holiday's biggest-selling recording.

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."[17]

Billie Holiday was so well known for her rendition of "Strange Fruit" that "she crafted a relationship to the song that would make them inseparable".[18]


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."[19]

Other versions[edit]

Notable cover versions of this song include Nina Simone,[20] René Marie,[20] Jeff Buckley.[20] Siouxsie and the Banshees,[21] Dee Dee Bridgewater,[21] and UB40.[21] Nina Simone dramatized "Strange Fruit" in the context of the Civil Rights movement with a plain and unsentimental voice.[20] Journalist Lara Pellegrinelli wrote that Jeff Buckley while singing it "seems to meditate on the meaning of humanity the way Walt Whitman did, considering all of its glorious and horrifying possibilities".[20] Rene Marie's rendition was coupled with Confederate anthem "Dixie", making for an "uncomfortable juxtaposition", according to Pellegrinelli.[20] Siouxsie and the Banshees's version was selected by the Mojo magazine staff to be included on the compilation Music Is Love: 15 Tracks That Changed The World .[22]


In popular culture[edit]




  • The Cambridge, Massachusetts restaurant The Friendly Toast included a drink called Strange Fruit, after Smith's novel, on a menu of cocktails named after banned books. In 2015 this generated controversy, as a patron took the name as a reference to the song and found it inappropriate. The drink was later removed from the menu.[32][33]


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


  1. ^ "Billie Holiday recording sessions". Archived from the original on May 28, 2010. Retrieved April 20, 2011.
  2. ^ "Lynching Statistics for 1882-1968". January 29, 1999. Archived from the original on January 19, 2015. Retrieved July 21, 2013.
  3. ^ "War and Social Upheaval: the American Civil Rights Movement - lynching". Retrieved July 21, 2013.
  4. ^ a b c "Strange Fruit (1939) --Billie Holiday (written by Abel Meeropol)". Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings.
  5. ^ "Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday (lyrics)".
  6. ^ "Hall of Fame". Retrieved June 16, 2015.
  7. ^ "Strange Fruit: Anniversary Of A Lynching". NPR. August 6, 2010. Retrieved August 15, 2013.
  8. ^ Margolick, David (2000). Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights. Philadelphia: Running Press. pp. 25–27.
  9. ^ a b c Moore, Edwin (September 18, 2010). "Strange Fruit is still a song for today | Index Strange Fruit is still a song for today". The Guardian. Retrieved September 23, 2010.
  10. ^ Blair, Elizabeth (Host) (September 5, 2012). "The Strange Story Of The Man Behind 'Strange Fruit'". Morning Edition. NPR.
  11. ^ a b c d Lynskey, Dorian (2011). "33 Revolutions Per Minute". London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-24134-4.
  12. ^ Margolick, Strange Fruit, pp. 36–37.
  13. ^ Meeropol, Abel (12 July 2006). "Strange fruit". International Journal of Epidemiology. 35 (4): 902–902. doi:10.1093/ije/dyl173. Retrieved January 6, 2013.
  14. ^ Margolick, Strange Fruit, pp. 40–46.
  15. ^ Margolick, Strange Fruit, pp. 61–62.
  16. ^ Billy Crystal, 700 Sundays, pp. 46–47.
  17. ^ Margolick, Strange Fruit, pp. 31–32.
  18. ^ Perry, Samuel (2012). ""Strange Fruit," Ekphrasis, and the Lynching Scene". Rhetoric Society Quarterly. 43:5: 449–474.
  19. ^ Lynskey, Dorian (February 15, 2011). "Strange Fruit: the first great protest song". The Guardian.
  20. ^ a b c d e f Pellegrinelli, Lara (22 June 2009). "Evolution Of A Song: 'Strange Fruit'". Retrieved 23 February 2015.
  21. ^ a b c Margolick, David (2000). "Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights". NYTimes. ISBN 0-7624-0677-1. Archived from the original on 13 September 2017. Retrieved 10 September 2017.
  22. ^ "Music Is Love! (15 Tracks That Changed The World) CD". Mojo (magazine). June 2007. Retrieved 10 September 2017. Siouxsie and the Banshes's rendition from their 1987 Through the Looking Glass album was selected to feature on this compilation
  23. ^ Billy Crystal, 700 Sundays, p. 47.
  24. ^ McNally, Owen (March 30, 2000). "'Song of the century' chilling: Graphic lyrics of 'the first unmuted cry against racism' are making a comeback". Ottawa Citizen.
  25. ^ "National Recording Registry 2002". Retrieved 29 January 2018.
  26. ^ Smith, Ian K (March 25, 2010). "Top 20 Political Songs: Strange Fruit". New Statesman. Retrieved March 25, 2010.
  27. ^ "100 Songs of the South |". Retrieved April 20, 2011.
  28. ^ Jamieson, Amber (2 January 2017). "Rebecca Ferguson says she will play Trump inauguration if she can sing Strange Fruit". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 January 2017.
  29. ^ Bass, Erin Z. (December 12, 2012). "The Strange Life of Strange Fruit". Deep South Magazine.
  30. ^ Towers, Andrea (June 30, 2015). "Mark Waid and J.G. Jones preview powerful historically based comic, Strange Fruit". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on September 6, 2015.
  31. ^ Anderson, Carol (2016-09-28). "American Apartheid: A Georgia County Drove Out All Its Black Citizens in 1912". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-12-08.
  32. ^ "Friendly Toast pulls a drink called 'Strange Fruit' off its menu".
  33. ^ "Restaurant Learns the Hard Way Why You Never Name a Cocktail 'Strange Fruit'".

External links[edit]