Billie Holiday: Strange Fruit

The greatest protest song ever written was “Strange Fruit” sung by the great Billie Holiday.  The gravity and significance of the song have not diminished in the 80 years since it was recorded.  When Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit” in the late 1930s she could have not know the historical importance the song would take on.  

It was originally written by Abel Meeropol, an English teacher from the Bronx, as a poem to express the heartfelt devastation caused by American racism and the horrific lynching of African Americans in the south.  Meeropol was deeply affected by a picture he saw of a lynching and wrote the poem to express his sadness and haunting feelings of these atrocities. Soon after, the poem was used as the basis for the song that found its way to 23-year-old Billie Holiday in 1939.  The song put lynching into the mainstream media of the day. Many radio stations would not play the song because of the seriousness that surrounded the songs’ message. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” grew in popularity because of its simplistic brilliance and that it stood for something much greater than the song itself.  The vivid descriptions and the harsh visualization of people hanging from the trees as “Fruit” ingrained its message on the listener and showed a reality that many ignored. In her live version with just piano, Holiday’s words have the weight of the world. The listener cannot escape the pull of her raw lyrics. 

“Strange Fruit” is seen as the first great protest song of the modern music age.  The song became a rallying cry to many that felt more should be done to stop the act of mob rule and the lynchings that were happening all over the south.  Numerous great artists have done fantastic covers of “Strange Fruit” such as Nina Simone, Rene Marie, and Diana Ross. Even with all these great covers Billie Holiday has remained linked to the song for over 80 years.  TIME magazine named “Strange Fruit” as “Best Song of the Century” in 1999. The song as also been added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry because of its social and historical importance.  

By:  W Michael Brigger

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