Strange Fruit - Billie Holiday
One of the most grimly compelling songs in music history, “Strange Fruit,” as popularized by the legendary Billie Holiday was a landmark recording, not only for the singer’s dramatic rendition, but as the first –and arguably most poignant—anti-racist protest song.
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
"Strange Fruit" was a poem written by Abel Meerpol, a Jewish high-school teacher from New York, expressing his horror at viewing a photograph of the lynching of two black men. The poem was published in 1936 in The New York Teacher, a union trade publication, under the pen name Lewis Allan.
Although Meeropol frequently enlisted others to create melodies for his poems, he set "Strange Fruit" to music himself. Over several years’ time, the piece gained notoriety as a protest song in and around New York, and it was brought to Billie Holiday’s attention by a Greenwich Village nightclub owner. Holiday approached her record label, Columbia Records, about cutting the song, but the company feared resistance from record retailers in the South, as well as negative reaction from affiliates of its CBS radio network. While they rejected her request to cut it in-house, Columbia did allow Holiday a one-time release from her contract in order to record it.
Released on the independent Commodore label in 1939, "Strange Fruit" was highly regarded and became Holiday's biggest-selling record. The song became a staple of her live performances, and Holiday would often break down on-stage after she sang it.
This exclusive video features Holiday rendering “Strange Fruit” nearly two decades after her studio recording of the song. With the ravages of drug and alcohol addiction visible in the singer –a mere 43 at the time—her performance is all the more compelling knowing the grim fate that soon awaited her.
Recorded for the debut of the ITV Networks’ “Chelsea at 9” music variety series six months before her death on July 17, 1959, this would prove to be Holiday’s final recorded performance.
Did you know? “Lady Sings The Blues”, Billie Holiday’s ghost-written “autobiography,” was the basis for the 1972 film of the same name starring Diana Ross as the late, legendary singer. The film also marked the directorial debut of Berry Gordy, Jr., best-known as the founder and CEO of the Motown Records label.