A poem becomes a song and then a civil rights anthem.
Billie Holiday‘s “Strange Fruit” has a tragic beginning and end. It’s a powerful poem and beautifully sung quiet anthem. It is believed that this song was the catalyist for the death of Lady Day.
Billie Holiday turned “Strange Fruit” into a work of art. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978 and was included in the “Songs of the Century” for Recording Industry of America.
Gottlieb, W. P. (1947) Portrait of Billie Holiday and Mister, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. United States, 1947. , Monographic. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/gottlieb.04281/.
But it was originally “Bitter Fruit,” a poem published in 1937 by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish civil rights activist. After seeing the horrific photograph of the August 7, 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana, Abel penned the poem as a protest against the lynching of Black Americans and racism in the U.S. Abel and his wife Laura Duncan set the poem to music and performed it as a protest song in the late 1930s.
But it was Billie Holiday who took the song internationally and it has been covered by Nina Simone, UB40 and many others.
By Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol (1937)
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and 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,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Hulu’s new feature “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” streams on February 26. It’s the story of “Strange Fruit,” the civil rights protest anthem that became Billie Holiday’s downfall.
For many, Billie Holiday got them through a break up, through finals, a crappy day and so much more. And for others, Lady Day has helped them get through 2020.
And, of course, “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Thank you, Lady Day, for creating the songs that make us move and move us to move forward.