The History Behind Billie Holiday's Most Impactful Song

billie holiday singing into a microphone
Briona Lamback
July 12, 2022

“Here is a strange and bitter crop...” The last line of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit'' hung in the air as a hush fell over the once jubilant audience. A thick silence lingered. 

Why was the audience SO shocked?

“Strange Fruit,” a song about anti-Black violence in America, pierced audiences wherever Holiday sang. No matter the reaction, she forced America to confront its original sin: lynching

But the story of this infamous song doesn’t begin with Holiday but with a Jewish socialist named Abel Meeropol.

Meeropol, a teacher, wrote the poem after seeing a now iconic, yet daunting, photo of a lynching. After publishing the poem in a teachers union publication, he put it to music.

The song passed around to different singers before Holiday jumped at the chance to sing it. Her passionate, powerful version left audiences speechless – but her record label refused to allow it.

Holiday wasn’t playing about her people, so she recorded it anyway! The impact was immediate, and “Strange Fruit” became Holiday’s most influential work. 

According to The Guardian, “it didn’t stir the blood, it chilled it.” Jazz musician Marcus Miller said the record took courage. Record producer Ahmet Ertegun said it “was a declaration of war.”

Despite how white supremacy tries to stop our truth-telling, like Billie Holiday, we must always be courageous about our liberation!

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