What Happened When Billie Holiday Sang “Strange Fruit”

Billie Holiday at the Downbeat club, a jazz club in New York City/ William P. Gottlieb /Wikimedia/Public Domain

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“Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

The last line of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” hung in the air. A hush fell over the once jubilant audience. The silence lingered. The audience was shocked. Applause filled the room.

“Strange Fruit,” a song about lynchings and racism in America, captivated audiences wherever Holiday sang. Whether the response was positive or negative -- for the first time America had to confront its original sin.

The story of “Strange Fruit”, however, doesn’t begin with Holiday, but a Jewish socialist named Abel Meeropol.

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

Before the song made it to Holiday, Laura Duncan sang the tune at Madison Square Garden. Café Society show director Robert Gordon was in the audience, and he wanted Holiday to sing the song.

With Meeropol’s permission, Gordon gave the song to Holiday. She jumped at the chance to sing it.

She left the audience speechless.

A month later, she wanted to record the song, but her label, Columbia Records, decided against it. Determined to spread the song’s message, she went to Commodore Records and recorded “Strange Fruit” in four hours.

The song’s impact was immediate and became Holiday’s most influential work. Though controversial, the song entered the Library of Congress National Recording Registry after its first year.  

Today, the song has the same effect. The Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey said, “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.” British songstress Rebecca Ferguson wanted to sing the song during 2017 presidential inauguration.

Nina Simone, Kanye West and many others have covered the haunting record, but no one has had the same poignancy as Holiday’s sorrowful interpretation. “Strange Fruit” is a song that will forever be a reminder of America’s vicious past.

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