Today’s History In Music- “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. In 1999 at the end of the 20th Century- Time Magazine voted “Strange Fruit” the Song of the Century.

Abel Meeropol who went by the pen name Lewis Allan- was a school teacher and union activist from New York City. In looking through a magazine he came across a photograph of two men hanging from a tree after they had been lynched in Marion, Indiana. Meeropol was outraged by what he saw. He would later say “I wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ because I hate lynching, I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it.” Meeropol sat down and wrote a poem which was first called “Bitter Fruit”- then changed it to “Strange Fruit” the strange fruit being the victims of the lynching. It was a poem of protest against racism and the lynching of African-Americans. Later Meeropol would put music to his poem and it would be played around the New York City area. The song was written in 1937- in 1939 at the Cafe Society in New York, Robert Gordon who was the show director there brought the song to the attention of Billie Holiday who was the featured performer at the club and encouraged her to sing it. She did played it before an integrated audience at the Cafe Society and it went over well. She recorded it but her record company Columbia refused to release it so she had it released on a smaller label named Commodore Records.

Strange Fruit has been sung by many different artists over the years but will always be most associated with the great Billie Holiday. It would be the song she would sing at the end of her concerts- to signal that the concert was over.  I haven’t read the book yet but I just placed an order for it on the local library system- “Strange Fruit- The Biography OF A Song” by David Margolick. The book which came out in 2001 has gotten good reviews and is a short read at 164 pages. Looking forward to reading it.

A note on Abel Meeropol- ‘Strange Fruit” wasn’t his only claim to fame- he made headlines in 1953 when he adopted the orphan sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their parents were executed for treason He also wrote a song called “The House I Live In” which was made famous by Frank Sinatra. Abel Meeropol died in 1986 at the age of 83.

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The great Billie Holiday “Lady Day”  would die at the age of 44 in July 1959- ravaged by drugs and alcohol she died of pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver.

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  1. Thanks for this. I’m a huge Billie Holiday fan. I had always heard that Holiday herself wrote the song, inspired by touring the South and seeing African Americans actually lynched. I was wrong and I’m glad that I’ve learned the truth about the song. It is still extremely powerful. It is a protest song like no other that I’ve ever heard.

    • Yes she claimed that she wrote the song in her autobiography- but she was fibbing… it is hard to argue against Time calling it the song of the century.

    • Ah…Okay, that’s where it came from. She is probably my favorite all time music artist, but that’s bad–to take credit for writing a song that you did not. Disappointing, but not inexcusable.

    • From what I was reading on her- she took the credit late in her life when things were going pretty bad for her with the drugs and alcohol and health.

    • Yeah. Her life was very sad. She was reared in a whorehouse, I’m sure you know. I’m sure you know how she got her nickname “Lady Day”. Great name but sad circumstances. Nobody should be subjected to that stuff. Thanks again for educating me.

  2. And what about this Abel Meeropol guy? He sounds like an amazing humanitarian. Gonna look him up and see what led him down that path…

  3. Wow! He even adopted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s two sons after they were executed and left orphans. Evidently, he and the sons insisted for a long time that the parents had been innocent, but later it classified info. was finally released that proved the opposite. Then the sons acknowledged their father had been involved in their father espionage but it had been trifling activities, and their mother had no knowledge of his activities, and neither deserved the death penalty. They’ve been trying to get their mother exonerated for years, even appealing to Loretta Lynch and Obama. It must be a gigantic burden to carry something like that, especially if you believe your family was wronged……

  4. Sorry–I don’t mean to seem obsessed, but I can’t stop thinking: they must be going NUTS over the hypocrisy, considering what’s going on these days with the moral rot and people just getting away with basically anything in today’s administration! If their parents had engaged in those same activities right now, they probably would’ve gotten off a lot easier. Strange Fruit really must have become Julius and Ethel’s sons’ anthem too, strangely, in the long run……

  5. This book will be an interesting read. Thanks for sharing his connection with Ethel and Julius Rosenberg – he sounds like a person who had a lot of compassion for his fellow man.

    • Yes he does. I failed to note he was a member of the communist party- but later quit. those boys are still living- which reminds me that the 1950’s aren’t that far away from us. sounds like both have been successful.

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