In 1937, a white, Jewish high school teacher from The Bronx named Abel Meeropol published a poem entitled “Bitter Fruit” in a publication called The New York Teacher. The poem’s inspiration was a photo Meeropol saw in a civil rights magazine of two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, hanging from a tree after being lynched in Indiana in 1930. The men in Lawrence Beitler’s photograph were the “bitter fruits” the tree bears.
Meeropol set his poem to music. The song was performed by Meeropol and his wife at various union gatherings. Later, a black singer named Laura Duncan performed the tune at Madison Square Garden.
Now known as “Strange Fruit,” the song made it to Billie Holiday, who performed it regularly at her Café Society show starting in 1939. She wanted to record the tune, but her record company, Columbia Records, fearing the reaction they would get from Southern record distributors and radio, refused. They allowed Holiday to record the song as a one-off for Commodore Records.
Holiday’s 1939 rendition of “Strange Fruit” would go on to become her biggest-selling record.
In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday suggests that she composed the song with Meeropol and two other men. This has been disproven. When confronted about the falsehood contained in Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday responded “I ain’t never read that book.”
Billie Holiday was born on this day 99 years ago. Here is a small sampling of her work.