By Dolores Cox
Published Jul 3, 2009 10:12 PM
June is Black Music Month, proclaimed so by former President Jimmy Carter. In honor of Black Music Month, there was a film series showing in New York at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture based in Harlem.
One of the films, “Strange Fruit,” is the first documentary exploring the history and legacy of the famous Black singer, Billie Holiday, who popularized the song “Strange Fruit.” The song tells a dramatic story of the U.S.’s grim past. “Strange Fruit” is a protest song highlighting the thousands of rampant racist lynchings of African Americans in the South. It was originally performed by Holiday in the first integrated New York City nightclub, Cafe Society, in 1939.
The profound lyrics are: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots. Black bodies swinging in the summer breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant South. The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh; and the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck. For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck. For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop. Here is the strange and bitter crop.”
“Strange Fruit” was banned from radio airways as being too radical, and turned down by record companies because they did not want to offend white Southern customers. During the many decades of terrorism against Black people by white extremists the lynchings were brought to the public’s attention by the NAACP, Black newspaper editor and activist Ida B. Wells, the Communist Party USA, union leader A. Philip Randolph and other civil rights activists. A federal anti-lynching bill was also introduced in the U.S. Congress. However, it was successfully filibustered and permanently defeated by white Southern members of Congress.
The song was published in the 1930s in “N.Y. Teacher,” a union magazine. The music and lyrics were written by a Jewish poet named Abel Meeropol. He was inspired to write it after seeing a photo of several Black men hanging from a tree with a cheering white crowd below them. He wrote it under the name of Lewis Allan.
Meeropol was a New York high school teacher, an active union member and Communist Party member. He was among the numerous people interrogated by the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy-era witch hunts.
The 2002 documentary contains file footage of the thousands of Communist Party members, unions and other activist groups who took to the streets of New York marching against racism and for workers’ rights during the 1900s. It also shows file footage of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, which revived the song. And it contains interviews of past and present human rights activists.
The songwriter died in 1968, and “Strange Fruit” was played at his funeral.
Robert and Michael Rosenberg were the adopted children of Abel Meeropol and Ann Meeropol. Their parents were Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg, Jewish-American communists found guilty of providing secret atomic bomb information to the Soviet Union. They were executed in New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 1953. They were the only two U.S. citizens executed for espionage during the Cold War; the case against them was built on an anti-Semitic Red Scare campaign. Despite worldwide protests against this legal lynching, President Dwight Eisenhower refused to stay their execution.
The Black historian, writer and activist Elombe Brath, in a 1995 N.Y. Amsterdam News newspaper article, described “Strange Fruit” as “Capitalism’s bitter crop.” ν