STRANGE FRUIT

Protest Music Overview


The Film


Billie Holiday

Listen to a clip of "Strange Fruit" sung by Billie Holiday.
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- music and lyrics by Lewis Allan, ©1940



Rosenberg Children
Robert and Michael Rosenberg
Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress

STRANGE FRUIT explores the history and legacy of a song unique in the annals of American music. Best-known from Billie Holiday's haunting 1939 rendition, the song "Strange Fruit" is a harrowing portrayal of the lynching of a black man in the American South.

The film tells a dramatic story of America's past by using one of the most influential protest songs ever written as its epicenter. The saga brings us face-to-face with the terror of lynching as it spotlights the courage and heroism of those who fought for racial justice when to do so was to risk ostracism and livelihood if white - and death if black. It examines the history of lynching, and the interplay of race, labor, the Left and popular culture that would give rise to the civil rights movement.

While many people assume that the song "Strange Fruit" was written by Holiday herself, it actually began as a poem by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher and union activist from the Bronx who later set it to music. Disturbed by a photograph of a lynching, the teacher wrote the stark verse and brooding melody under the pseudonym Lewis Allan in the late 1930s. Meeropol and his wife Anne are also notable because they adopted Robert and Michael Rosenberg, the orphaned children of the executed communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

"Strange Fruit" was first performed at a New York teachers' union meeting and was brought to the attention of the manager of Cafe Society, a popular Greenwich Village nightclub, who introduced Billie Holiday to the writer. Holiday's record label refused to record the song but Holiday persisted and recorded it on a specialty label instead. The song was quickly adopted as the anthem for the anti-lynching movement. The haunting lyrics and melody made it impossible for white Americans and politicians to continue to ignore the Southern campaign of racist terror. (According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, between 1882 and1968, mobs lynched 4,743 persons in the United States, over 70 percent of them African Americans.)

Abel Meeropol
Abel Meeropol

The story of composer Abel Meeropol doesn't end with "Strange Fruit." Working in Hollywood six years later, Meeropol penned his other well-known composition, the patriotic, Oscar-winning paean to tolerance "The House I Live In," which was performed by Frank Sinatra in a film short in 1945 and has experienced a revival since September 11, 2001. The film explores how two such seemingly different political and still-resonant songs came to be written by the same man.

The tale of "Strange Fruit" - its genesis, impact and continuing relevance - is an amazingly complex one that weaves together the lives of African Americans, immigrant Jews, anticommunist government officials, civil rights leaders, radical Leftist teachers and organizers, music publishers, record company executives and jazz musicians. In many ways, the story of the song and its writer and interpreters is as moving and oddly haunting as the song itself.



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