Anti-Lynching Protest Song ‘Strange Fruit’ Marks Its Haunting Recording Date

On April 20, 1939, Billie Holiday recorded the first great protest song of the Civil Rights Movement, ‘Strange Fruit.’

“Strange Fruit” is a powerful protest song written by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition in 1939. The song is a stark and moving indictment of the lynching of African Americans in the United States, drawing comparisons between the hanging bodies of Black people and the strange fruit of the South.


Background and Inspiration

Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, wrote “Strange Fruit” in 1937 after seeing a photograph of a lynching in the South. The image of the lifeless bodies of Black people hanging from trees haunted him, and he felt compelled to write a song that would expose the horrors of lynching and the racism that fueled it.

Billie Holiday’s Rendition

Billie Holiday, an African American singer known for her powerful and emotive voice, first performed “Strange Fruit” in 1939 at a nightclub in New York City. The song was met with both praise and controversy. Some people were deeply moved by the song’s message and Holiday’s performance, while others were outraged by its graphic depiction of lynching.

Impact and Legacy

“Strange Fruit” quickly became a powerful anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. It was performed at rallies and protests, and it helped to raise awareness of the ongoing problem of lynching in the United States. The song also had a significant impact on the music industry, paving the way for more socially conscious music.

As described by African Archives on X, In 1939, Holiday received a warning from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to stop singing the song. This order was led by commissioner Harry Anslinger. He had a mission to eradicate all drugs everywhere, and believed jazz music was the problem. His attack was racially biased. Holiday was subsequently put on trial –The United States of America vs. Billie Holiday – despite the struggling performer just wanting to recover, but was sent to prison and her cabaret license was revoked. That didn’t keep her down. She continued to perform “Strange Fruit” even at a sold out show at Carnegie Hall.

Arslinger’s team arrested her on her hospital bed cutting off her methadone medication after claiming to have found heroin in her bedroom. I0 days later, Holiday died.

Today, “Strange Fruit” is still regarded as one of the most powerful and moving protest songs ever written. It stands as a testament to the horrors of racism and the ongoing struggle for justice and equality.

Notable Performances

  • Billie Holiday’s original recording of “Strange Fruit” in 1939 remains the definitive version of the song.
  • Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” in the 1960s is also highly acclaimed.
  • The song has been covered by many other artists, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Sting.

Cultural Significance

“Strange Fruit” has had a lasting impact on American culture. It has been featured in films, television shows, and documentaries, and it has been used as a teaching tool in schools and universities. The song continues to be a powerful reminder of the history of racism in the United States and the ongoing struggle for justice.

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