America's noisy, violent past has spawned many protest songs...but "Strange Fruit" stands alone.
This extraordinary song, admirable for the quality of its poetry as well as the brutal impact of it’s anti-lynching message was written during the 30’s as congress was refusing for the umpteenth time to pass anti-lynching legislation. Unsuspecting club goers at New York’s Café Society were ambushed by the song’s first performance in 1939 by Billie Holiday. Even Café Society’s ultra-liberal crowd of artists, activists, students and assorted leftist types reacted with stunned silence. Gradually the applause started and the song became a regular feature. But the backlash was immediate. Holiday was often verbally and physically abused when she performed it, her record company (Columbia) refused to touch it, and when she finally got it recorded by Commodore, most radio stations refused to play it. And if you don't think that racism was an American institution, consider the fact that in 1940, Time Magazine called the song “A prime piece of musical propaganda for the NAACP"! So...who wrote this little bomb? His name was Abel Meeropol and he used the pseudonym of Lewis Allan. He was a Jewish New York City high school teacher (and member of the American Communist Party) who, like many 30’s liberals, was lured by the Party’s promise of social justice. As it turned out, his song -- the first significant racial protest in words and music -- did more for the cause than any political movement of the time.
Billie Holiday video - "Strange Fruit"