The story behind "Strange Fruit's" writer


Could "Hoosier trees bear a strange fruit / blood on the leaves and blood on the root” be a more historically accurate recasting of the famed opening lyric from the chilling anti-lynching protest anthem "Strange Fruit”?

I've been seeing many Indianapolis friends posting Billie Holiday's 1939 recording of the song on their Facebook timelines this February on the occasion of Black History Month. I'm surprised how few realize the song originated in response to a dark episode in Indiana history.

The story behind "Strange Fruit" has often been mired by misinformation. Many assume Holiday had a hand in writing the song, a falsehood perpetuated in her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (ghostwritten by William Dufty.) She did not. "Strange Fruit" was written by American Communist Party activist and Bronx school teacher Abel Meeropol after viewing a sickening photograph of a notorious 1930 double lynching of teenagers Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith that occurred in Marion, Indiana. Meeropol was said to have been haunted by the image for days and composed the work as an agitprop condemnation of American racism.

Last year in NUVO, Ed Wenck wrote an excellent piece examining the historical facts behind that Marion, Indiana lynching. I want to reexamine the roots of the song itself, focusing attention on both its author Abel Meeropol, as well as the difficulty Billie Holiday faced introducing the controversial piece to a wider audience.

"Strange Fruit" originally took form as "Bitter Fruit," a poem written by Abel Meeropol under his nom de plume Lewis Allen (the first names of his two stillborn children). "Bitter Fruit" was first published in 1937 by the trade union magazine New York Teacher and later in the Marxist journal New Masses. 

For many years Meeropol's ties to the Communist Party were omitted from the "Strange Fruit" story. But this is not an inconsequential fact. The American Communist Party was a major force in the early U.S. Civil Rights Movement. So much so that in 1940 Meeropol was summoned to testify before a committee of New York lawmakers investigating the Communist presence in public education. The committee demanded to know if Meeropol had been paid by the Communist Party to write "Strange Fruit." He had not.

For much of his life Meeropol was a controversial figure in American culture. Perhaps his greatest notoriety came in the 1950s when he legally adopted the two orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the couple were executed by the American government for allegedly selling U.S. military secrets to the Soviet Union. But Meeropol's greatest legacy was his decision to set "Bitter Fruit" to music and put the work in the hands of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. 

The story goes that Holiday wasn't immediately impressed with "Strange Fruit" after an initial listening in 1939. If that's true the then something must have quickly changed the mind of the then 24-year-old singer as she soon made the song the centerpiece of her nightly Café Society performances in Manhattan and immediately set out on the difficult task of recording the piece. 

Selected as "song of the century" by Time in 1999 and the object of universal critical praise today, it's easy to forget the troubles Holiday faced in introducing "Strange Fruit.” Holiday's early performances of the song were said to have been met with shock and anger by audiences. Walk-outs were a frequent occurrence and some clubs refused to allow Holiday to perform the work at all. Holiday's label Columbia Records refused to record "Strange Fruit" in fear of backlash from Southern retailers, forcing the singer to strike a deal with the small indie jazz label Commodore. 

It's important to remember the song's difficult birth. It took great artistic courage for Meeropol to compose "Strange Fruit" and for Holiday to champion the song which boldly confronts listeners with the brutality of American racism. It's something worth remembering in this current era where expressing concern for the treatment of Muslims, Latino immigrants, or questioning police brutality against Blacks is often viewed as a subversive act. 

I recall my first encounter with the song with great clarity. I was around 13 years old, up way past my bedtime on a school night watching a Billie Holiday documentary on the A&E cable network. I'd grown up on punk rock and hip-hop, I didn't know much about Holiday at this point in my life. But I was drawn in by her story of struggle. I remember midway through the documentary the narrative came to halt as the scene faded into Holiday's incredible 1959 London television performance of "Strange Fruit."

Recorded just a few months prior to Holiday's death from heart failure due to cirrhosis of the liver, the singer appears frail and ill at ease. Backed by the supremely gifted pianist Mal Waldron, Holiday gives a painfully breathtaking rendition of "Strange Fruit." Her performance is imbued with a deep palpable anguish, each phrase is groaned painfully with unrelenting torment. I literally felt sick at the climax of the piece, it was the first time I'd personally felt the full emotional weight of the psychological terror Blacks had routinely faced throughout the history of the United States of America.

Whenever I hear someone question the role art can play in expanding our political consciousness or defining our sense of morality, my mind  returns to this moment I had with Billie Holiday and "Strange Fruit."

Finally I would like to dedicate this column to Dr. James Cameron who at age 16 miraculously survived the Marion, Indiana lynching that inspired Abel Meeropol to compose "Strange Fruit." Cameron was credited as being the only known survivor of an attempted lynching.

In 2004, he described the harrowing and nightmarish experience to NPR. After murdering Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith the crowd began chanting Cameron's name, these are his memories as he was dragged out to the bloodthirsty Hoosier crowd.

"I looked over to the faces of the people as they were beating me along the way to the tree. I was pleading for some kind of mercy, looking for a kind face. But I could find none. They got me up to the tree and they got a rope and they put it around my neck. And they began to push me under the tree. And that's when I prayed to God. I said, 'Lord have mercy, forgive me my sins.' I was ready to die."

At the last moment Cameron's life was spared as an unidentified voice in the crowd testified to his innocence. Yet Cameron would spend the next four years of his life in an Indiana jail for a crime he never committed.

Cameron would devote the rest of his life to fighting American racism. Among his many accomplishments Cameron founded three chapters of the NAACP, founded America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and served as Indiana State Director of Civil Liberties from 1942 to 1950 where in that duty he reportedly received repeated threats of death and violence.

Cameron passed away in 2006. In 1993 Indiana governor Evan Bayh officially pardoned Cameron of his alleged 1930 crime. In a testament to his great character Cameron is reported to have replied "since Indiana has forgiven me, I, in turn, forgive Indiana."

In many ways I think of Cameron as a sort of Hoosier Nelson Mandela for his unrelenting dedication to the pursuit of justice and his remarkably graceful capability for forgiveness.


Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.