Subversive Bands: Billy Holiday and “Strange Fruit”

It starts slowly, like a mutter, but saunters along at a low tone like a slow sad ballad.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

It  grows to pick up an air of cynical arrogance, as if stating with hateful observance something that should be obvious without saying.

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!

Finally it unleashes a cry, both of sadness and outrage combined to end with a thunderous and sudden finality. The song Strange Fruit, written by Able Meerpol but made famous by Billy “Lady Day” Holiday is an odd anthem of subversion, did more harm to Billie and Able than it did to the subject of their song.

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 a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

This is the Fourth installment of the Subversive Bands series from HistoryDojo. Please check out the first installment here, the second here and the third here.

The song was written to highlight the continuing practice of lynching that went unabated in the South. There were efforts to make lynching illegal, yet if bills could pass through the Congress, they inevitably were vetoes by the White house, seeking to curry favor with Southern voters.

In fact, there were 280 attempts to make lynching illegal in U.S. history, all of which failed. [1]

The South practiced a diabolical lust for murdering African Americans after the Civil War, as a way to insure white supremacy and to promote terror in the African American community. Killing innocent African Americans happened with shocking frequency, a fact that is routinely left out of textbooks.


Ida B. Wells documented the frequency of lynchings and wrote about it in a series of articles for the Chicago Tribune. By her estimates there were over 4000 lynchings in the United States from 1880-1930.[2]

That means that on average there was a murder of an African American by a white mob every three days for fifty years.

A festival crowd, enjoying a old American tradition.

The ignorance of this tradition of racial terrorism is evidenced by the widespread misconception that racism is overblown and exaggerated, that Black Lives Matter is actually reverse discrimination and that whites experience more racism than others.

What Billy Holiday did to bring attention to this terrorist culture caused not small amount of controversy and backlash. The song was not easy to listen to, often shocking audiences who were unprepared for a political anthem in the midst of a night of jazz vocals.

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Unlike the robust workers’ anthems of the union movement, it did not stir the blood; it chilled it. “That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard,” Nina Simone would later marvel. “Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.”

Nina Simone would go on to become a social justice vocalist in her own right. She was undoubtedly moved to take on this role by the example of Billie holiday and “Strange Fruit.”

For all these reasons, it was something entirely new. Up to this point, protest songs functioned as propaganda, but Strange Fruit proved they could be art. [3]

Billie “Lady Day” Holiday

Either way, Holiday road-tested the song at a party in Harlem and received what would become a familiar response: shocked silence followed by a roar of approval.

Meeropol was there the night she debuted it at Cafe Society.

“She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere,” he marveled. “This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it.”[4]

Strange Fruit would haunt Holiday for the rest of her life. Some fans, including her former producer John Hammond, blamed it for robbing her of her lightness. [5] Once aware of the crime of lynching and the disinterested white majority. the contradiction would move anyone to see the world through jaded eyes.

Holiday descended into her own hellish addiction with heroine in later years. It might be wondered how her calls for racial justice, having fallen on deaf white Americans, contributed to her decent into meaninglessness and addiction.

So did the persistent racism which poisoned her life just as it poisoned the life of every black American. In 1944, a naval officer called her a nigger and, her eyes hot with tears, she smashed a beer bottle against a table and lunged at him with the serrated glass. A little while later, a friend spotted her wandering down 52nd Street and called out, “How are you doing, Lady Day?” Her reply was viciously blunt: “Well, you know, I’m still a nigger.”

No wonder she clutched the song tightly to her breast, as a shield and a weapon, too.[6]

Though many people knew that lynchings of African-Americans in the South were common, there was resistance to ending the practice among Southern whites. Racism, combined with a popular desire to limit federal power over local concerns, kept people in the North from making any successful moves to end lynchings in the South.[6]

Abel Meerpol and his sons, Robert and Michael

The story of Strange Fruit doesn’t end with Billie Holiday, however. As it drew attention to the crimes of the South, it made it hard to see America as a great land of equality. This was especially difficult and embarrassing, because in the 1940’s the United States was promoting itself as the defender of freedom and democracy around the world, and very much against the influences of rival systems of government, like the Communist system.

New York lawmakers didn’t like “Strange Fruit.” In 1940, Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. They wanted to know whether the American Communist Party had paid him to write the song. They had not — but, like many New York teachers in his day, Meeropol was a Communist.[6]

And that’s where the second part of Meeropol’s story begins. The link is the pseudonym he used when writing poetry and music: Lewis Allan.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

“Abel Meeropol’s pen name ‘Lewis Allan’ were the names of their children who were stillborn, who never lived,” says his son, Robert Meeropol. He and his older brother, Michael, were raised by Abel and his wife, Anne Meeropol, after the boys’ parents — Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — were executed for espionage in 1953.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs had also been Communists.

Like the songwriter Abel Meeropol, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg tried to save the United States from going astray and losing sight of it’s principles. The Rosenbergs were tried, convicted and executed for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, helping the arch enemy of the U.S. develop a nuclear weapon earlier than it might otherwise have done so.

The reason the Rosenbergs did this was akin to the spirit behind Strange Fruit. The motivating factor behind both these subversive examples was to highlight the need for balance, awareness and restraint on the part of a nation unhinged. In the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, their “crime worse than murder”, as the sentencing judge described when handing down their death sentence, was t stop the U.S. from becoming corrupted by unchecked military power. The nuclear bomb was seducing the military into believing it could dominate the world. Giving the Soviets the nuclear secrets balanced that power, returning world politics to equilibrium.

The song Strange Fruit attempted to raise awareness for the tradition of sadistic murder that was going unchecked in the American society, even after World War Two. This rising awareness might lead to greater restraint, the rule of law and equality for African Americans to be safe.

Sadly, it seems as if neither of these cam about, as the Rosenbergs were executed, and Strange Fruit failed to bear any progress in stopping lynching. As recently as 2005 the United States Senate apologized for not being able to pass anti-hate crime legislation. Currently Senators Corey Booker and Camilla Harris are proposing new anti-lynching legislation.






Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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