In a Nutshell
It may be the saddest song you'll ever hear. Billie Holiday, perhaps the greatest singer in the history of jazz and also, perhaps, its most tragic, delivers a soul-emptying vocal lament over a groove as deep and dark as the history of lynching itself. In Holiday's unforgettable singing we can hear all the rage and resignation, the sorrow and determination, the bitterness and hope—as if this one woman's voice could somehow carry the full emotional burden of the long and conflicted history of race in America. The song is heartbreaking.
Perhaps more surprising, and just as notable: the song's words—perhaps the definitive lyrical condemnation of the entire Jim Crow Era—were written not by an African-American but instead by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. "Southern trees bear strange fruit," indeed…
About the Song
||Musician(s)||Billie Holiday (vocals)
|Album||"Strange Fruit" Was Released as a Single|
|Writer(s)||Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan)|
Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
"Strange Fruit" is a protest song, a musical response—in equal parts sorrow and anger—to the barbaric practice of lynching, that horrific brand of racial terrorism used to reinforce white supremacy from the end of the Civil War
through the mid-twentieth century. At the time "Strange Fruit" was first released, lynching remained a shockingly common and socially accepted practice; even powerful liberal President Franklin D. Roosevelt
was unwilling to support an anti-lynching bill
in Congress, fearful that it would cost him too much political support in the South.
Written as a poem by Abel Meeropol in 1937, recorded as a jazz song by Billie Holiday in 1939, the song marked a kind of turning point between the Jim Crow
and Civil Rights Eras
. In the song you can hear the powerlessness and despair of an age when African Americans few legal rights and little political power; you can also hear the determination and resolve that led to a revolution in American race relations over the following decades. "Strange Fruit" is a song that sings to both a dark past and a brighter future.
On the Charts
"Strange Fruit" reached #16 on the U.S. Billboard Charts in 1939 (though these early charts are not totally reliable). Time
magazine named "Strange Fruit" the song of the century in 1999.
The Library of Congress chose "Strange Fruit" as one of the 50 recordings that would be added to the National Recording Registry in 2002.