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Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit


by Billie Holiday


"Strange Fruit" often gets noticed for what we think are probably the wrong reasons. This song has been praised for being the first successful attempt at the blues by a white man (The New Masses). That's interesting, although also pretty arguable. (Is "Strange Fruit" really even the blues?) "Strange Fruit" also shows up every now and then, incorrectly and a bit humorously, in books of music by black composers, the assumption apparently being that lyrics with so much potency on the subject could only have come from a black writer.

But as we see things, the source of the lyrics' power lies less with the author (as interesting as Abel Meeropol's biography may be) and more with its simple, concrete images. The lyrical devices used are likewise very straightforward. There is only the use of simple metaphor, symbolism, and juxtaposition.

The song's central metaphor isn't terribly subtle. The "strange fruit swinging from the poplar trees" are black victims of lynching, that much is clear. Perhaps more interesting is the juxtaposition of positive and negative—peaceful and grim—in each rhyming couplet. Meeropol begins the second stanza, for example, with "Pastoral scene of the gallant South." "Gallant" and "pastoral" seem to give the South a romantic, idyllic character. But then Meeropol follows up these beautiful images with the gruesome "The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth." The next couplet follows the same pattern—the "scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh" precedes "the sudden smell of burning flesh." The pleasantness of the one half of the couplet is outweighed by the horror of the other half.

Jazz critic Benny Green noted that "[t]he prevailing sentiment is not grief or defeat but contempt and confidence." Indeed, the steadily increasing power of each couplet's juxtaposition could be seen as the singer's increasing sense of "contempt and confidence" that the scene being described is devastatingly wrong. Comparing the first couplet with the fourth best reveals the rise in intensity. The first reads "Southern trees bear strange fruit. / Blood at the leaves and blood at the root," while the fourth is "Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, / Then the sudden smell of burning flesh." The darker half of the first couplet evades its subject a little. It's like a censored movie; you see the blood, but not the violence. The first half of the couplet is more curious than positive. Whereas the first couplet deals in shades of gray, the fourth couplet couldn't be more black and white. The "sweet and fresh" smell of living Magnolias opposes the charred smell of death. In the final stanza, positive and negative merge together as the meaning of the evasive "fruit for the cows to pluck" is all too clear.

This confidence that Green wrote of is obvious again in the lack of "overt editorializing." This lack of editorializing, of "weepiness," of "histrionics" is what makes the lyric so very intense. The song offers no direct condemnation of the South or racism or lynching. Instead, the images alone are allowed to speak for themselves, in a kind of fulfillment of the literary technique that Modernist poet Ezra Pound prescribed in his "A Retrospect." Meeropol relies solely on the shocking power of his images to produce his message. The absence of any moralizing seems only to deepen and enhance the bitterness of the words.

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