Study Guide

Strange Fruit Introduction

Strange Fruit Introduction

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

ArtistHoliday, Billie
Year1939
LabelCommodore Records
Writer(s)Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan)
Producer(s)Milt Gabler
Musician(s)Billie Holiday (vocals)
Learn to playChords, Sheet Music
AlbumStrange Fruit (Single)

Music Video

Influences on Holiday, Billie

Bessie Smith
Louie Armstrong
Benny Goodman
Teddy Wilson

Influenced by Holiday, Billie

Chet Baker
Tony Bennet
Ella Fitzgerald
Peggy Lee
Nina Simone
Frank Sinatra
Sarah Vaughan

Strange Fruit Resources

Books

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (2001)
Pulitzer Prize nominated author and editor David Margolick couldn't have been more in-depth or judicious in this journalistic investigation into the myth, truth, and legacy of the song.

Strange Fruit (1944)
Lilian Smith's 1944 novel deals with the racial tensions of the time just, as Meeropol's song did, though it engages the reader with a tale of the interracial romance between a white man and a black woman.

Images

Billie Holiday
Performer of the most famous version of "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday is considered one of the best jazz singers ever.

The lynched bodies of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith
This image is, in the lore of "Strange Fruit," said to have inspired Meeropol to write the song.

Abel Meeropol
The Jewish schoolteacher teacher and left-wing activist from the Bronx who, as "Lewis Allan," wrote literally thousands of songs, including "Strange Fruit."

Movies & TV

"The House I Live In" (1945)
A patriotic, honorary-Oscar-winning short film starring Frank Sinatra. It closes with a song on equality written by—who else—Abel Meeropol. Meeropol was furious to learn that the final version here deletes a verse on racial equality.

Strange Fruit (2002)
A compelling history of "Strange Fruit," exploring the alliance between American Jews and African Americans during a time of racial inequality and injustice.

Strange Fruit (2007)
A compilation of 1950s videos of Billie Holiday performing her hits.

Websites

Legacy Recording's Official Billie Holiday site
Official website featuring news, music samples, and prints.

About the Singer
A short biography of the jazz vocalist from PBS.

Independent Lens' Strange Fruit website.
A site dedicated to the documentary on the song, it has a wealth of resources and information for those who want to learn more.

Independent Lens' protest music site
An excellent abbreviated history of the protest song in the United States of America, complete with song samples.

Video & Audio

Mini-documentary on "Strange Fruit" by Daniel Weidlein
Winner of 4th Place at the 2006 National History Day, it is a quick, powerful narrative on the history of the song and racism in the 1930.

Live performance of "Strange Fruit"
A chilling, stripped down live performance of "Strange Fruit." From BBC Television, 1958.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...