Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
We're picking up on two tree metaphors here. First you've got the tree, which is usually a symbol of life, being turned into a symbol of death. At the same time, songwriter Abel Meeropol seems to be making an allusion to family trees.
Most of the time, trees are symbols of life. Makes sense, right? They're beautiful living things upon which all life on Earth depends.
The trees that Meeropol writes about here, however, are spattered with blood. Instead of apples and oranges, they bear the grisly fruit of racial terrorism: the dead bodies of lynched Blacks. In his reference to bloody leaves and roots, Meeropol seems to be extending his metaphor further, invoking family trees—charts that show a family's bloodlines. The topmost branches usually represent the most recent family members, while the lower ones and the roots represent more ancient ancestors.
Meeropol's tree has "blood on the leaves and blood at the root," showing that both recent and older generations of African Americans have experienced the same sort of violent persecution.
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Lynching was a brutal and tragically common method of preserving white supremacy through the terrorization of African Americans.
The practice of lynching was a horrific crime against humanity. It was practiced widely in the South in the late 19th century and continued well into to the 20th.
While "lynch mobs" didn't exclusively target Blacks, nearly four out of every five lynching victims in America was Black. Between the 1870s and the 1950s, thousands of Southern Blacks were murdered in lynching incidents, often before cheering crowds of whites.
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Poplar trees encompass a wide variety of North American trees. Some familiar ones are the cottonwood, aspen, and balsam poplars.
A common and distinct species is the Lombardy Poplar, which is unmistakably upright. These were the trees planted in public places in ancient Rome and Greece.
In the 19th century, the United Stages was hit by a wave of Neo-Classical architecture, a style inspired by these two ancient cultures. The Neo-Classical trend also inspired the planting of tons of poplar trees, particularly in the South.
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
The magnolia is one of the trademark tree species of the American South.
These magnolias are, as the song says, very sweet smelling. They grow just about everywhere in the South, from northern Virginia down to Florida, and out west into Texas. The flowers of the magnolia are huge and white.
The Southern Magnolia is both the state tree and flower of Mississippi, and it is the state flower of Louisiana. The tree is found so commonly throughout the South that it has become a symbol of the entire region.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
After a victim was lynched, his body would be left hanging for some time.
Lynchings were meant to be a public spectacle—not a private way of punishing someone guilty of a crime. Often victims weren't formally charged and rarely had the opportunity for due process of law. Typically, the law seemed to hardly even matter.
In 1891, 11 Italian-Americans were lynched after being acquitted for the murder on an Irish police chief. Lynchings were largely a form of social control—a warning to those (typically ethnic) Americans who challenged the existing social order.
Often, lynchings were timed for optimal newspaper coverage and were even photographed to be sold on postcards. Sometimes they were large, organized events that even children went to see.