The scene was New York City, 1939. The popular new integrated cabaret club, Café Society, had a hot new performer on stage three nights a week. Her name was Billie Holiday.
The club's founder had heard a powerful new protest song written by Lewis Allan, the pen name of Jewish high school teacher and left-wing activist named Abel Meeropol. The song was "Strange Fruit," a haunting critique of lynching and race terrorism in the American South.
With some hesitation, perhaps because of the gravity of the song's content, Billie agreed to close her set with it. As she prepared to sing this final number, service in the club stopped completely and the room went black except for a single spotlight trained on the singer. When she was done, Holiday walked off the stage without even performing an encore, leaving the audience with the strained, gaping and unresolved line, "Here is a strange and bitter crop."
In her autobiography, Holiday later recalled the audience's stunned reaction: "There wasn't even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began clapping nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping."
Though no one at the time knew it, when Billie Holiday first sang "Strange Fruit" at Café Society, she was singing America into the beginning of the Civil Rights Era. As New York Post columnist Samuel Grafton wrote, her performance, full of subtle contempt and rage, "reversed the usual relationship between a black entertainer and her white audience: 'I have been entertaining you,' she seem[ed] to say, 'now you just listen to me.' The polite conventions between race and race are gone. It is as if [they] heard what was spoken in the cabins, after the night riders had clattered by." "Strange Fruit" transformed the usual relationship between black performer and white audience, forcing them both to confront the grim realities of racism in America in the pre-Civil Rights Era.
The key players of this story were all drastically affected by racism in America. Billie Holiday was only performing at Café Society at all because she hadn't been able to take the endless racist insults she'd encountered while touring with the popular Artie Shaw band. As poet Amina Barka put it, Holiday's experience with the touring band taught her that "she could play at the clubs but she couldn't sit at the tables." Because the venues were mostly upper-class, "high society" white venues, Holiday wasn't allowed into the front of the house. Author David Margolick observed that she even had to enter through the back door to get into the Hotel Lincoln—a place named after, of all people, Abraham Lincoln. It has been suggested that the last straw, with the Artie Shaw band, came when Holiday had to take a freight elevator up to the stage because she was not allowed to share the normal elevator with the white patrons. Long before she ever reached the stage at Café Society, Billie Holiday understood American racism in her bones.
Then there was Abel Meeropol. Perhaps surprisingly (or perhaps not), the writer of "Strange Fruit" was not a Southern black man. He was, instead, a Jewish-American schoolteacher from New York City. Meeropol was a representative a long tradition in America of left-wing Jewish political activism; perhaps inspired by their own experience of enduring centuries of anti-Semitic violence and discrimination, Jews in the early played a disproportionately large role in early twentieth-century American social reform movements—especially fighting against racism. Meeropol was inspired to write "Strange Fruit" after seeing a shocking photograph of a lynching in a magazine. (Most historians believe the specific image Meeropol saw was this graphic and disturbing photo of the 1930 double lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana.) The picture haunted Meeropol for days, inspiring him to compose "Strange Fruit" as a poem, published in 1937 in both The New York Teacher and in the Marxist journal The New Masses under Meeropol's nom de plume Lewis Allan. (Meeropol was a member of the Communist Party, not uncommon for antiracist activists in the 1930s. Decades later, Meeropol would return to public prominence after adopting the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the married couple of American communists executed after being tried and convicted of espionage against the United States during the 1950s.) "I wrote 'Strange Fruit,'" Meeropol said, "because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it." Fighting racism was central to Meeorpol's belief system; it was perfectly appropriate that he wrote what might be considered the antiracist movement's theme song.
And Café Society was a perfectly appropriate venue for the song's debut. The club, which opened in December of 1938, made a name for itself by offering a kind of antiracist satire of "high society." Black customers were given the best seats, the waiters greeted patrons while dressed in rags, and signs and slogans like "Café Society: the wrong place for Right people" were posted on the walls. Café Society was a progressive club for progressive people, a place to enjoy good music, good drinks, and good company while striking a blow against racism.
And yet there was a certain racial irony in the story of how "Strange Fruit" made it to the stage. There was a long tradition in American culture—a tradition not necessarily "progressive" in its racial dynamics—of white audiences enjoying forms of "black music" that had been filtered, through the work of a "middleman" (often a Jewish-American songwriter or publisher), to sound more appealing to mainstream white tastes. The dominant musical genre of the 1930s—swing—had morphed out of African-American jazz in exactly this fashion, and an entire New York music-publishing industry (known as Tin Pan Alley) grew out of the practice. Some of the most famous composers of the era—Irving Berlin, George Gershwin—became known for their wildly popular compositions that captured elements of the "black sound" without necessarily challenging white audiences or the Jim Crow racial order of the day. And other, less respectful forms of popular entertainment—most infamously, blackface minstrelsy—bowdlerized the African-American musical tradition into crudely racist stereotypes that mocked and demeaned blacks for the entertainment of whites.
In some ways, the story behind "Strange Fruit" followed the same old plot (not blackface minstrelsy, certainly, but the broader tradition embodied by swing and Tin Pan Alley). The audience at Café Society was mostly white; the music was mostly black; Meeropol was the Jewish "middleman" bringing the two together.
But "Strange Fruit" began to turn the power dynamics of that old relationship upside down. Rather than softening black music for white ears, Meeropol made it harder; there was a militancy and anger in "Strange Fruit" that would have been difficult for a black songwriter in Jim Crow America to produce without fear of violent retribution. Meeropol was still a middleman, but he was a middleman who helped Billie Holiday challenge her audience rather than helping her avoid threatening them. In the words of composer Don Byron, "what this Jewish American is being a middleman for is quite militant. [...] It is the first step away from entertainment and towards something harder edged and true to the negative side of being black in America." Indeed, in the decades since "Strange Fruit," it has become common for black music to incorporate political statements, challenge social norms, and express frustration with the state of race relations.
"Strange Fruit" was an early cry for civil rights—some might even say it was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Record producer Ahmet Ertegun called the song "a declaration of war," and jazz writer Leonard Feather said it was "the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism." That is true in the popular American consciousness. While other artists had sung about lynching, it was typically done through a veil of euphemism. While the NAACP had put on an art show about lynching in 1936, and ten plays had been written about lynching in the quarter century before "Strange Fruit," none of them proved to be popular enough to stir the consciousness of the American public. Billie Holiday's haunting song, though, broke through.
This is not to say that "Strange Fruit" stood alone. Though it was recorded in 1939, sixteen years before Rosa Parks, it was also recorded seventeen years after the first anti-lynching bill was filibustered by Southern senators. The song was an early cry for civil rights, but one that ultimately rested on an existing anger shared by progressives, blacks, and artists about the state of race in America.