Critics typically note two things about the sound of "Strange Fruit." First, they observe that layers and layers are added to the song by Billie Holiday's subtle yet intense delivery. Second, they can't help but notice that the song is a real downer.
Billie Holiday's unforgettable delivery makes the song. The tune doesn't have much of a melody at all, but the way Holiday subtly varies the notes is both haunting and beautiful. In Benny Green's judgment, "Her elocution is superb, with but a hint of a Southern accent; her tone is languorous but unflinching, raw yet smooth, youthful yet worldly." Artie Shaw, who hired Billie to tour with his band for a time, also commented on her dramatic delivery: "She never had any dramatic experience, but there was a sense of inherent drama in her. I don't think she ever took any elocution lessons, but when she said 'bitter' she said it in a way worthy of any Dame on the British stage."
The song's downer energy is probably heightened by the fact that it's in the key of B-flat minor. B-flat minor is a notable choice because it has traditionally been a "dark key"—that is, a key used for sad and gloomy tunes. Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave, for example, are both in B-flat minor. (Incidentally, B-flat has also been proven to really irritate alligators, and it is also the lowest recorded note in the universe. That's right: the sound of gases orbiting a black hole in the Perseus cluster has actually been identified as being the B-flat 57 octaves below middle C on a piano.) But back on subject, the B-flat minor key contributes greatly to the somber tone, even though you're probably unaware of it if you're not familiar with music theory.
Further ruining your mood, the song ends on an F (with Billie's resounding voicing of "crop"), leaving the song somewhat unresolved. It is most standard in Western music for songs to end on the root note of the key that they're in. That would be the B-flat. In his book "Strange Fruit," David Margolick seized upon the significance of this "strangely unresolved note," comparing it to the dangling "dead man on the branch."
Though it was only recorded seventy years ago, "Strange Fruit" describes a world that's quite a bit different from our own. It was a product of the Jim Crow Era, a time when lynch mobs upheld white supremacy by terrorizing blacks who challenged the racial order of the day or even looked the wrong way at a white person. Lynchings were often staged as a kind of public spectacle, violently sending the message that African-Americans could have no sanctuary from white power. As Dr. C.T. Vivian, Reverend and Civil Rights activist describes, "You hung somebody. You had no real evidence that they had done anything. But you hung them. You even brought a crowd in. To enjoy this event. Then you would not only hang them by the neck, but you wanted to rip open their bodies, and did so. You burned them, put a fire under them. Often you skinned off their very faces. And this was met with applause; the crowd loved it, they were anxious to do it. And men taught their sons, 'This is what you do to them.' I don't know any kind of savagery that is worse than this."
According to figures kept by the Tuskegee Institute, of the 3,833 lynchings between 1889 and 1940, ninety percent were in the south, and four fifths of those lynched were black. These figures are conservative, to say the least. For several generations, every black person in America had to live with the constant fear that one transgression of the rules of racial order could lead straight to murder and mutilation.
While "Strange Fruit" represents a peak in the American awareness of lynchings, the anti-lynching movement of which it was a part began years earlier. The Tuskegee Institute's simple documentation of lynchings, which began in 1888, was an early form of anti-lynching activism. The journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett began an anti-lynching campaign in 1892, after friends of hers were lynched for opening a grocery store in competition with a white-owned business. She later joined the NAACP (which formed in 1909) and continued to speak out against lynching there. W.E.B. Du Bois famously flew a flag outside his New York City office with the words "Another Lynching Today" every time a lynching occurred. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of the 1920s and the later Costigan-Wagner Bill were both federal anti-lynching laws blocked from passing Congress by Southern legislators.
Perhaps more notable than any other form of anti-lynching activism were the anti-lynching efforts seen in the arts. Plays were written—ten between 1916 and 1935. In 1936, the NAACP organized two shows of artwork titled "An Art Commentary on Lynching" which were well received. But Meeropol and Holiday's "Strange Fruit" was by far the most successful; perhaps because the song was so blunt, so bitter, so straightforward (and so darkly beautiful) while also fitting neatly into the pop format. Unlike art exhibits and plays, pop music carried no air of intellectualism to turn off general audiences.
"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.