Strange Fruit

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"Strange Fruit"
Single by Billie Holiday
A-side Fine and Mellow
Released 1939
Format 78 rpm
Recorded April 20, 1939[1]
Genre Blues, jazz
Label Commodore
Writer(s) Abel Meeropol
Billie Holiday singles chronology
I'm Gonna Lock My Heart
"Strange Fruit"
"God Bless the Child"
Music sample

"Strange Fruit" is a song performed most famously by Billie Holiday, who first sang and recorded it in 1939. Written by teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem and published in 1937, it protested American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans. Such lynchings had reached a peak in the South at the turn of the century, but continued there and in other regions of the United States.[2][3] Meeropol set it to music and, with his wife and the singer Laura Duncan, performed it as a protest song in New York venues in the late 1930s, including Madison Square Garden.

The song continues to be covered by numerous artists, and has inspired novels, other poems, and other creative works. In 1978, Holiday's version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.[4] It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Poem and song

Meeropol cited this photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, August 7, 1930, as inspiring his poem.[5]

"Strange Fruit" originated as a poem written by American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings.[6][7][8] In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana.[7] He published the poem under the title "Bitter Fruit" in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine.[9] Though Meeropol had asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set "Strange Fruit" to music himself. His protest song gained a certain success in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.[10]

The lyrics are under copyright but have been republished in full in an academic journal, with permission.[11]

Billie Holiday's performances and recordings

Barney Josephson, the founder of Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, New York's first integrated nightclub, heard the song and introduced it to Billie Holiday. Other reports say that Robert Gordon, who was directing Billie Holiday's show at Cafe Society, heard the song at Madison Square Garden and introduced it to her.[9] Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939. She said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation but, because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing the piece, making it a regular part of her live performances.[12] Because of the power of the song, Josephson drew up some rules: Holiday would close with it; the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday's face; and there would be no encore.[9] During the musical introduction, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer.

Holiday approached her recording label, Columbia, about the song, but the company feared reaction by record retailers in the South, as well as negative reaction from affiliates of its co-owned radio network, CBS.[13] When Holiday's producer John Hammond also refused to record it, she turned to her friend Milt Gabler, whose Commodore label produced alternative jazz. Holiday sang "Strange Fruit" for him a cappella, and moved him to tears. Columbia gave Holiday a one-session release from her contract so she could record it; Frankie Newton's eight-piece Cafe Society Band was used for the session. Because Gabler worried the song was too short, he asked pianist Sonny White to improvise an introduction. On the recording, Holiday starts singing after 70 seconds.[9] Gabler worked out a special arrangement with Vocalion Records to record and distribute the song.[14]

Holiday recorded two major sessions of the song at Commodore, one in 1939 and one in 1944. The song was highly regarded; the 1939 record sold a million copies,[7] in time becoming Holiday's biggest-selling record.

In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday suggested that she, together with Meeropol, her accompanist Sonny White, and arranger Danny Mendelsohn, set the poem to music. The writers David Margolick and Hilton Als dismissed that claim in their work Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, writing that hers was "an account that may set a record for most misinformation per column inch". When challenged, Holiday—whose autobiography had been ghostwritten by William Dufty —claimed, "I ain't never read that book."[15]


In October 1939, Samuel Grafton of The New York Post described "Strange Fruit": "If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise."[16]


In popular culture





  • Rapper Danny! recorded "Strange Fruit", a song about his encounter with a racist hotel manager, who prevented him and his friends from checking into a reserved room after discovering they were black.
  • Kanye West sampled this piece in his song "Blood on the Leaves".
  • British DJ John Peel named his record label Strange Fruit after the song


  • The opera Strange Fruit (2007) was adapted from Lillian Smith's 1944 novel. A commissioned work, it premiered on June 15, 2007, at the Long Leaf Opera Festival[21] in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, starring Charles Stanton, baritone, and Erina Newkirk, soprano. Chandler Carter was the composer and Joan Ross Sorkin was the librettist.


  • American Dad! Season 9, Episode 10 ("Blood Crieth Unto Heaven") uses a clip in the opening act.
  • Katey Sagal with The Forest Rangers and Blake Mills's cover was used in the Sons of Anarchy episode, "Fruit for the Crows" (2011), in which a club member tries to hang himself.[22]
  • Season 1 Episode 2 of The Man in the High Castle depicts a vinyl record playing the song.[23]
  • Billie Holiday's battle with drugs and her first time singing "Strange Fruit" are explored in Season 7, Episode 149 of Touched by an Angel ("God Bless The Child").


  • The Cambridge, Massachusetts restaurant The Friendly Toast included a drink called Strange Fruit, after Smith's novel, on a menu of cocktails named after banned books. In 2015 this generated controversy, as a patron took the name as a reference to the song and found it inappropriate. The drink was later removed from the menu.[24][25]


2000 and afterward


  • Clarke, Donald (1995). Billie Holiday. Wishing on the Moon. München: Piper. ISBN 3-492-03756-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Davis, Angela (1999). Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. Diverse Ausgaben, z. B. Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-77126-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Holiday, Billie & Dufty, William (with) (1992). Lady Sings the Blues (autobiography). Edition Nautilus. ISBN 3-89401-110-6. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Margolick, David & Als, Hilton (2000). Strange Fruit. Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Hardcover ed.). Running Press. ISBN 0-7624-0677-1. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Margolick, David, & Als, Hilton (2001). Strange Fruit. The Biography of a Song (Paperback ed.). Ecco. ISBN 0-06-095956-8. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


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  5. "Strange Fruit: Anniversary Of A Lynching". NPR. August 6, 2010. Retrieved August 15, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Margolick, David (2000). Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights. Philadelphia: Running Press. pp. 25–27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Moore, Edwin (September 18, 2010). "Strange Fruit is still a song for today | Index Strange Fruit is still a song for today". The Guardian. Retrieved September 23, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Blair, Elizabeth (Host) (September 5, 2012). "The Strange Story Of The Man Behind 'Strange Fruit'". Morning Edition. NPR.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Lynskey, Dorian (2011). "33 Revolutions Per Minute". London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-24134-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Margolick, Strange Fruit, pp. 36–37.
  11. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  12. Margolick, Strange Fruit, pp. 40–46.
  13. Margolick, Strange Fruit, pp. 61-62.
  14. Billy Crystal, 700 Sundays, pp. 46–47.
  15. Margolick, Strange Fruit, pp. 31-32.
  16. Lynskey, Dorian (February 15, 2011). "Strange Fruit: the first great protest song". The Guardian.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Billy Crystal, 700 Sundays, p. 47.
  18. Smith, Ian K (March 25, 2010). "Top 20 Political Songs: Strange Fruit". New Statesman. Retrieved March 25, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "100 Songs of the South |". Retrieved April 20, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  25. "Restaurant Learns the Hard Way Why You Never Name a Cocktail 'Strange Fruit'".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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External links