Abel Meeropol was a high school teacher, who wrote a poem, “Bitter Fruit”. It was printed in his (very, very left-wing) union publication in January 1937:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Meeropol’s setting of this poem to music (under the pen name of Lewis Allan), and its eventual recording by Billie Holliday, as “Strange Fruit”, is very well documented – there is an entire book devoted to the song – but there is one achievement by Meeropol which I have never seen discussed. It is this:
The lyric is angry, but the music is not.
I don’t know if Meeropol did this on purpose, but it’s crucial to the song’s success. Take, for instance, that exclamation mark at the end of the second stanza. It’s not there in the accompanying music; punctuation doesn’t exist in a song unless it exists in the music, and at this point in Holliday’s rendition …
… there is weary grief and resignation, like the rest of the song. Holliday had enough trouble getting the song recorded, and there were plenty of club owners who weren’t keen to hear it, but I think if Meeropol had made the mistake of setting his angry poem to angry music, we would never have heard the song at all. The tension between the song’s music and lyric is also the key, I think, to performing it well: hold back, singers, less is more. I am no fan of Jeff Buckley’s version, for example, because it’s full of exclamation marks (to say nothing of showboating).
“Lewis Allan” also wrote:
And he made some decent money from that number when it was ripped off as:
He also wrote – this high school teacher who was a member of the Communist Party, and who adopted, with his wife Anne, the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after they were executed – the lyric to this song:
This is a neat example of how songwriters get to decide where a song starts, but not where it finshes: in the 1945 film that accompanies this song, Frank Sinatra stops a bunch of tykes from beating up on a Jewish kid by reminding them how good America felt when it started to blow up those lousy Japs. I’m not sure that’s quite what Abe Meeropol had in mind.
It is true that “Strange Fruit” is over-exposed these days, but that’s not the song’s fault. Consider this tally:
Songs about how I love you, but you won’t notice me – 19, 810, 456
Songs about how men shouldn’t treat their women like crap, and we aren’t gonna take it any more – 16, 435
Songs about the scars left by the war in Vietnam – 987
Songs decrying the lynching of black men in America’s south – just 1.