AN ENDURING LAMENT
Sixty years later, a Jewish writer’s song of African-American lynching victims receives a multimedia renaissance
“BOY LOSES Girl” was about the most tragic thing that could happen on Tin Pan Alley before the Dylan era, but “Strange Fruit,” a lament for lynching victims, was an exception. Written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, the popular song is alive even after its 60th birthday. First recorded in 1939, the song is the focus of a documentary film, also called “Strange Fruit,” now playing at film festivals and due to debut on U.S. public television later this year, and the subject of last year’s book “Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song,” by journalist David Margolick. Its lyrics are etched onto a wall at “Without Sanctuary,” an exhibit of dozens of photographs taken at lynchings, showing now through December 1 at the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia.
“This is ‘Strange Fruit’s’ moment,” says Joel Katz, the 44-year-old director of the documentary and a professor in Media Arts at New Jersey City University. The film features a variety of performances of the song as well as material about Meeropol and the history of lynching.
His previous films, Katz told The Report, were “personal and idiosyncratic,” but he was drawn to Meeropol’s powerful empathy with African-Americans. The filmmaker’s father was a professor at Howard University, a private university for black students in Washington, D.C., and Katz has had a lifelong interest in black-Jewish relations. Meeropol’s writing of the song recalls “a period when black-Jewish relations were better,” says Katz. He “had a large enough imagination to look outside his own pain.”
Margolick’s book grew out of an article he wrote for Vanity Fair about Michael and Robert Rosenberg, the two young sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed by the U.S. government in 1953 as Soviet spies. The Meeropols, who didn’t know the Rosenbergs, volunteered through a mutual friend to care for the boys while their parents were in jail, Margolick writes; they formally adopted them in 1957. “Strange Fruit” is a “fascinating piece of Americana,” telling “a story of Jews and blacks working together,” Margolick says. “It’s a reminder of how simpatico the communities were.”
Close to 5,000 people, mostly black men, were murdered by lynch mobs in the United States from the 1880s to the 1960s. Victims were frequently hanged with ropes draped over tree limbs, then sometimes set on fire or mutilated. Often crowds watched, with spectators snatching pieces of clothes off the body and snapping pictures as souvenirs; some were later sent to friends and family as postcards. One such picture inspired Meeropol, who said he wrote the haunting, almost sickening lyrics of “Strange Fruit” and accompanying music after he saw a photograph of a lynching in a civil rights magazine. “I wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it,” Meeropol is quoted as saying in Margolick’s book.
“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,” runs the first verse.
The song’s conceit carries a dark humor, buried in the sorrow and anger of the words. Performers often emphasize the song’s alternating tones of lighthearted beauty and shocking horror, shifting from the smell of magnolia flowers to the smell of burning bodies, from sarcastic references to “the gallant South” to the gruesome physical effects of hanging. Meeropol wrote other political songs, including “Is There a Red Under Your Bed?” and “The House I Live In,” a patriotic, rather boring song made popular by Frank Sinatra.
The movie opens with a shot of a fine summer field in Georgia, quiet enough to make one wonder what happened there. It’s an echo of the song’s second verse: “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!” “Strange Fruit” is “ultimately a song about inhumanity,” which is “perpetually relevant,” says Margolick.
“STRANGE FRUIT” WAS recorded in 1939 by jazz singer Billie Holiday, who often used it as the dramatic finale of her performances, refusing to sing anything else after singing the song. Holiday suffered from racism, both subtle and overt. A year before recording “Strange Fruit,” she quit a band led by Artie Shaw partly because, as a black woman, she had to take a freight elevator for a performance at a New York Hotel, Margolick writes.
The song was promoted and nurtured at a New York nightclub called Cafe Society, owned by Barney Josephson, a former shoe salesman from New Jersey. While the liberal crowds at Cafe Society welcomed the song, at other venues Holiday and other singers who performed it were harassed. Holiday once hit a white man from Georgia over the head with a chair after he showed her an obscene picture, telling her he wanted to show her some “strange fruit,” Irene Wilson recalls in Margolick’s book.
Instances of an outright ban were rare, Margolick writes, but it was shunned by radio stations and cut short in the 1972 movie version of Holiday’s autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues.” Reaction to the song was never neutral. Audiences sat in stunned silence after it was sung. Holiday’s version was so powerful that she became almost synonymous with the song, even claiming credit for writing it in her 1956 memoir. Some critics, cited in Margolick’s book, said that Holiday, famous for romantic ballads and substance abuse, didn’t understand the song. Others said that singing it was such a wrenching, draining experience it contributed to her death at age 44 in 1959. Some felt the song was grotesque and over-the-top; while some performers said it was so painful they couldn’t bear to sing it. And when Meeropol did get the credit, some were amazed to learn that a Jew identified so deeply with African-Americans that he could write such an anthem. Meeropol was occasionally listed in anthologies of black composers, a mistake he was particularly proud of.
The song is performed in several ways in the film: Abbey Lincoln, a jazz vocalist and writer, reads the lyrics with compelling power as she sits by a piano keyboard; Cassandra Wilson sings a vital, modern version; a black-and-white clip shows folk singer Josh White strumming a guitar and singing it. The centerpiece, though, is Holiday, gaunt and strong, infusing each syllable with pain. The last verse drops the swing between soft and hard: “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.” There’s a pause before the drawn-out “crop”; Holiday makes the word crack like a whip and then turns it into a cry of mourning.
Meeropol wrote songs, including “Strange Fruit,” under the pen name Lewis Allan. The names were those of the two sons he had with his wife, Anne, neither of whom survived infancy. In addition to songwriting and teaching English to high school students, Meeropol, shown in old photos in Katz’s film with a thin, jaunty mustache, was a Communist Party activist, poet and playwright. He died in 1986.
Some of the most shocking scenes in the film come from the Rosenberg children, distant as they are from the writing and singing of “Strange Fruit.” Michael says he is convinced his parents were executed for a crime they didn’t commit, a kind of a lynching.
The film concludes with a homage to recent lynching: the 1998 murders of James Byrd, Jr., a black man, in Jasper, Texas, and of Matthew Sheppard, a gay man in Laramie, Wyoming; and to the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man killed in a hail of 41 bullets fired by four white police officers in New York. It ends, too, with another pastoral scene – a field with a single tree.