05 November 2021


05 November 2021


Maison French Deal would like to highlight personalities, stories and historical facts of Black Culture. Through this article, we invite you to discover the history of the song “Strange Fruit” performed by singer Billie Holiday, which has become an anti-racist anthem.

Before being considered the greatest song of the 20th century by the American magazine Time, “Strange Fruit” is a poem: “Bitter Fruit”. This poem was published in 1937 by Abel Meeropol, a high school teacher in the Bronx. It was inspired by a photo of two young African-Americans being lynched in Indiana. With the help of his wife, he puts the poem into song, it is the birth of “Strange Fruit”.

The “Strange Fruit” of the song evokes the body of a black man hanging from a tree. When Abel Meeropol proposed this song to the singer Billie Holiday, already known at the time as an outstanding jazz and blues artist, she hesitated before interpreting it. It was a complete contrast to her usual repertoire, full of love songs. But Billie Holiday quickly understands the strong commitment carried by “Strange Fruit”. The song resonates with her and reminds her of the racism suffered by her father, who died of pneumonia after several hospitals in the segregated south refused to treat him.

She recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1939 with the Commodore label, after the Columbia label she worked with refused to risk being associated with the song. She performed it for the first time in the New York jazz club where she worked, the Cafe Society. All the waiters in the club stopped serving to make way for Billie Holiday’s voice only. This performance brought the room to a heavy silence. It will take several seconds for the audience to start applauding, shocked by the strength of this interpretation.

“Strange Fruit” quickly becomes a success, but an embarrassing success. The segregationist South is still very influential within the political parties and the media. The radios do not broadcast the song. But word-of-mouth will make “Strange Fruit” known and will attract a lot of people to the Cafe Society. The 40’s and 50’s were difficult for Billie Holiday, some clubs refused to let her play the song. She was sometimes forced to impose it by contract. Some nights, she even complains about the waiters who voluntarily make noise with their cash registers during the whole song.

Although “Strange Fruit” is an integral part of American music history, the song is rarely performed. For many, Billie Holiday’s interpretation is considered unsettling and sometimes even painful to hear in its force. But it remains in everyone’s mind.

For the civil rights movement, “Strange Fruit” had an effect comparable to Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus on December 1, 1955. No other song is so intimately linked to the political struggle of African-Americans for equality.

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