MLK 2008: The Legacy of Strange Fruit

Billie Holiday. Strange Fruit.

Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is one of the finest song settings ever made of an American poem. Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol) wrote the haunting verse. Never mind a little video distortion — this is a rare historic performance. Let it stand as my tribute to Martin Luther King Day.

After I closed with this last Friday on Café Mouffe, I found David Margolik’s wonderful essay on “Strange Fruit” published in Vanity Fair, September 1998.

Here are the lyrics as Billie sang them:

Strange Fruit – Lewis Allan

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies 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 magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then 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 the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

This entry was posted in free speech, jazz and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to MLK 2008: The Legacy of Strange Fruit

  1. tomrobertstennessee says:

    Mark-
    Thanks for the education on the poem and song, “Strange Fruit,” which I had never heard before. (The Billie Holiday cd’s I have must be under the Columbia record label). I loved the VANITY FAIR essay by David Margolik. What a great tribute to Martin Luther King Day the way you unearthed a poem and song so revolutionary and powerful in its day, yet seemingly so obscure today.
    Tom

  2. tomrobertstennessee says:

    Mark,
    Never heard “Strange Fruit” before, but suddenly I’m hearing it frequently. Driving home tonight at 7:00p.m., NPR played several recorded versions including Billie Holiday’s. A particularly haunting version I heard was Sidney Bichet playing the melody on saxaphone.

  3. Mark Willis says:

    Thanks, Tom. I’ll have to search for Sidney Bechet’s version. For the longest time I thought the poem was written by Langston Hughes. I must have heard a recording of him reciting it, or talking about hearing Billie sing it at Café Society. Columbia Records wouldn’t record it at first, but she sang it bravely every night until she made it hers.

  4. Sara says:

    Mark, thank you for sharing this and for linking to it this year. I first heard Strange Fruit in Nina Simone’s version and did not know any of this back history. Not surprising though. I grew up in the one county in this country that saw fit to close its public schools in 1959 rather than integrate. so although I never saw a lynching, I certainly know the hatred firsthand.
    Fascinating history and certainly quite relevant to the violent and libelous rhetoric that we are hearing today.

Comments are closed.