Throwback: Billie Holiday-Strange Fruit


Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1939 and performed it at New York’s first integrated nightclub, Café Society. Abel Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” as a poem in 1937 under the name Lewis Allan in response to a photograph taken by Lawrence Beitler of African-American boys J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham S. Smith hanging from trees on August 7, 1930, in Marion, Indiana. Holiday was signed to Columbia Records and they would not let her record “Strange Fruit” for fear of a southern backlash. Holiday’s friend, Milt Gabler, the owner of Commodore Records, agreed to release it on his label so Columbia gave Holiday a one-session release. She re-recorded the song in 1944 but the 1939 recording sold one million copies and became her best-selling single. Holiday was initially concerned about retaliation for recording “Strange Fruit” but she did it anyway because it reminded her of the life-saving medical treatment her father was denied because of racism.  The poetic description of Black bodies, blood, and trees was haunting and her performance of it made audiences stand still. When she sang it at Café Society the lights were dimmed and you could only see her face. At the end of the performance, the audience looked up and she was gone before the stage lights were restored. Holiday’s unique way of phrasing and improvisation is one of the reasons why her version of “Strange Fruit” is still the most popular after decades of new covers. 

“Strange Fruit” has been called the “song of the century” and  “the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.” Emmett Till’s lynching has always been credited as the real start of the movement but “Strange Fruit”‘s release two years before his birth was the most egregious artistic statement about Jim Crow America. 

Holiday died in 1959 after a tumultuous career as a jazz and pop vocalist innovator. Diana Ross received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Holiday in the 1972 film Lady Sings The Blues. Andra Day starred as the singer in Lee Daniels’ 2021 film The United States vs. Billie Holiday