Among the greatest of all lyrics is Strange Fruit, written by Abel Meeropol and sung famously by Billie Holliday, who may be said to have died of the sorrow from singing it. David Margolick (2001) wrote that Holliday’s mother objected to her singing the song, and she said “It could make things better.” Her mother answered: “but you’ll be dead,” and Billie said, “yeah, but I’ll feel it. I’ll know it in my grave.” So she intentionally and courageously faced down the fear of death.
The song was difficult to sing in night clubs, because people came to have a good time, and this would put an end to that! But it would work at the end of the night, to send people home contemplative.
Southern trees bear 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 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
By their fruit we will know them. These “gallant” scenes of the “pastoral” South are not forgotten, in part because of the courage of Meeropol and Ms. Holliday. For shame, take down that defeated flag and hoist the stars and stripes!
The symbolism of bodies hanging from trees is like the crucifixion, and like that very eerie scene in an Arthurian movie when the knight Galahad comes to Mordred’s lair. The macabre contrast of fruit, flower and scenery with bulging eyes and burning flesh also makes the song give us chills from deeper than we know where. Not even Dylan or Neil Young produced this great a folk song, and this is jazz or blues.
I knew a woman, Elise Emerick, who saw a lynching in Florida back around the twenties, when she was five. Her father, Mr. Du Champs, (I believe he was a Henry) tried to stop it, and told her to go on home and don’t look back.
We have been trying to get Jack White, or some other Hendrix, to pull out the anger implicit in the sorrow of every note of the Billie Holliday version. I know this can be done, and with great commercial success, but the point is that right now in America, we need to wake up, and shout a loud, spirited “NO!” to fascism, tyranny and the destruction of our Constitution by domestic White Supremacists in league with foreign powers.