Billie Holiday's signature song signaled the maturation of a 24-year-old popular big-band singer into a serious jazz singer, an artist, and a force for social change. Debuting at the Cafe Society club in Manhattan, one of the few rare places where blacks and whites could mingle, Holiday used her famous halting, howling delivery and unique phrasing to pass on this sobering and haunting message, a poetic blues that looked unflinchingly at the lynching of African-American men in the American South. David Margolick, author of Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, notes that the song was not written specifically for Holiday, though she took it and made it her own, even if it was not particularly a jazz song. She made it so. The song's author, Abel Meeropol, who used the pen name Lewis Allen, was a radical Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx who went on to also write the famous song about tolerance "The House I Live in," a song Frank Sinatra made famous. Meeropol is also known as the man who adopted the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after the execution of the parents. He wrote "Strange Fruit" as a poem in reaction to his horror at the lynchings, first appearing in a teacher's union magazine. He set it to music and the song soon made the rounds as a protest song in leftist circles in and around New York. It was at such a gathering that Barney Josefson heard the song. Josefson, the founder of New York's first integrated nightclub, Cafe Society, beseeched Meeropol to come to the club and play it on the piano for Holiday, who was then a headliner at the club. Holiday was not immediately smitten with the song but, at the request of Josefson, she included it in her repertoire. Josefson, sensing the importance of the piece and feeling that people "should have their insides burned out" by the song, devised a nightly ritual for the song's performance: Every activity in the club would come to a halt, waiters would stand in the back, the registers would silence, and the lights would go down to darkness except for a simple spotlight on Holiday, who would sing the song and walk offstage with no bow and no encores. The initial effect was reportedly stunned silence. Holiday notes in her autobiography: "There wasn't even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everybody was clapping."
Race relations in the United States in 1939 were as bad as they ever had been. It was almost 20 years before the civil rights movement started to make any real progress. It was at the low point of the Great Depression and most people wanted Billie Holiday to keep the mood up in her bouncy style and, like her colleague Ella Fitzgerald, to keep swinging. This is specifically one reason why the song had such impact: the use of that very word in the lines "Black bodies swinging/In the Southern breeze," Holiday knowingly placing emphasis on the word "swinging," quite aware of its two-pronged meaning, as if she knew that white people, including those progressive enough to be at Cafe Society, were quite happy to rub elbows with African-Americans so long as they were jazzing it up and swinging. The weight of this one word and Holiday's focus on it illustrates a turning point and takes to task even her friends and advisors, like the man credited with discovering her, the legendary A&R man John Hammond. Hammond produced her at Columbia, and his lack of advocacy for the song played no small part in the label's refusal to record the song. Hammond felt Holiday should remain a not-too-serious entertainer, and suggested that she became more enamored at the idea of the song rather than taking up the political charge wholeheartedly. Holiday was essentially non-political in nature, but she earned her nickname "Lady" from her demand for respect. Her recognition of the song came as a statement of pride and demand for respect in and of itself.
She took the song elsewhere, to Milt Gabler's Commodore label. In an early example of the short-sighted corporate attitudes of major labels, Holiday bypassed the system, recorded the arresting song, and the record became one of her most successful. Her subsequent recordings became even more powerful than the original. And people started to flock to Cafe Society in droves just to see her perform this one song. The club took out ads in The New Yorker that asked simply (paraphrasing), "Have you seen Billie Holiday performing 'Strange Fruit Swings on Southern Trees' at Cafe Society yet?" Holiday's accompanist, pianist Bobby Tucker, noted on NPR's syndicated program "The Connection" that, even though the song became sort of an act, Holiday would break down after every performance of it. The impact of the song has not lessened with time. If anything, it has grown more intense within the context of history. The controversy of the song continues as well, with some jazz radio programmers -- intent more on entertainment -- still refusing to play it, as it stirs up such "negative" feelings as deep sadness, anger, and guilt. For many years, Victor Records refused to even release Sidney Bechet's instrumental version of the song. But it remains relevant. USA Today noted that a federal appeals court quoted it as late as 2000 to illustrate the cruel and unusual nature of hanging. It takes a courageous soul and confident singer to take on the song, so closely identified with Billie Holiday. Josh White recorded a folk-blues version in the 1940s and was often abused, as was Holiday, during his performances of it. Nina Simone offered a stark, immensely mournful version on Pastel Blues (1965). Contemporary interpreter Cassandra Wilson gave "Strange Fruit" an arrangement that accents the twisting images of the lyrics -- stark, with a funky bass line, slide dobro, and a Miles Davis-inspired trumpet wail.