Billie Holiday

Strange Fruit

Song Review by

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.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
No Image 1956 Clef Records
Lady Sings the Blues 1956 Verve 3:04
Story 1959 Timeless Treasures 2:20
No Image 1964
Various Artists
No Image 1986 Verve 2:50
The Billie Holiday Songbook 1986 Universal-Island Records / Verve 3:03
Lady Day (1939-1944): The Sixteen Original Commodore Interpretations 1988 TriStar Music 3:11
The Billie Holiday Collection [Deja Vu] 1988 Deja Vu 2:57
Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years 1991 Universal / Verve 2:57
The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959 1992 Verve / PolyGram 5:48
The Ladies Sing Jazz, Vol. 2 1992
Various Artists
Jazz Archives (France) 3:05
Fine & Mellow: 1935-1941 1995 Indigo 3:17
Lover Come Back to Me 1995 Drive (import) 3:21
Jazz Anthology: 1939 1996
Various Artists
EPM 3:05
Golden Hits 1996 Intercontinental Records 3:25
Lady Day's 25 Greatest: 1933-1944 1996 Living Era / ASV 3:07
Jazz Ladies [Delta] 1996
Various Artists
Laserlight / Delta Distribution 3:16
Her Best Recordings: 1935-1942 1996 Best of Jazz 3:07
The Commodore Story 1997
Various Artists
Verve 3:10
The Complete Original American Commodore Recordings 1997 GRP / Verve 3:18
Vol. 1: 1935-1939 1997 L'Art Vocal 3:08
Billie Holiday: Members Edition 1997 Members Edition 3:10
Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 1997 Galaxy Music 3:24
The Ultimate Billie Holiday 1997 Verve / PolyGram / Universal 3:05
Dead & Gone #2: Totenlieder - Songs of Death 1997
Various Artists
Indigo / Trikont 3:05
Femme Fatale: Grrrl Power, Vol. 3 1997
Various Artists
Dressed To Kill 3:09
The Classic Decade 1935-1945 1998 Prism Platinum 2:55
Defiance Blues 1998
Various Artists
A&M 3:10
Selection of Billie Holiday 1998 Golden Sounds 3:18
The Jazz Singers 1919-1994 1998
Various Artists
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 3:06
Ladies of Jazz [Columbia River] 1998
Various Artists
Mega Stars
Ultimate Divas [Box] 1998 Polygram 3:05
Golden Classics 1998 Double Play Records 3:26
Lady Sings the Blues [Entertainers] 1998 Entertainers 3:01
Masters [Cleopatra] 1998 Cleopatra 3:10
Grrrl Power 1998
Various Artists
Dressed To Kill 3:09
Four by Four 1999 PolyGram 3:02
Vol. 14: 1944-1945 1999 Masters of Jazz 2:56
Jazz Divas [Columbia River] 1999
Various Artists
Columbia River Entertainment Group 3:08
Strange Fruit [Javelin] 1999 Crown 3:15
Strange Fruit [Giants of Jazz] 1999 Giants Of Jazz Recordings 3:15
Midnight Cool 1999
Various Artists
Edeltone 2:56
Respect: A Century of Women in Music 1999
Various Artists
Rhino 0:00
Respect: A Century of Women in Music [Sampler] 1999
Various Artists
Rhino 3:13
Strange Fruit [Jazz World] 1999 Jazz World 2:49
20 Classic Tracks 2000 Cleopatra 3:10
No Image 2000 Collectables
The Commodore Master Takes 2000 Verve / GRP 3:13
No Image 2000
Various Artists
Columbia River Entertainment Group 3:08
Anthology 1944-1959 2000 Stardust Records / Cleopatra 3:16
Strange Fruit: 1937-1939 2000 Jazztory Records 3:06
Billie Holiday the Legend 2000 Legend 3:16
The Greatest Blues Album of All Time, Vol. 1 2000
Various Artists
Dressed To Kill 3:09
Lady Day [Golden Stars] 2000 Golden Stars 3:08
Ken Burns Jazz 2000 Verve 3:13
The Best of Ken Burns Jazz 2000
Various Artists
Legacy / Columbia 0:00
Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music 2000
Various Artists
Legacy / Columbia 2:49
No Image 2000 Recall (UK) 3:10
Summertime [Mastersound] 2000 Mastersound 2:55
Back to Black: 1900-1999 2001
Various Artists
Universal International 2:54
Billie's Blues [Simply the Best] 2001 Simply The Best (Netherlands) 2:51
Jazz After Hours 2001 Jazz After Hours 3:08
Star Power: Billie Holiday 2001 Direct Source 3:10
The Billie Holiday Story [Chrome Dreams] 2001 Chrome Dreams 3:12
Say It Loud! A Celebration of Black Music in America [Box Set] 2001
Various Artists
Rhino 3:13
Femme Fatale [Big Eye] 2001
Various Artists
Big Eye Music 3:09
Lady Day, Vol. 3 2001 Magnum 3:10
The Lady Sings [Proper] 2001 Proper Sales & Dist. / United States of Distribution 3:09
Strange Fruit [Proper] 2001 Proper Sales & Dist. 3:09
Jazz Collection: Billie Holiday and Friends 2002 Laserlight 3:16
Verve Remixed 2002
Various Artists
Verve 3:19
Black & Proud 2002
Various Artists
Golden Stars 3:08
Billie's Blues [TKO Magnum Midline] 2002 Tko Magnum Midline 3:10
20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Billie Holiday 2002 Hip-O 3:13
The Incomparable, Vol. 4 2002 Acrobat Music 2:54
No Image 2002 Direct Source
Freedom: Songs from the Hearts of America 2002
Various Artists
Columbia 3:12
The Story of a Forgotten Jazz Trumpeter 2003 Jasmine Records 3:11
Jazz Masters 2003 Laserlight / Delta Distribution 3:16
Classic American Voices 2003 Direct Source 3:09
Blue Billie [Saga] 2003 Saga Records 3:14
Verve Unmixed 2004
Various Artists
Verve 3:05
Legends: Billie Holiday 2005 Direct Source 3:12
The Complete Verve Remixed 2005
Various Artists
Verve 3:19
The Definitive Collection [Verve] 2008 Verve 3:11
The Complete Commodore & Decca Masters 2009 Hip-O Select / Universal Distribution / Verve / Geffen 3:14
Ballads for Lovers 2010 Midnight Records 3:05
Icon 2011 Verve 3:10
The Complete Masters 1933-59 2011 Emarcy / Universal 3:14
The Billie Holiday Collection: 1935-42 2012 Acrobat Music 2:54
The Sound of America: The Singles Collection 2013
Various Artists
Verve 2:59
The Centennial Collection 2015 Legacy 3:12
Essential Original Albums 2016 Masters of Music 3:06
100 Jazz
Various Artists
Universal 3:11
Billie Holiday Decca / Verve / Verve Reissues 3:13
No Image Commodore Records
Various Artists
Universal 3:13