July 25, 2012
Billie sang it, but the music and lyrics were Abel’s. He had first written it as a poem, after seeing the photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana on August 7, 1930. The poem was published in The New York Teacher, and the song was even performed at Madison Square Garden by his wife, Anne, and the black vocalist Laura Duncan.
But it was Billie Holiday, of course, who made “Strange Fruit” what it was and what it is. After her first rendition in 1939, she would always close with this song at the Café Society, with all service halted, and the room darkened except for a spotlight on her face. The song sold more than 1 million copies when it came out on the Commodore label (Columbia Records had refused to touch it).
Abel Meeropol, born of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, spent his entire life teaching English at the DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. The poem was published under the name Lewis Allan, an amalgam of the names of his two stillborn children. Later, in 1953, after the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, he and Anne would adopt their sons, Robert and Michael.
For Meeropol, “Strange Fruit” was a simple expression of black/Jewish solidarity. In another poem he said: “I am a Jew,/ How can I tell?/ The Negro lynched/ Reminds me well/ I am a Jew.” But it was not to be. Holiday, in her ghost-written autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, claimed that while the“germ of the song was in a poem written by Lewis Allen [sic],” it was Sonny White, her accompanist, and herself who set it to music. Meeropol was able to take legal action to have the facts straightened out in subsequent printings of the autobiography, but his son Robert said that the whole episode “clouded his feelings about the life of the song.”
Still an exemplary instance of black/Jewish collaboration, but a dark one.