How Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" Shocked Listeners With Its Brutal Confrontation of Racism

Billie Holiday performs at the Downbeat in New York City in 1947.
Billie Holiday performs at the Downbeat in New York City in 1947. / William P. Gottlieb, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

According to recent findings by the Equal Justice Initiative, nearly 4000 Black individuals were lynched by white Southerners in the United States between 1877 and 1950. These brutal, racist killings were so commonplace that lynching postcards—featuring photographs of dead bodies hanging from trees—were sold like souvenirs and traded between friends.

Alongside the countless gruesome images documenting this dark period in U.S. history, there is one popular song that continues to devastate listeners nearly a century later. Most famously recorded by jazz icon Billie Holiday in 1939, "Strange Fruit" is a song of rage and sadness spurred by the lack of humanity afforded to Black people in America. Although it’s couched in metaphor, "Strange Fruit" is graphic and direct.

Comprising three verses, with no bridge or chorus, "Strange Fruit" likens lynching victims to fruit hanging from Southern trees. The lyrics juxtapose the "sweet and fresh" fragrance of magnolia with the "sudden smell of burning flesh.” There are references to a victim’s "bulging eyes" and "twisted mouth." The line "Blood on the leaves and blood at the root" alludes to the nation’s long and ugly history of racism.

Song of the Century

Named the "song of the century" by TIME magazine in 1999, "Strange Fruit" is inextricably linked to the story of Holiday. While hers remains the definitive version, Holiday was neither the song’s author nor the first person to perform it publicly.

"Strange Fruit" was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher and Communist party member from the Bronx. Meeropol was inspired by Lawrence Beitler’s famous photo of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. The two Black teens had been accused of murder in Marion, Indiana. But before they could stand trial, an angry white mob descended on the jailhouse and brutally murdered both men. In Beitler’s photo of the slaying’s aftermath, a crowd of white people stand beneath the hanging bodies, seemingly unmoved by the horror of what has just taken place.

"I wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it," Meeropol later said.

Meeropol initially published the piece as a poem titled "Bitter Fruit" in a 1937 issue of the journal The New York Teacher. Using the name Lewis Allan—a tribute to two of his sons who were stillborn—Meeropol later had the poem reprinted in the Marxist magazine New Masses. He eventually set his words to music, creating a protest song that made the rounds in New York City. With accompaniment from Meeropol and his wife Anne, Black singer Laura Duncan performed "Strange Fruit" at Madison Square Garden in 1938.

Among those present for Duncan’s performance was Robert Gordon, a floor manager at Café Society, the first racially integrated nightclub in New York City. Gordon mentioned the song to club founder Barney Josephson, who arranged for Holiday—already an established singer with a string of hits to her name—to meet Meeropol. Despite some trepidation, Holiday agreed to sing the song. The lyrics stirred memories of her father, who died of a lung disorder because a hospital refused to treat him on account of his skin color. As Meeropol would later recall, Holiday received "a tremendous ovation."

"She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation of the song which could jolt the audience out of its complacency anywhere," Meeropol said. "This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it."

The Price of "Fruit"

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Holiday performed "Strange Fruit" at the end of her set. The club would cease serving drinks and illuminate the singer’s face with a single spotlight. Despite—or rather because of—the song’s unsettling power, Holiday’s label, Columbia Records, took a pass on "Strange Fruit." Fortunately, Columbia granted her a one-session release from her contract, allowing her to cut a version for Commodore Records. It went on to sell a million copies.

Ultimately, "Strange Fruit" would cost Holiday everything. Harry J. Anslinger, the jazz-hating racist running the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, caught wind of the incendiary song and ordered Holiday to stop performing it. When she refused, Anslinger resolved to destroy her career. He dispatched an agent named Jimmy Fletcher to bust the singer for using drugs, and she served a year in prison starting in 1947.

Stripped of her cabaret license. Holiday was unable to play shows anywhere alcohol was served. She nevertheless found work where she could and continued performing "Strange Fruit." In 1949, federal officers raided her hotel room in San Francisco. They reportedly found a stash of opium and a kit for shooting heroin, though many—including Johann Hari, executive producer of the acclaimed 2021 biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday—believe the drugs were planted.

Holiday won the subsequent court case, but the endless harassment from Anslinger and the feds took its toll. She fell back into addiction as her career declined. When she died in a New York City hospital room at the age of 44 in 1959, there were police officers stationed at the door—the result of one final raid.

Truth to Power

Fortunately, "Strange Fruit" didn’t die with Holiday. Legendary singer Nina Simone recorded her famous version in 1965. Kanye West sampled that recording for his 2013 track "Blood on the Leaves." UB40 gave the song a righteous roots-reggae bounce in 1979. The post-punk outfit Siouxsie and the Banshees offered a solemn, string-laced reading in 1987. Singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley’s 1992 live recording is bluesy and anguished. Soul great Bettye LaVette, pop star Annie Lennox, and jazz singer Cassandra Wilson are among the many others who have recorded covers.

The song remained especially relevant in 2020, as outrage over the murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests and conversations about race in America. While filming the "Strange Fruit" concert performance scene for The United States vs. Billie Holiday—which centers on the government’s efforts to silence the singer—actress Andra Day didn’t want any of the actors in the crowd to enjoy the song. "Even though they were casted people [watching me], I didn’t see them as that—I saw them as people who needed to hear this message," Day told NME. "It’s not a f***ing beautiful song—it’s ugly, it’s terrible."

Imagining herself as Holiday, a Black woman in the '40s speaking truth to power regardless of the consequences, Day said she felt like screaming at the audience of extras. "You know, I could die tonight when I leave this club for singing this song," Day wanted to tell them. "So stop smiling at me and stop clapping and go do something about it."

By most accounts, "Strange Fruit" has been doing just that—turning audiences into activists—for more than 80 years now. Famed jazz critic Leonard Feather called it, "the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism," while Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun described the song as "a declaration of war ... the beginning of the civil rights movement."