The Issue of Racism in Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit

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Words: 1068 |

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6 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Words: 1068|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Billie Holiday's “Strange Fruit” is a very popular protest song from the 1930s and is still talked about in today’s age. It was recorded in 1939 and was originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol in 1937. This essay will evaluate the background of the song's lyrics towards the events that were happening in American society, such as racism, politics and lynchings. Also a look at why Billie sang Strange Fruit to inspire many peoples awareness of the issues towards race in its true darkness.

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The person who wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ Abel Meeropol, a Jewish school teacher and Communist party member, wrote it as a statement against racism and lynchings of black people in America. His inspiration towards the writing of ‘Strange Fruit’ was from a photo of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, which shows they have been hung on a tree from being lynched. Meeropol had brought forward ‘Strange Fruit’ to Barney Josephson, who asked if he could show Billie Holiday. Billie had played the song at Cafe Society in Harlem, who Meeropol attended and stated 'She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere,' he marvelled. 'This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it.” Holiday wasn't too sure of performing Strange Fruit at first because of the backlash it could potentially cause, but she was determined to play it in memory of her father that had died at 39, because he was rejected treatment a white only hospital.

Meeropol and Holiday are very important people in the popular music culture, who Meeropol wrote about the subject of ‘Strange Fruit’ and Holiday entertaining it musically and it shows a very dark, detailing image of the lynchings happening in America around that time, which they are advertising the racism in America. 'Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” These dark lyrics describe black bodies hanging from a tree, covered in blood. However the lyrics don't mention lynching, but it is clear that it describes the picture Meeropol had seen of Shipp and Smith hung up on a tree. Furthermore of the importance of Holiday, she had been victim of racism as naval officer had called her a nigger and she had retaliated by smashing a beer bottle and threatening to stab him with sharp glass. This shows racism emotionally got to her, the racist remarks people made and as well as her father being refused treatment in a white only hospital, she can express all of her emotions into Strange Fruit giving her a very strong link to it and touching the audience showing them her pain.

Barney Josephson made some rules for Holiday, when performing ‘Strange Fruit’ and that was, she would close all her sets with it, the waiters would have to stop serving during the song, the room must be dark and with only Holidays face gazed with light and lastly she must end the show with that song without encores. 'People had to remember Strange Fruit, get their insides burned by it,' As a listener the impact would be very dark and haunting, also if the audience were white, they would almost certainly feel uncomfortable as the song indicates racism against black people that was down to white people, which is exactly the idea to make people feel lynching is the wrong way of going about punishing someone of crimes, or just of the colour of their skin.

Strange Fruit has inspired many artist decades later, such as Nina Simone who described it as the ugliest song she had heard, in a sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to her people in America. Kanye West also sampled Nina Simone’s version of Strange Fruit for his song Blood on the leaves.

Culturally ‘Strange Fruit’ was a big hit, with campaigners that wanted an anti-lynching law, had sent copies of ‘Strange Fruit’ to congressman. Samuel Grafton from the New York Post, had described ‘Strange Fruit’ a fantastically perfect work of art. Campaigners using ‘Strange Fruit’, used it to attack the Government, which gives them a very dark and eerie look into lynching, as an attempt to bring forward an anti-lynching law. 'It's such a sad song,' says Sylvia 'It's a metaphor for my uncle and so many other uncles, grandfathers, brothers and fathers who were lynched throughout America”. This shows people relate to the song, as it has happened in their family, but however ‘Strange Fruit’ at the same time wasn't a popular song for many people, especially black communities or outside of New York. This is because the lyrics may bring back memories to people that have witnessed or been a victim of lynchings. “Its subject matter was simply too painful and controversial.” 

Other opinions on the song was Jerry Wexler, who produced artists such as Ray Charles an Aretha Franklin, had stated that it had good lyrics but didn't interest him as song, it had too much of an agenda and the song and people embraced it because of politics. Evelyn Cunningham also had an opinion of the song, saying that a black person will come to a time where all they hear about is lynchings and discrimination, which sometimes it was boring to hear but expressing it was an action that most people would think is wrong, but some people would think is right. However Wexlers opinion could be the fact of musical taste, But Cunninghams opinion tells truth that affects many black people decades later, of the statements of suffering black people were going through, that battered white liberals but hurtful to black audiences. 

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In conclusion, Billie Holiday's contribution to popular culture was very significant. She expressed emotion of racism to many people in America, which still is impacting many people in todays age and peoples music. However She hasn't stop racism, as its always going to happen and some people have their opinions on race, who won’t don't think any different and also the racism today could be the fact they grew up in a generation surrounded by racism and was told it was right. Lynchings may not be heard of in modern times, but police brutality still exists, which the victims could be of any race and in some ways can be similar to lynching. 

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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The Issue Of Racism In Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
“The Issue Of Racism In Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit.” GradesFixer, 06 Aug. 2021,
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