From Moses And Miriam To Meeropol

Music and Justice Mix This Season

‘From the Poplar Trees’: Finding connections between Holiday’s song and Tu B’Shvat.
Wiliam Gottlieb
‘From the Poplar Trees’: Finding connections between Holiday’s song and Tu B’Shvat.

By Eric Schulmiller

Published January 12, 2011, issue of January 21, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In January, three events occur within a one-week span: Shabbat Shira (the Sabbath of Song — which coincides with the annual Torah reading of “The Song of the Sea” in the Book of Exodus), Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Tu B’Shvat (the Jewish New Year of the trees). The first of these three celebrates the song sung by the Israelites following their escape from Egypt. “The Song of the Sea,” attributed to Moses and Miriam, is the first in a long line of works written by Jewish composers that depict Jews’ experience of freedom and their yearning for justice.

More than three millennia later, another song would provide an emotional catalyst for a people seeking freedom from oppression, and it would use the powerful imagery of trees to do so. So it seems appropriate that we take a moment during our celebrations of trees, music and justice, to explore the Jewish roots of one of the most acclaimed American songs of the past century:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

These powerful words are from the devastating blues song “Strange Fruit.” It was written as an outcry against the barbaric practice of lynching, still horrifically common in America in the late 1930s, the same time that Hitler was spreading his terror across Europe. The definitive 1939 recording by Billie Holiday secured the song’s place of honor in the American musical lexicon (it was named best song of the 20th century by Time magazine in 1999) and was a catalyst for Holiday’s own meteoric rise in the jazz world. But it was three Jewish men who were largely responsible for the success of this musical bridge between the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras.

For starters, this soulful, angry song was actually penned by a Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol, who wrote under the name Lewis Allan, in memory of his two stillborn children (interestingly, Meeropol and his wife would later adopt Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s two sons, Michael and Robert, after their parents’ executions). Meeropol, according to David Margolick’s 2001 book, “Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights” (Harper Perennial), wrote the song because “I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it.” The song was first sung by Meeropol’s wife, Anne, as a protest tune at New York-area venues as large as Madison Square Garden. But it was Holiday’s version that drove its message through the hearts of countless listeners during the World War II era and beyond.

Holiday was first introduced to “Strange Fruit” by nightclub owner Barney Josephson, a son of Jewish Latvian immigrants who opened New York’s Café Society, America’s first racially integrated nightclub. As Josephson said in “The Cultural Front” by Michael Denning (Verso, 1998), the club was a place where “blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.” Josephson, a shoe salesman turned jazz aficionado, was credited with launching the career not only of Holiday, but other jazz greats as well, including Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, however, was the stroke of genius that led to the unforgettable pairing of Holiday and this melodic elegy.

Yet “Strange Fruit” would never have been recorded by Holiday without the help of her friend, visionary record producer Milt Gabler, a grandson of Jewish immigrants from Austria and Russia. After both Holiday’s producer and her label, Columbia Records, refused to back the song for fear of the Southern backlash it might generate, she turned to Gabler, whose Commodore Records label was a pioneer in the jazz world. Upon hearing Holiday sing “Strange Fruit,” he was so moved that he worked out a special one-song release from Columbia for her to record and distribute on his label.

Thanks to the efforts of Meeropol, Josephson and Gabler, “Strange Fruit” was able to take root in the American consciousness, and this plaintive cry against injustice and brutality bore fruits decades later in the crusade of Martin Luther King Jr., which we celebrate each year, alongside Shabbat Shira and Tu B’Shvat. This January, “Strange Fruit” and the people behind it can serve as a mournful yet musical reminder of the Jewish imperative to rid the world of the harsh prejudices that lead to the bitter fruits of violence and oppression.

Eric Schulmiller has served as the cantor of the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore, on Long Island, for the past 12 years and has a degree in jazz piano from the University of Miami.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.