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.