January marked the 75th anniversary of the original publication of “Bitter Fruit.” The poem evolved into the song “Strange Fruit,” which was made famous by jazz legend Billie Holiday and was named best song of the century by Time magazine in 1999. But its author and composer, Abel Meeropol, is largely forgotten today.
“Strange Fruit” was nothing short of revolutionary for its time. Shortly after publishing the poem, Meeropol set it to music. Several artists performed the song live before he introduced it to Holiday in 1939, at New York’s famed Café Society. In an era dominated by saccharine torch songs, “Strange Fruit” was a scathing indictment of race-related violence in America; no less unusual because it was delivered by an unrepentantly defiant African-American songstress. The story that is still not properly understood is how it originated from the imagination of a Jewish schoolteacher from New York.
Meeropol was born in 1903 to Russian Jewish immigrants. He completed his studies at City College of New York and Harvard University before taking a job in 1926 teaching English at his alma mater, Dewitt Clinton High School in New York. Meeropol became active as a writer and as a member of the Communist Party during that time. Many of his early songs were contributions to leftist arts organizations and theater companies in the 1930s. He published many of his works under the pseudonym Lewis Allan, believed to be an amalgam of the names that he and his wife, Anne, intended for their two stillborn children.
In addition to “Strange Fruit,” Meeropol penned other hit songs, including “The House That I Live In,” made famous by Frank Sinatra, and Peggy Lee’s hit “Apples, Peaches and Cherries.” He and Anne are also known today as the adoptive parents of two children, Michael and Robert, who were orphaned when their birth parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were accused of stealing atomic secrets for the Soviet Union and executed.
The poem “Bitter Fruit” was first published in the union journal The New York Teacher, though it is widely and incorrectly believed to have been published in the Marxist publication The New Masses. According to Robert Meeropol, the political anthem was inspired by a photo of the 1930 lynching of two Indiana African-American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith:
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.
Robert recalled: “[My father] was a ferocious anti-racist. He once wrote: ‘I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching… and I hate the people who perpetuate it.’”