'Strange' Evolution of Legendary Song

Jewish Composer Penned Tune Made Famous by Billie Holiday

By Harold Heft

Published March 27, 2012, issue of March 30, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Those sentiments, and Meeropol’s anti-racist orientation, were deeply rooted in his Jewish identity, said Michael Meeropol. Abel Meeropol even wrote of the intersection in a short poem, entitled “I Am a Jew,” that recurs in several works throughout his oeuvre:

I am a Jew,
How can I tell?
The Negro lynched
Reminds me well
I am a Jew.

Like most of Meeropol’s life and work, “Strange Fruit” was unabashedly political in its ambition. Scholar Nancy Kovaleff Baker notes that, after two failed attempts in Congress to pass an anti-lynching bill (in 1919–22 and in 1934–36), copies of the song were circulated to 96 senators “accompanied by a letter urging passage of the bill so that treatment of minorities at home would not diminish American influence abroad.”

The song and its anti-lynching message even got swept up in the anti-Communist fever of McCarthyism. Michael Meeropol recalled: “When Josh White was called by the House Un-American Activities Commission, he was grilled about singing such an ‘anti-American’ song — and he agreed that it would be inappropriate to sing it abroad.” Later, his father was summoned before the Rapp-Coudert Committee, a New York State version of HUAC. “He was asked if the Communist Party had told him to write ‘Strange Fruit,’” Michael explained.

In the few years following Time magazine naming “Strange Fruit” the best song of the century, interest in the song peaked. In 2001, David Margolick published the book “Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song,” which focused largely on the song’s importance in Holiday’s career and on how it intersected with her descent into addiction and self-destruction. Margolick’s book was followed a year later by Joel Katz’s documentary “Strange Fruit,” and by Baker’s article “Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan): Political Commentator and Social Conscience,” which provides a scholarly examination of Meeropol’s archives.

Holiday herself is largely responsible for Meeropol’s reputation not surviving with the song’s. In her ghostwritten autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues,” Holiday took credit for writing the music, saying that the “germ of the song was in a poem written by Lewis Allen [sic]” and that he “suggested that Sonny White, who had been my accompanist, and I turn it into music.”

Although Meeropol petitioned to have this falsehood corrected in subsequent printings of the autobiography, the myth of “Strange Fruit” as Holiday’s composition persists. Robert Meeropol said that “Billie Holiday’s false claim to have set his poem to music clouded [Abel’s] feelings about the life of the song. He took legal action and got her to admit that the claim in her ghostwritten autobiography was wrong, but the myth Billie created survived her.” Michael Meeropol added, “Our father always shook his head and noted that Ms. Holiday was ‘a sick woman.’ He meant a drug addict, but perhaps was being delicate for our ‘young’ ears.”

But, even if he’s largely forgotten today, his legacy shows us that one chilling motif can wake the slumbering masses and spark change. “Strange Fruit” continues to be recorded by such superstars as Sting, Tori Amos and Cassandra Wilson. And last year, Meeropol’s name was added to the American National Tree — an exhibit at the National Constitution Center, commemorating “100 Americans whose actions have helped write the story of the Constitution” — ensuring the survival of his legacy.

Harold Heft has taught Literature and Cinema at the University of Western Ontario and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is executive vice-president of philanthropy and communications at the North York General Hospital Foundation.


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!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • 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": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • 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.
  • 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.