The haunting lyrics of “Strange Fruit” paint a picture of rural America where political and psychological terror reigns over African American communities.

“Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,” blues legend Billie Holiday sang in her powerful 1939 recording of the song, “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” The song’s lyrics portray the everyday violence that was being inflicted on Black people. And Holiday dared to perform it—in front of Black and white audiences, alike.

“She wanted to make a statement with that song. There was something about standing in front of white audiences and being brave enough to confront America’s ongoing crime,” says Loyola University Maryland associate professor of African and African American studies Karsonya (Kaye) Wise Whitehead. “The writing wasn’t simply about the past—it was happening at that moment.”

'Strange Fruit' Began as a Poem

More than 4,000 Black people were publicly murdered in the United States between 1877 and 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative’s 2015 report, Lynching in America. “Strange Fruit” was written during a decade when activist organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were pressing lawmakers to make lynching a federal crime. But the NAACP’s efforts were continually knocked down by white supremacists in the Democratic Party who used filibusters to defeat any such bills.

Abel Meeropol, a Jewish American whose family had fled pogroms in Czarist Russia, wrote “Bitter Fruit” as a reflection on the August 7, 1930 photo of the lynchings of J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham S. Smith in Marion, Indiana. Shipp, 18, Smith, 19, and 16-year-old James Cameron were accused of robbery, murder and rape. Cameron was able to escape the mob, but Shipp and Smith were dragged out of their jail cells and beaten to death. The photo shows the bodies of Shipp and Smith hanging from nooses as a crowd of white people stare at their bodies. One man looks back toward the camera as he points at the atrocity.

Under the pseudonym, Lewis Allan, Meeropol set his poem to music and performed “Bitter Fruit” as a protest song in the New York area alongside his wife Anne. They even performed it at Madison Square Garden with the blues song vocalist Laura Duncan. The song, now known as “Strange Fruit,” was brought to Billie Holiday in late 1938 just as she had booked set of shows at Barney Josephson’s Café Society, the first racially integrated nightclub in New York City.

Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit
William Gottlieb/Redferns/Getty Images
Billie Holiday performing at the Club Downbeat in Manhattan, c. 1947.

Holiday's Performances Left Audiences Silent

After overcoming a reluctance to tackle it, Holiday made “Strange Fruit” her signature closing. As her set was coming to an end, waiters would stop serving. Then Holiday would sit by herself on a stool with only the mic and a pin spotlight on her face as she sang. After the last lines: "Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck/For the rain to gather/For the wind to suck/For the sun to rot/For the tree to drop/Here is a strange and bitter crop”—a chilled silence often followed, and Holiday would leave the stage.

“When the lights came back on, she would be gone, there’d be no encore,” says Whitehead. “She would be off the stage—that was her request—but she wanted to just let the song hang there. And that would be her final statement. And they often talk about how the white audiences would be uncomfortable to clap.”

Whitehead, who is also founding director of the The Karson Institute For Race, Peace & Social Justice adds: “We often think about Billie Holiday as a singer. And we think about Black women at that time as just big singers, but I don’t think we talk enough about them using their platform to make a stand against injustice, and then the cost and the price that they paid doing that.”

A Time magazine critic witnessed Holiday’s performance and wrote a column on it, featuring pictures of Billie Holiday along with the lyrics to the song. “When Billie appeared in Time, that gave her such prestige,” Barney Josephson recalls in his book Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People. “This made Billie a Black performer who had something to say and was saying it, had the nerve to say it, to sing it.”

'Strange Fruit' Named Song of the Century

Holiday may not have predicted the impact her Time magazine review would have, but she did understand the power of the song. Holiday’s vocalizing and improvisational abilities gave Meeropol’s poetry force and emotional impact.

“The first time I sang it I thought it was a mistake and I had been right being scared,” Holiday writes in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. “There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.”

Holiday went on to record “Strange Fruit” with the Commodore Records jazz label on April 20, 1939. The song helped raise Holiday to national prominence—at just age 23.

Not all audiences appreciated Holiday's performance of the song. Among them was the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger. Anslinger, who openly espoused racist views, saw to it that Holiday, who struggled with drug use, was targeted, pursued and arrested in 1947 for possession of narcotics. She was sent to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia for a year. Upon her release, Holiday was barred from securing a cabaret performer’s license.

Despite her struggles, Holiday's performance of "Strange Fruit" continued to resonate—and it remains among her bestselling recordings. In 1999, Time magazine named Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit” the “Song of the Century.”