abel meerpol

“Strange Fruit” written by Abel Meeropol (publishing as Lewis Allan)

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.

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‘Strange Fruit’ was first written as a poem by a Jewish teacher, Abel Meerpol, in 1937, after seeing Lawrence Beitler’s infamous 1930 photo (below) of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith for the first time. Given the anti-segregationist sentiment, it was published under a pseudonym – it gained momentum as a protest song around New York, before eventually being performed by Meerpol himself at Madison Square Gardens. Billie Holiday’s manager was present, and introduced the song to Billie – it became the finale of her set, with lights down low, eyes screwed shut, hands clasped and crowd hushed. It even charted well upon release.

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But hear Josh White’s take. Allegedly his melody is closer to Meerpol’s original score for the poem, but more than that, Josh was born and lived in the American South, under Jim Crow laws. He literally trudged his way across the southern belt ‘prenticing for this guitar legend and the other, forging his career and rising to fame. He was a pioneer of race-records, and the first black artist to attain so many things – the first million-selling record, the first White House performance, the first postal stamp, and was part of the first mixed-race male-female duo. What he sings of here, he grew up with, grew up amongst it, and escaped it, going on to fight constantly for equality and unity.

The song itself is so beautiful. Poignant, harrowing. Disturbing and rich like White’s toffee vocals. It conjures all the imagery of the South – cotton fields, plantations, magnolia trees by the roadside or preened on rich white folks’ green lawns. And despite everything he achieved, White fell victim to a different persecution – his progressive politics and humanist views labelled him a communist in the McCarthy era, forever tarnishing his reputation and halting his career in America. Strange Fruit seems all the more apposite in the knowledge of White’s lynched career.

- Sam