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Strange Fruit

 
 
 
 
Song: Strange Fruit

Songwriter: Abel Meerpol (Although there is some dispute over who was the writer of the music, it was probably Meerpol himself. Of course Billie Holiday made Strange Fruit all her own.)

Singer: Billie Holiday

There is surely no more painful and disturbing song than Strange Fruit, Abel Meerpol’s graphic description of the aftermath of the lynchings of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana in 1930. Strange Fruit is the song most associated with the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, who reportedly broke down after every performance .

As a composition, Strange Fruit is musically very unsophisticated, with a simple melody in a minor key. This is in keeping with the origins of the song: Abel Meerpol wrote it originally as a poem, and then (probably) added music himself, rather than arecruiting a composer to set his words, as was his habit. It is surely the unbearably powerful lyrics and Billie Holiday’s impassioned delivery that make the song so impressive.

The structure of the poem is also simple enough: three verses with two rhyming couplets each. But what imagery! In the first, the image of “strange fruit” is introduced; by the third and final verse, it is rotting, dropping and being plucked by crows.

The sensibilities of repectable white folks are ruthlessly shocked. We are told of “the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth” of “black bodies swinging” The “scent of magnolias” gives way to the “smell of burning flesh”.

Although Strange Fruit is often cited as a protest song, Meerpol avoids the call-to-arms and finger-pointing of much of this genre. In fact, stylistically I don’t think Strange Fruit belongs to the protest song genre at all, which may, paradoxically be part of its strength: there are no cliches here. Rather we have a very vivid, poetical vignette portraying the scene of the lynchings. We are left to draw our own conclusions.

 
 
 
 
 

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