When it comes to a song as powerful as Strange Fruit, the 90 words that make up its searing lyrics, not 1 000, suffice to compose a striking, lasting image.
The haunting song, made famous by Billie Holiday when she first sang it in 1937, was based on a photograph depicting the horrific racial terror that has been a constant and constituent presence in American history.
On the night of 7 August 1930, about 5 000 white men, women and children of the small Indiana town of Marion witnessed the lynching of two black men as if it was some kind of grotesque carnival.
The two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, both 19, were accused of the robbery and murder of a local white man, Claude Deeter, 24, the night before. But then Deeter’s companion, Mary Ball, 17, claimed that she was raped. A mob stormed the town jail where the two men were held. They were dragged out, murdered, mutilated and hanged in the town centre.
Lawrence Beitler, a local photographer, took a photograph depicting Shipp and Smith hanging from the poplar trees, with the excited mob in the foreground. It would become one of the most iconic photographs of lynching in America.
More than 4 700 lynchings took place in the US between 1882 and 1968, a figure that is likely to be significantly higher given that these were only the ones that were recorded. Of these recorded lynchings, 72% of the victims were black, with the remainder being whites who tried to prevent them.
Pictures were taken of the hanging bodies and sold as postcards, as was the case with Beitler’s gruesome photograph, which quickly spread across the world. A white, Jewish communist, Abel Meeropol, also saw it.
The disturbing image inspired New York-based schoolteacher Meeropol to first write a poem titled Bitter Fruit, which he later adapted into the chilling song, Strange Fruit. “I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it,” said Meeropol in 1971 of the song that symbolises the brutality and racism of lynching.
But it wasn’t until Holiday made the song her own that its proper impact was felt. Meeropol was introduced to Holiday at a racially integrated, leftist, New York club called Cafe Society, where he sang the song to her. A few days later, he returned to hear her version.
“She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation of the song which could jolt the audience out of its complacency anywhere,” he said at the time. “This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it. Billie Holiday’s styling fulfilled the bitterness and the shocking quality I had hoped the song would have.”
Holiday recorded the song in 1939 and it eventually became a million seller. The anti-racist song was later described as a declaration of war and the first salvo in the civil rights struggle in the US.
Strange Fruit is a song for the ages. It is often considered to be the greatest protest song in the history of recorded music. Holiday inhabited the song, hitting the listener in the solar plexus, not only the first time but every time:
Southern trees bear a 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 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.