Strange Fruit originated as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, as a protest against lynchings. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by a photograph of the 1930 lynching of two people in Indiana. Lynching was considered sport in some ways and postcards were taken of crowds of people picnicking under hanging bodies, proud of what they’d accomplished
Abel Meeropol was not a Southern black man, but a Jewish-American high school teacher from New York City. He was a representative of left-wing Jewish political activism, perhaps inspired by their own experience of enduring centuries of anti-Semitic violence and discrimination.
He published the poem under the title “Bitter Fruit” in 1937 in the magazine The New York Teacher, and set it to music. . This protest song gained a certain success in and around New York and Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.
Billie Holiday first sang it in 1939, while performing at the popular cabaret club, Café Society, New York City, whose owner had heard about a new protest song written by Lewis Allan (the pen name of Abel Meeropol)
With some hesitation, perhaps because of the gravity of the song’s content, Billie agreed to close her set with it. As she prepared to sing this final number, service in the club stopped completely and the room went black except for a single spotlight focused on the singer. When she was done, Holiday walked off the stage leaving the audience with the strained, gaping and unresolved line, “Here is a strange and bitter crop.”
In her autobiography, Holiday later recalled the audience’s stunned reaction: “There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began clapping nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.”
She said that singing it made her fearful of revenge but she continued to sing the piece, making it a regular part of her live performances
Racism was common in American clubs at the time. Café Society was a perfectly appropriate venue for the song’s debut. The club, which opened in December of 1938, made a name for itself by offering a kind of antiracist satire of “high society.”:it was a progressive club for progressive people,
The audience at Café Society was mostly white; the music was mostly black; and Meeropol was the Jewish “middleman” bringing the two together. The usual relationship between black performer and white audience was turned upside down by “Strange Fruit” . Rather than softening black music for white ears, Meeropol made it harder. When Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit” at Café Society, she was singing America into the beginning of the Civil Rights. Her performance, full of subtle contempt and rage, reversed the old relationship between a black entertainer and her white audience. ‘I have been entertaining you,’ she seemed to say, ‘now you just listen to me.’