The American South is associated with a fertile climate. The prospect of owning huge tobacco and cotton plantations attracted European immigrants from the early 1600s. Plantation owners used slaves to labour in the vast fields.
Having this in mind, what are your thoughts when you ponder the title "Strange Fruit"?
In 1937, the Jewish schoolteacher, Abe Meeropol, saw a photograph of a lynching of two African Americans, Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp, that had taken place in Indiana seven years before. According to Meeropol, the photograph kept haunting him, and he could not rest before he had written the poem “Strange Fruit”. He also put music to it.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body 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 magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
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 a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Fear of Communism and Racism
Meeropol was a member of the American Communist Party, and he had to use a pen name to release his poem.This was a time when communist beliefs were regarded as anti-American because they could upset the capitalist system that was so deeply rooted in the American society. At the same time, racism was as persistent as ever, particularly in the South. The KKK had strengthened its hold during the 1920s. From 1882 to 1968 there were 4.743 documented cases of lynching throughout the USA, with Mississippi topping the list. 80% of the victims were African Americans and they were hanged just on suspicion. In 2005, James Cameron, who survived a lynching, witnessed the American Senate’s apology for not enacting laws to stop the lynching. The 16-year-old Cameron worked as a shoeshine boy in the 1930s. Along with his two friends, he was accused of raping a white girl and murdering her boyfriend. While his friends were hanged, Cameron waited with the rope around his neck. He was released since someone among the spectators cried that he was innocent.
In 1939, the African American jazz singer, Billie Holiday, was persuaded to perform the song “Strange Fruit”. She said that the song reminded her about how her father had died, and it took an effort to perform it. It soon became her signature song, but the song, which was considered a protest song, angered a lot of people. For the succeeding two decades, many clubs and radio stations refused her to perform it, and to get anyone to record it proved even more difficult.
Here you can study a mural painting from Greenwich Village, New York. The artist has portrayed Billie Holiday in a characteristic way. While performing, she often wore magnolia flowers in her hair, and she interpreted the songs with an outstanding intensity and compassion.
Today "Strange Fruit" is considered one of the most influential songs of the 20th century.
Are the statements true or false?
- ”Strange Fruit” is about a public lynching.
- The setting of the poem is the American South.
- The poem was composed by an African American poet.
- The poet was inspired by a photograph.
- Communists were prosecuted in the USA.
- The KKK was very dominant in the Northern states.
- In 1905, the American Senate apologized for not enacting laws to stop the lynchings.
- Billie Holiday was flattered when she was asked to perform the song.
- The song instantly became a hit.
- “Strange Fruit” is among the most influential songs from the 20th century.
1.”Strange Fruit” is about a public lynching. (T)
2. The setting of the poem is the American South. (T)
3. The poem was composed by an African American poet. (F)
4. The poet was inspired by a photograph. (T)
5. Communists were prosecuted in the USA. (T)
6. The KKK was very dominant in the Northern states. (F)
7. In 1905 the American Senate apologized for not enacting laws to stop the lynchings. (F)
8. Billie Holiday was flattered when she was asked to perform the song. (F)
9.The song instantly became a hit. (F)
10.“Strange Fruit” is among the most influential songs from the 20th century. (T)
- Find the picture that inspired the poet of “Strange Fruit”. Key words: Abram Smith, Thomas Shipp, lynching. Why do you think this photograph influenced him to write “Strange Fruit”?
- Do you know if there are other pictures (photographs or paintings) that have inspired artists to compose songs or poems? Find examples. You may want to search for photographs/paintings that inspired the world/artists/singers.
- Look for key words on the Internet: protest songs, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bob Marley, R.E.M., Patti Smith, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the Iraq War. These artists have all made popular protests songs. Discuss whether songs can change attitudes.
- Make a table with two columns where you list words generally associated with negative and positive connotations. E.g. blood (negative)
- List words and ideas in the poem that you think are associated with the American South.
- Explain these metaphors: strange fruit, pastoral scene, strange and bitter crop.
- Explain how contrasts are used in the poem.
- Why do you think the song was considered a protest song?