April 20, 1939: Billie Holiday Records The 1st Civil Rights Song

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Billie Holiday recorded the 1st Civil Rights song “Strange Fruit”.

“Strange Fruit” is a song performed most famously by Billie Holiday, who released her first recording of it in 1939, the year she first sang it. Written by the teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem, it exposed American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans.

Such lynchings had occurred chiefly in the South but also in all other regions of the United States. The writer, Abel, set it to music and with his wife and the singer Laura Duncan, performed it as a protest song in New York venues, including Madison Square Garden.

The song has been covered by artists, as well as inspiring novels, other poems and other creative works.

In 1978 Holiday’s version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

POEM & SONG: “Strange Fruit” is a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a white Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, and a member of the Communist Party, as a protest against lynchings. He sometimes published under the pen name Lewis Allan, after two sons who were stillborn.

The lyrics are under copyright but have been republished in full in an academic journal, with permission. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings. He had seen Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem under the title “Bitter Fruit” in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine. Though Meeropol had often asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set “Strange Fruit” to music himself and the piece gained a certain success as a protest song in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.

INFLUENCE: Numerous other singers have performed the work.

In October 1939, Samuel Grafton of The New York Post described “Strange Fruit”: “If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its ‘Marseillaise’.”

Read about the song’s honors & legacy: Daily Black History Facts

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