The great Billie Holiday most famously performed a song that is often regarded as the first protest song. It is called “Strange Fruit.”
After seeing this picture, a Jewish high school teacher in the Bronx (NYC) named Abel Meeropol, wrote the piece. He did not actually experience the horrific act of lynching, but wrote it as a sign of compassionate understanding.
The song paints the abhorring picture of a human being hanging from a tree. More often than not, an African-American human being.
Racism is one of the deepest and most divisive issues ever faced by the United States. A sensitive topic that is more often than not avoided, this song brought it out in the open, in a big way. In a way that music can. Films are powerful, but songs can pack a powerful-punch in just a few minutes.
Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. December 1999’s issue of Time Magazine called it the “Song of the Century.” It has been added by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry. And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper deemed it number one on a list of “100 Songs of the South.”
According to Robert A. Gibson’s The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1880-1950, between the years 1882 and 1951, 4,730 people were lynched in the United States: 3,437 Black and 1,293 White. 73% Black.
I fully realize racism goes in multiple directions across humanity, and it is far from always directed at Black people. Regardless, it is an issue that is far from over.
I’m personally thankful for songs like “Strange Fruit” to propel the topic into mainstream conscience. I hate to think of where we would be without such moments. Such moments as Billie Holiday singing this song for the first time publicly, in 1939 at Cafe Society, Greenwich Village, New York City.
And arguably striking the first musical chord in what would become the Civil Rights Movement.