Saturday, 1 March 2014

Strange Fruit: an evocative poem and an evocative song

A poem called 'Bitter Fruit' was my poem-of-the-day e-mail recently. Intrigued by the few details of the poet provided, I rooted around for more information. It is quite a poem and has quite a story.
Southern trees bear 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 the 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.

The story behind the poem began on August 7th 1930 when Lawrence Beitler took what would become an iconic photograph of a lynching in the USA. Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in the town centre of Marion, Indiana, for allegedly murdering a white factory worker, Claude Deeter, and raping his companion, Mary Ball. Shocked by this photograph, a schoolteacher from New York, Abel Meeropol, put pen to paper and wrote 'Bitter Fruit'. It was published under the name Lewis Allan in 1936/1937. "I wrote it", Meeropol said in a later interview, "because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it."  He also wrote a melody for it but jazz singer Billie Holiday and her pianist Sonny White reworked his simple tune into the 'Strange Fruit' version we hear today (although there are other versions of this part of the tale).

Holiday introduced the song into her act at Greenwich Village's CafĂ© Society in 1939. "Strange Fruit" always came at the very end of her set and the waiters would suspend service so the room was quiet. Holiday was lit with a small pin light on her face, which went dark at the song's conclusion. There were no curtain calls and no encores. With her incomparable voice and phrasing, I can imagine how powerful this must have been if you'd been lucky enough to see her live. The clip below gives just a flavour of what her audiences heard. The words are explicit but it's much more than a song of despair: to me Holiday's delivery gives it rage and resignation, sorrow and determination, bitterness and hope. In the true sense of the word, I find it multi-layered and deserving of close listening.

Poke around online, as I did, and you'll find that the song has been covered by many other singers: Nina Simone, Diana Ross, Cocteau Twins, Tim Buckley Sting, to name just a few (but thankfully not Bono - yet). However, rare is the performer who has invested the song with any new meaning or come close to Holiday's interpretation. Nina Simone's version is up there with the best but the likes of Diana Ross are just too theatrical for my taste. You can listen to them both below and see if you agree.

And to return to the beginning: Abel Meeropol. It strikes me as surprising, and notable, that the song's words - arguably the definitive lyrical condemnation of that particular era - were written not by an African-American but by a white Jewish Communist schoolteacher from the Bronx. "Southern trees bear strange fruit" indeed…..

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