Pastoral Scene of the Gallant South

Content warning: graphic images of racial violence.

“Strange Fruit” was written by a longtime English teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Abel Meeropol in 1937 (shown above with his sons Robert and Michael, the biological children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, whom Abel and his wife adopted after the Rosenbergs’ execution). The text was first published as a poem in a New York City teachers’ union bulletin.

Meeropol wrote the text after seeing this iconic image of a lynching which took place in Marion, Indiana, in 1930.

The words:

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 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.

Billie Holiday in 1959, the year of her death:

A beautiful interview on CBS This Morning with Meeropol’s sons. Note the family’s connection to James Baldwin and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Other versions:

  1. Nina Simone:

2. Which was sampled by Kanye West, in a song that has nothing to do with what Meeropol wrote and Billie Holiday et al. sang:

3. John Legend:

4. Jill Scott:

5. India Arie:

6. Operatic mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson and guitarist Tyron Cooper:

7. Late guitarist Jeff Buckley:

8. Katey Sagal as Gemma in the series Sons of Anarchy:

9. Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson with the trio known as Harriet Tubman:

10. Andra Day, who played Billie Holiday in the 2021 film The U.S. vs. Billie Holiday:

11. Annie Lennox with a string orchestra. She faced pushback for neglecting to mention the song’s topic of lynching when she did publicity interviews for the album on which it appeared.

Do these cover versions work? Why or why not?

Do you think a white artist should sing this song?

Can you find even more covers of the song?

Another song by Abe Meeropol with a strong social message (T/W: contains racist slur against Japanese):

As sung by the great Paul Robeson:

And by Sam Cooke:

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