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:

A First-Stream Rhythm and Blues Primer

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Handbill distributed by the Citizens’ Council of New Orleans, one of many such groups opposed to integration.

Early rhythm and blues was essentially what its name says: an uptempo version of the blues, with a strong emphasis on the kind of driving, propulsive beat popularized by jazz. It was marketed to black urban record-buyers as “race music,” until journalist Jerry Wexler (who later became a well-known producer) christened it “rhythm and blues” in Billboard magazine in 1949.

Some early examples.

Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” (1947):

John Lee Hooker, “Boogie Chillun” (1949):

Lonnie Johnson, “Tomorrow Night,” an R&B ballad (1947):

Wynonie Harris, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1947) — a song that was one of the first to use the term “rock” to describe a musical style:

Harris’s recording became a #1 hit on the rhythm and blues charts in 1948; a few years later, it would become a #1 hit on the pop charts for another artist:

Another feature of rhythm and blues was group vocals, a style borrowed from gospel quartets like the Jubilaires:

The group sound was adopted by male vocal harmony groups like the Ink Spots and the Orioles. Note the romantic, extremely emotionally-vulnerable vocal style of the Ink Spots’ Bill Kenny and the Orioles’ Sonny Til:

R&B, in both its uptempo and ballad forms, was eminently danceable, and the new dance style was close. As Orioles member Diz Russell explained it, after World War II

People wanted to become close. Their loved ones were coming back from the war . . . The theme was trying to get close to each other. You can’t get close to nobody on the dance floor, jitterbugging, so ballads were the best medium . . . it put you in [the] frame of mind . . . to fall in love.

A historical recreation of Black social dance in the famed Roseland Ballroom, for Spike Lee’s 1992 film X: big band jazz in its essence.

(The loose suits with high-waisted trousers and long jackets were known as zoot suits. They were popularized by jazz musicians in the 1940s; Malcolm X, who arrived in Harlem from Detroit in 1942 wearing one, called the zoot suit “a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.” For a parody of the zoot suit, watch he 1942 short film “Zoot Suit,” with Paul White and Dorothy Dandridge, below.)

In the late 1940s, jazz moved out of the popular sphere and into the echelons of avant-garde art music. You couldn’t even jitterbug to bebop, with its rapidly changing meters.

On the other hand, you could dance to R&B.

Slow dancing to Sam Cooke in the 1950s:

Uptempo R&B dancing:

Another male singing group, The Dominoes, with the uptempo “Have Mercy Baby” (1951):

Another Orioles song, “Crying in the Chapel,” consciously married gospel and R&B, both in musical style and in the text, about an individual religious experience:

Faye Adams joined female gospel vocal style with secular love lyrics (“Shake a Hand,” 1951):

Rhythm and blues emerged at the same time that jazz, with bebop and hard bop, was becoming music for connoisseurs and intellectuals. R&B stepped into jazz’s former position as the defining genre of popular black urban music. In a few short years, the crossover between R&B and the concurrent emerging style of rock and roll would be complete.

As Sam Cooke said in a 1964 interview:

When a kid is young he expects a lot out of life. Rhythm ‘n’ blues is the most fervent sound in pop music. When a person gets older he understands there’s only so much to be gotten out of life. He doesn’t have to have excitement all the time. He can take things with less intensity, hence his appreciation of jazz.

Soul and Sacrament

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(Pentecostal church service.)

According to Peter Guralnick:

Southern soul music developed out of a time and a set of social circumstances that are unlikely to be repeated. . . when I speak of soul music, I am not referring to Motown, a phenomenon almost exactly contemporaneous but appealing far more to a pop, white, and industry-slanted kind of audience. (Motown’s achievement, said Jerry Wexler, vice-president of Atlantic Records and chief spokesman for the rival faction, was “something that you would have to say on paper was impossible. They took black music and beamed it directly to the white American teenager.”)

In this regard, soul foreshadows rap.

Guralnick continues:

What I am referring to is the far less controlled, gospel-based, emotion-baring kind of music that grew up in the wake of the success of Ray Charles from about 1954 on and came to its full flowering, along with Motown, in the early 1960s. It was for a considerable length of time limited almost exclusively to a black audience which had grown up on the uninhibited emotionalism of the church and to a secret but growing legion of young white admirers who picked up on rhythm and blues on the radio and took it as the key to a mystery they were pledged never to reveal. In the beginning, like rock ‘n’ roll, it was an expression of rebellion, or at least of discontent, and Ray Charles’s transformation of dignified gospel standards into cries of secular ecstasy came in for a good deal of criticism at first, mostly from the pulpit. Once it emerged from the underground, it accompanied the Civil Rights Movement almost step by step, its success directly reflecting the giant strides that integration was making, its popularity almost a mirror image of the social changes that were taking place. When Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a pure example of Southern soul emotiveness if ever there was one, made the top of the pop charts in 1966, it seemed almost as if the mountain had been scaled. Here was a song uncompromised, I thought at the time (many thought at the time), by concessions to the marketplace, unbleached and unblemished by the endearing palliatives which Motown always brought to bear, an expression of romantic generosity and black solidarity (I thought again). I didn’t even like the song all that much, but I took it as a harbinger of a new day, when a mass audience could respond to black popular culture on its own terms.

Similarly it seemed no coincidence that when the height of the Movement was past, when the certainty of forward motion and the instinctive commonality of purpose that marked that brief period were called into question by the death of Martin Luther King, the soul movement, too, should have fragmented . . . and the charts should have been virtually resegregated, with funk and disco and then rap music rendering themselves as inaccessible, and ultimately as co-optable in turn, as rhythm and blues once had been. Soul music, then, was the product of a particular time and place that one would not want to see repeated, the bitter fruit of segregation, transformed (as so much else has been by the encompassing generosity of Afro-American culture) into a statement of warmth and affirmation. . . 

“Soul music,” in British writer Clive Anderson’s orthodox and not imperceptive formulation, “is made by black Americans and elevates ‘feeling’ above all else. It began in the late fifties, secularized gospel embracing blues profanity, and dealt exclusively with that most important subject, the vagaries of love. The sound remains in church. More often than not soul is in ballad form and employs certain gospel and blues techniques—call and response patterns, hip argot and inflection, melismatic delivery. It is a completely vocal art…. Soul assumes a shared experience, a relationship with the listener, as in blues, where the singer confirms and works out the feelings of the audience. In this sense it remains sacramental.”

Soul becomes a kind of socially-conscious, secular gospel music, in the way that blues, a few decades earlier, had become a kind of secular spiritual music.

A partial playlist:

Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, “We’re a Winner”:

James Brown, “(Say it Loud) I’m Black and I’m Proud”:

Solomon Burke, “I Wish I Knew (How it Would Feel to Be Free)”:

Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come.” Cooke wrote the song after hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” for the first time. He told his publisher:

I got to write something [about the Civil Rights movement]. Here’s a white boy [Dylan] writing like this.

Cooke also included Dylan’s song in his repertoire:

Garnett Mimms and the Enchanters, “A Quiet Place”:

Wilson Pickett, “In the Midnight Hour”:

Ray Charles, “I Believe to My Soul”:

Jimmy Reed: “Honest I Do”:

Otis Redding, “Love Man”:

Bobby “Blue” Bland, “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”:

Soul Brothers Six, “Some Kind of Wonderful”:

Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, “People Get Ready”:

The great Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul: “Think”:

Aretha again, singing Otis Redding’s 1965 song “Respect.” When she recorded it in 1967, she made it not only an anthem for respecting Black women, but also a demand for a sexual partner to pay attention to a woman’s pleasure.