In anticipation of Record Store Day, UGHH is introducing a new column for all the crate diggers, producers, DJs and general music history buffs—“Dig Deep.” Each installment will focus on a different song that has been sampled or otherwise repurposed by hip-hop artists in a significant or meaningful way, exploring its legacy and cultural relevance. To set the series off, music journalist El Scribes has examined the story behind the Billie Holiday classic “Strange Fruit”—reportedly recorded 79 years ago today, on April 20, 1939.
Billie Holiday’s 1939 lynching commentary “Strange Fruit” is one of the most evocative and unsettling songs in American history—and unfortunately, at a time when radicalized Tiki torch-wielding racists parade unashamed in the streets and unchecked police violence continues to ravage black communities, is still very relevant today. In fact, it has remained a somber depiction of American racism for almost 80 years, having been covered, sampled and reimagined at least 30 times by a diverse range of artists since its conception, from Nina Simone to Pete Rock to Kanye West. Although written about the actual practice of lynching, the song has almost become a metaphorical representation for the entire history of the systemic oppression of black people in America—the “blood at the root” belonging to the slaves on whose backs our nation was built and the “blood on the leaves” signifying the present-day manifestations of that disturbing legacy.
The story behind “Strange Fruit” actually begins in 1930, when two black men named Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith allegedly killed a white man named Claude Deeter in a botched robbery. They were also accused of raping Mary Ball, Deeter’s female companion, but most historians doubt the likelihood of these claims. Regardless, without trial or conviction, Shipp and Smith were brutally beaten and lynched by an angry mob the following day—a sordid historical event loosely recounted on the song “Strange Fruit” by Missy Elliot and Skillz affiliate Danja Mowf, off his 1997 Word of Mowf album (which, of course, contains interpolations of the Billie Holiday original).
Lawrence Beitler, a member of the aforementioned mob, took and subsequently sold thousands of prints of an infamous photo that has since become iconic of the Jim Crow South. Incidentally, the morbid practice of documenting lynchings and redistributing the images as a form of white supremacy torture porn supposedly inspired the first line of “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging.” Regardless, 15 years before Dylan, this particular photo also inspired a schoolteacher from the Bronx to write what became one of the most important songs of the 20th century—arguably the first popular protest song.
Abel Meeropol first published the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” as a poem titled “Bitter Fruit” in 1936 under his writing alias Lewis Allan, Lewis and Allan being the intended names for his stillborn children. Also an amateur musician, Meeropol created accompanying music—which would later be changed for Holiday’s rendition—and renamed the piece. He and his wife, who were communists, eventually became famous for adopting the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—another prominent communist couple who had been accused of espionage and executed during the second Red Scare—after meeting the boys at W.E.B. Du Bois’ house.
A few years after publishing the poem and letting some other singers perform the song here and there, Meeropol met Holiday at a legendary jazz club in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the first fully integrated nightclub in the country, where she performed regularly. Ironically called Café Society, a mocking jab at the era’s equivalent to today’s trust fund socialites, the club was a haven for the open-minded—a revolutionary venue where blacks and whites could both work and play side by side. By way of the club’s owner, a man named Barney Josephson, Meeropol gave “Strange Fruit” to Holiday—and it was at Café Society that she would first perform the song for an astonished audience.
As is the case with most important songs, “Strange Fruit” was instantaneously controversial. So much so that Columbia, her record label, refused to put it out—forcing Holiday to take it to Commodore Records, a smaller, newer, more progressive independent label producer Milt Gabler opened out of his record store in 1938, only a year prior. After the song’s commercial release in the summer of 1939, despite little radio play and numerous bans, it received critical acclaim and sold over a million records. The song’s success even led the Rapp-Coudert Committee, which was established to investigate communist influence in the New York City public school system, to question whether or not the Communist Party had commissioned Meeropol to write it.
Allegedly, even Holiday initially didn’t know quite what to make of the song—but after an eerie silence that lasted a little too long for her comfort following its first Café Society performance, the crowd erupted in magnanimous applause and “Strange Fruit” soon became her signature show closer. “She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere,” said Meeropol. “Billie Holiday’s styling fulfilled the bitterness and the shocking quality I had hoped the song would have.”
Holiday brought Meeropol’s words to life with a gruesome authenticity only a lifetime of racial discrimination could invoke. After countless renditions and derivatives, Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” remains the most poignant and bloodcurdling. It serves as both a stark reminder of our nation’s violent past and its lasting effect on our present—the ongoing dehumanization of the black population. With police brutality at the forefront of the racial debate in America, and images of state-sanctioned terrorism against black people circulating in the media like never before, “Strange Fruit” incites an all too familiar sense of injustice—even almost eight decades after its release.
“Dig Deep” is UGHH’s column dedicated to exploring the history behind some of hip-hop’s most iconic samples—helping to preserve the legacies of their original creators and celebrating the ingenuity of their reuse.