Strange Fruit and Abel Meeropol


By David Michael Newstead. 

Abel Meeropol wrote Strange Fruit after seeing a photograph of a lynching. Later, his song was popularized by Billie Holiday and became well-known for confronting racism in America head-on. As a result, Meeropol and Holiday both faced intense scrutiny from authorities. Abel Meeropol was called to testify before the New York State Legislature regarding Strange Fruit. And not long after that, he felt compelled to leave his teaching position in New York City, relocating with his wife to California. In Part Two of this series, Robert Meeropol joins me to highlight the life of the songwriter, Abel Meeropol, and its intersections with American history. And to learn more, check out Part One.

David Newstead: How would you describe Abel Meeropol as a person?

Robert Meeropol: Abel Meeropol was a quiet introvert. His wife, Anne, was very social. She was his ambassador to the outside world.

David Newstead: I’ve met couples like this before…

Robert Meeropol: Yes and he liked to be in his study writing. That was his way of engaging. He was very closed in many ways. He was very talented artistically. He was a member of the Teachers’ Union Arts Committee in the 1920s into the 1930s. And he used to design sets for their programs. He would draw cartoons. He was a pianist. He got a Masters in English Literature from Harvard in the mid-1920s and he put himself through school by playing a honky-tonk piano in a local club somewhere. So, he did all these things and was very artistically oriented. But it was all like sort of in his head.

He also had a difficult life. Abel was born in 1903, so he was a teenager during World War One. He idolized his older brother. And his older brother went into the army and served and came back what they called in those days shell-shocked. What we now call PTSD. And his brother spent the rest of his life institutionalized. So, that was very difficult for him. And he didn’t like to talk about that at all. At the same time, he was very funny. With my brother Michael and me, he could make us laugh hysterically at any point. But in some ways, his humor was a defense mechanism. It enabled him to engage with people without actually revealing his thoughts that much.

Politically, he was kind of naïve. You know, he grew up in a left-wing household. His father was a motorman on a trolley line in New York City. And he grew up with left-wing politics. So, he joined the Communist Party in the 1920s, but he never really talked about that in specifics. And he was in the party until the 1950s. I think he left the party to adopt me and my brother. I think Abel and Anne left the party like in 1952 or so. The feeling being that if they were active party members, it would be very difficult for them to adopt us. But I don’t feel that they necessarily left the party because they had disagreed with it. They continued to be friends with party members and usually when people dropped out of the party because they disagreed with it they were ostracized. Or there was a real break. In any event, I really don’t know, because we didn’t talk about these things. We argued current politics, but talking about personal history was like pulling teeth.

But at the same time he had an undercurrent of anger that comes out in Strange Fruit. Abel was no pacifist. He was quite capable of thinking and penning very nasty things about people who he thought were terrible and did terrible things. And I think that generation who grew up and lived through two world wars and the Great Depression and Nazism, it was not surprising that people took sides and that there was less political nuance.

David Newstead: You had mentioned that he relocated from New York to Hollywood. Was he forced to go out there, because he couldn’t teach anymore?

Robert Meeropol: The handwriting was on the wall. The House I Live In was gaining traction. Strange Fruit was being played. He was a known enough quantity and he didn’t like teaching. He did not like teaching! There’s no doubt about it. But he also saw the handwriting on the wall. It’s quite possible he left teaching and went to Hollywood, because he thought he was going to lose his job. And so, all those three things put together and Abel and Anne packed up and went to Hollywood.

And in Hollywood, Communist Party writers of which there were quite few used to hold little seminars and political trainings. I can remember a story Abel used to tell about when he was in Hollywood, which was basically 1944 to 1951. And Abel Meeropol was actually written up by the local Communist Party commissar or whoever it was, because at one of these training sessions where they were reading something by Karl Marx, Abel spoke up and said “I don’t know why I need to read all this stuff. I know who the workers are. I know who the bosses are. I know who our friends are. I know who our enemies are. Isn’t that enough?” And he was written up as being undisciplined. And I think that was his attitude. He was not a sophisticated political thinker. He was very straight-forward and tended to see things in black and white terms.

David Newstead: Granted, Karl Marx books aren’t leisurely reading, so that’s understandable. I mean if you threw Kapital out of a one-story window, you might hurt somebody.

Robert Meeropol: Whatever it was, it was more than he wanted to read.

David Newstead: Did he leave Hollywood in the 1950s because he was blacklisted?

Robert Meeropol: I don’t think he was a big enough name at the time or a big enough cheese to be blacklisted. So, he was kind of graylisted though. I think he left Hollywood one step ahead of the blacklist. He came back east probably one step ahead of the blacklist, fearing that he was going to get named. Strange Fruit was not played during the McCarthy period. And you know, he was really struggling, but it never reached the level of the blacklist.

David Newstead: What did he do for work after leaving Hollywood?

Robert Meeropol: He and someone who did musical stuff with him named Earl Robinson collaborated on a movie called The Romance of Rosy Ridge, which was a cowboy movie. And if you watch Turner Classic Movies at 3 AM, every once in a while it’s still on. He also became the writer for James Melton’s Ford Festival, which was a rival of the Ed Sullivan Show, sponsored by Ford Automobile. And he wrote commercials for Fords. It was a failed show though. It got cancelled after a couple of years. Then, he was really struggling.

There were royalties coming in from Strange Fruit and The House I Live In, but not much. His third best known song, which is not known at all anymore actually, is called Apples, Peaches and Cherries. It was recorded by Peggy Lee and made it onto The Hit Parade around 1950. So, he was also collecting some royalties for that. But they were just barely surviving in the 1950s. He was able to scrape by. And you know, he continued to work on things. But scraping by was probably an accurate picture.

I will say one more thing that also helped. That song Apples, Peaches and Cherries was stolen by Brigitte Bardot’s boyfriend, Sacha Distel, and turned into a song called Scoubidou. It’s in French. And it became the number one European song for a while. And Abel found out about it and sued and he got a chunk of money for that. I know we bought a new car. We always drove around in old rattle traps. I mean, it was a Plymouth Valiant. It was no fancy car, but it was new. And it’s the only new car I ever remember them buying. Things like that happened on occasion that kept him going.

David Newstead: This is just an observation. But if he wasn’t afraid to take unpopular positions during the beginning of the Civil Rights movement and McCarthyism, he must have been a pretty brave person.

Robert Meeropol: He was an intellectually fearless person. No doubt about that. He had very strong beliefs. And he was absolutely insistent on being true to them. The scorn that he heaped upon people who he knew who turned on their old comrades during the 1950s was incredible. And the people who he used to work with who when they found out who he had adopted, they didn’t talk to him. They didn’t want to have anything to do with him, because they were frightened. He was incredibly scornful of that. He had this great intellectual courage.

Read Part One


The Anatomy of Fascism


By David Michael Newstead.

In February, Slate interviewed Robert Paxton and asked whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Paxton is an American historian and the author of the 2004 book, The Anatomy of Fascism, which examines the causes and characteristics of history’s most ominous political classification. To learn more, read the Slate article here. And check out these excerpts from Paxton’s most famous work.

On page 41, for example, Paxton outlines features common to all fascist movements:

  • A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
  • The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;
  • The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
  • Dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
  • The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
  • The need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny;
  • The superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
  • The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
  • The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.

Later on page 201, Paxton discusses American political history and how fascism specifically fits into a U.S. context.

The United States itself has never been exempt from fascism. Indeed, antidemocratic and xenophobic movements have flourished in America since the Native American party of 1845 and the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s. In the crisis-ridden 1930s, as in other democracies, derivative fascist movements were conspicuous in the United States: the Protestant evangelist Gerald B. Winrod’s openly pro-Hitler Defenders of the Christian Faith with their Black Legion; William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts (the initials “SS” were intentional); the veteran-based Khaki Shirts (whose leader, one Art J. Smith, vanished after a heckler was killed at one of his rallies); and a host of others. Movements with an exotic foreign look won few followers, however. George Lincoln Rockwell, flamboyant head of the American Nazi Party from 1959 until his assassination by a disgruntled follower in 1967, seemed even more “un-American” after the great anti-Nazi war.

Much more dangerous are movements that employ authentically American themes in ways that resemble fascism functionally. The Klan revived in the 1920s, took on virulent anti-Semitism, and spread to cities and the Middle West. In the 1930s, Father Charles E. Coughlin gathered a radio audience estimated at forty million around an anticommunist, anti-Wall Street, pro-soft money, and – after 1938 – anti-Semitic message broadcast from his church in the outskirts of Detroit. For a moment in early 1936 it looked as if his Union Party and its presidential candidate, North Dakota congressman William Lemke, might overwhelm Roosevelt. The plutocrat-baiting governor Huey Long of Louisiana had authentic political momentum until his assassination in 1935, but, though frequently labeled fascist at the time, he was more accurately a share-the-wealth demagogue. The fundamentalist preacher Gerald L. K. Smith, who had worked with both Coughlin and Long, turned the message more directly after World War II to the “Judeo-Communist conspiracy” and had a real impact. Today a “politics of resentment” rooted in authentic American piety and nativism sometimes leads to violence against some of the very same “internal enemies” once targeted by the Nazis, such as homosexuals and defenders of abortion rights.

Of course the United States would have to suffer catastrophic setbacks and polarization for these fringe groups to find powerful allies and enter the mainstream. I half expected to see emerge after 1968 a movement of national reunification, regeneration, and purification directed against hirsute antiwar protesters, black radicals, and “degenerate” artists. I thought that some of the Vietnam veterans might form analogs to the Freikorps of 1919 Germany or the Italian Arditi, and attack the youths whose demonstrations on the steps of the Pentagon had “stabbed them in the back.” Fortunately I was wrong (so far). Since September 11, 2001, however, civil liberties have been curtailed to popular acclaim in a patriotic war upon terrorists.

The language and symbols of an authentic American fascism would, of course, have little to do with the original European models. They would have to be as familiar and reassuring to loyal Americans as the language and symbols of the original fascisms were familiar and reassuring to many Italians and Germans, as Orwell suggested. Hitler and Mussolini, after all, had not tried to seem exotic to their fellow citizens. No swastikas in an American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the pledge of allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy.

Around such reassuring language and symbols and in the event of some redoubtable setback to national prestige, Americans might support an enterprise of forcible national regeneration, unification, and purification. Its targets would be the First Amendment, separation of Church and State (creches on the lawns, prayers in schools), efforts to place controls on gun ownership, desecrations of the flag, unassimilated minorities, artistic license, dissident and unusual behavior of all sorts that could be labeled antinational or decadent.

Watch this video from the New York Times

Chest Hair – A Personal Reflection

By David Michael Newstead.

I used to only have three chest hairs. In fact, I distinctly remember standing in a swimming pool as an adolescent and counting them.

One. Two. Three.

There they were. And just as easily, I pulled them out. Instantly, I’d reverted to a hairless chest and that was that, I thought. Problem solved!

Of course, the more time that went by the more chest hairs started to appear. Then one day, there were too many to count. Now, that may not be a particularly artful way to talk about growing up or to measure the passage of time, but it’s accurate enough.

So, recently when I noticed three gray hairs in the middle of my chest, it was an odd kind of deja vu. I was standing in a swimming pool again and there they were.

One. Two. Three.

Of course, I could pull the hairs out if I wanted to, but it wouldn’t change anything. Time was marching forward relentlessly. The clock was ticking. And standing there in my bathing suit, it made me pause for a moment to reflect on the past, think about the future, and consider the widening gulf between the two.

Is Bashing Clinton’s Voice Sparked By Nature Or Nurture?


By Diane Rubino. 

Hillary Clinton’s voice is a magnet for criticism. Every characteristic—accent, authenticity, pacing, pitch, tone, and volume—has been examined and found wanting. The pejorative “nagging” has dogged Ms. Clinton for years.

Although Donald Trump’s yuugge voice is often parodied, critiques seem to be more often a reaction to content rather than traits.

One obvious response to negative opinions of Clinton’s voice is that the evaluations—and evaluators—are sexist.

But I’ve noted mysterious trends in my own speech. My voice automatically gets higher when I speak to children and pets. It also drops involuntarily when I’m angry. I’ve heard a similar range in men and noticed the squeaky bark of a tiny dog morph into a deep growl.

NATURE. When it comes to pitch, i.e. whether a voice is considered “high” or  “low/deep,” there are unseen forces at work.

Studies of men and women show that, like me, people across continents and languages use a higher pitch for babies and pets without consciousness. (Burnham et al, 2002)

Politics aside, then, Hillary’s relatively higher pitch is playing against type when she discusses policy and diplomacy rather than time out and kibbles.

Hormones also play a key role in relation to pitch and the perception of it. Saliva tests show that the deeper a man’s voice, the more testosterone he has. Similar studies in women show they’re more likely to prefer deeper voices when they’re at the most fertile stage of their menstrual cycle. (Pisansky et al, 2014)

NUTURE. So part of the criticism of Clinton’s voice is rooted in biology. But humans are rarely content to leave nature alone. We need to add our own spin, and this begins early in life.

Baby Hillary, for example, probably got less attention when she cried than Baby Donald. Though the pitch of an infant’s wail is gender-neutral, study participants projected masculinity and femininity onto crying 3-month-olds. Men in the study labeled lower-pitched cries “masculine” and assumed that these sobs were more likely to be a sign of discomfort than “feminine” crying. (Reby et al, 2016)

Finally, in an increasingly violent world, it’s notable that perceptions of trustworthiness and dominance are associated with masculine vocal features, such as low pitch. The higher, feminine pitch, however, is perceived to be friendly and non-threatening. (Knowles and Little, 2016) This interpretation could make a difference to fearful “Let’s make America safe again” voters.

MASH UP. So the answer to the title’s query is that nature and nurture impact the pitch we use and our perceptions of this vocal trait. It’s the mash up between the two that fuels Hillary voice bashing.

So what’s the enlightened Philosophy of Shaving reader to do? Be controlled by unconscious forces? As if.

I’ve listed a few ideas as a springboard for thinking differently.

  • Become aware of your own vocal variety, without judging and trying to change it.
  • Note the pitch of the voices around you and the ensuing reactions.
  • With awareness raised, be hopeful. Each of us has been “trained” to override some of our instincts.

Though sexist ideas about pitch are deeply and hormonally rooted, you can break away from the pack.

What are your thoughts?

Diane Rubino is an activist, New York University instructor, and applied communications professional who seeks to make the world more healthy and humane. Learn More.