Strange Fruit in America

By David Michael Newstead.

80 years ago, an English teacher in New York named Abel Meeropol wrote the anti-lynching song Strange Fruit later immortalized by Billie Holiday. Meeropol was also known for writing the patriotic Frank Sinatra classic The House I Live In and later for adopting the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the couple was executed in the 1950s. And while Abel Meeropol passed away 30 years ago, his most famous work lives on as a powerful response to racism in America. Today, I’m joined by Robert Meeropol to discuss his adoptive father’s legacy, the contrasting truths of American history, and if we’ve really made progress since Strange Fruit was first written.

David Newstead: So, I learned about a lot of this from the Joel Katz documentary about Strange Fruit. I saw it as an undergrad and I had heard the song Strange Fruit prior to that, but I had no idea about the history behind it at the time. And that’s really stuck with me over the years.

Robert Meeropol: Joel took something like five or six years to make that film. One of those typical independent efforts that have problems because of lack of funding. That documentary came out in 2002 and it holds up very well. I’ve seen it shown to audiences within the last two years. And it’s not really out of date. Although it doesn’t capture what I consider the major renaissance of Strange Fruit that has really occurred in the last five years.

David Newstead: Say more about that. What renaissance is Strange Fruit having now?

Robert Meeropol: I always think of Strange Fruit as sort of bubbling beneath the surface. It was gaining cultural importance and prominence starting really in the mid-1990s with Cassandra Wilson’s debut album, which is one of my favorite versions of Strange Fruit. There was a book written about Strange Fruit in 2001 by David Margolick called Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song. But really the thing that changed the most in recent years is in the summer of 2013 Kanye West sampled the Nina Simone version as she sang “Blood on the leaves, Blood on the leaves” as he complained about the hassles he was having with his ex-girlfriend. I mean, Abel Meeropol would have turned over in his grave!

David Newstead: Not exactly the same context.

Robert Meeropol: Yeah, not exactly the same context. And it sparked an internet furor over his use of Strange Fruit and everyone started talking about Strange Fruit and Nina Simone. The result was that all of a sudden there was an explosion of people covering the song. In November 2013, there was even an episode of Criminal Minds entitled Strange Fruit in which they were dealing with a lynching. It was around that time that people in various newspaper articles referred to Trayvon Martin’s killing as someone Strange Fruiting somebody, using it in that matter. So, it’s kind of permeated the culture. And then, with Black Lives Matter and various other things going on, it’s just everywhere.

If you have a Google Alert on Strange Fruit as I do, you will find that every day somebody is doing something whether it’s a dance performance or an art exhibit or Audra McDonald winning all sorts of awards for her performance as Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. All that. It’s everywhere. In fact, the last time I saw a reference to it was last night on TV when Billy Crystal mentioned it at Muhammad Ali’s funeral. It is everywhere.

David Newstead: The last time I recall hearing it was during an episode of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle.

Robert Meeropol: I haven’t watched the series, but I know that it’s been shown on that. Isn’t that about the Nazis winning the war?

David Newstead: Yes. In the show, the Nazis took over the East Coast and the Japanese took over the West Coast. And at some point, one of the characters walks by a record player that’s playing an old Billie Holiday album from 1939. But you know, obviously it’s a very dark show if it’s about Nazis winning World War Two. But Strange Fruit is applicable in a horrific alternate reality. It’s applicable 80 years ago. It’s applicable now. So, that’s a lot of crossover ability. I’m curious why you think the song has resonated for so long in so many different forms?

Robert Meeropol: Well, there are probably many reasons. But one is because racism is with us. Things have not changed enough since the song was written to make it out-of-date. That’s the sort of socio-politics of it in the grand scheme of things.

But if you want to look at it from an artistic perspective, I think the allusion of lynched bodies being strange fruit was so powerful that it seeped under the skin of the culture. Even when the song was suppressed particularly during the 1950s. So, it was kept beneath the culture’s skin. But as I’ve written, it seeped out its pores as time went on. And that’s the artistry of it. I mean, why is it that a certain painting lasts for centuries and another disappears? Why is it that a certain song, even one that’s incredibly popular, lasts for a year and then disappears? And others just go on and on? Well, it’s the power of the art and how it resonates with us. I think there’s an element of mystery in that. I can’t say that I can deconstruct it in a manner that rationalizes all aspects of it, but its longevity is a testament to its power. So, there’s that artistic component to it.

I think also because of the nature of the song – the political nature of the song. And this is one of the things that I try to point out and that I feel that a lot of people miss in referring to Strange Fruit particularly the mainstream media and people who I don’t think are particularly in tune with the politics of the song. I’ve seen it referred to as a sorrowful dirge. I’ve also seen it referred to as a protest song. In fact, you know Time magazine named it the Song of the Century in 2000 when it came out with its millennial issue. I don’t put much stock in these lists. You know, the greatest novels ever written. The best rock n’ roll songs of the last hundred years. Blah blah blah. But I’ve seen lists of the greatest protest songs and Strange Fruit always makes it into the top ten.

So, it is a protest song, but I think that misses the core of what Abel was doing with the song. And that is that it was an attack song! It was an attack upon the perpetrators of lynching and that is what infuriated so many people. That’s why it was banned. That’s why there were riots. That’s why Billie Holiday and others got in trouble for singing it, because they were attacking the phoniness and the hypocrisy of the supposedly genteel South. And ridiculing it in a way, saying the people who were involved in lynching were rotten to their core. That was totally unacceptable to be used in that matter at the time. So, that’s another reason why the song’s lasted. Because as an attack, it is something that allows people who’ve been discriminated against to fight back. And I think that’s one of its sustaining characteristics.

David Newstead: It seems like in a historical context, there’s a real element of risk in that for Abel Meeropol and Billie Holiday especially in the 1930s? I mean, this is years before the Civil Rights movement.

Robert Meeropol: I think so. It was groundbreaking at the time. People didn’t do that sort of thing. So, there were risks. There were risks all around. I mean, I can’t say I’m an expert on the life of Billie Holiday. But it’s generally believed that one of the reasons that she was hounded for her drug use was because she refused to stop singing Strange Fruit. You know, there was plenty of drug use among Hollywood celebrities and singers and the like in the 1930s and 40s, but only certain people were singled out. Those who refused to knuckle under and who sang songs that offended powerful forces were selected. I mean, the reality is that Billie Holiday died handcuffed to a hospital bed awaiting arraignment on a second drug charge. Whether that would have happened if she ever stopped singing Strange Fruit, I can’t prove it, but I believe that to be the case.

So, there was risk to her, tremendous risk to her. And part of the problem was that under federal law at the time, her first drug conviction and prison sentence prevented her from singing in clubs that served alcohol. You can imagine the problems that caused in her career. She was a club singer!

For Abel Meeropol, he was called before the Rapp-Coudert Committee in 1940, which was a kind of precursor to the House Un-American Activities Committee. And he was questioned. They were investigating Communist school teachers, which Abel Meeropol certainly was. I heard Abel talk about this when I was a kid and the committee questioned him, asked him if the Communist Party ordered him to write the song or if the Communist Party paid him to write the song. So, this was a cost to him as well. But he always found that kind of amusing – the idea that you could order somebody to write a song.

And I think one of the things that I find bittersweet about it all is that he died in 1986. And as far as he was concerned his song was eclipsed. Nothing much had happened with it. Billie Holiday had claimed that she had written the music to it. She said she took a poem he wrote and set it to music, which, of course, was false. He wrote the words and the music. And so, here he was losing the ownership of a portion of his best creation. And people weren’t playing it. And yet now, of course, as often happens with artists 30 years later the thing is everywhere. And of course, it’s too late for him to appreciate how appreciated his work has been.

David Newstead: My understanding is Abel Meeropol wrote Strange Fruit after seeing a photograph of an infamous lynching in Indiana, is that correct?

Robert Meeropol: I believe so. To the best of our knowledge. And it’s the kind of detail that I feel doesn’t matter when you think about it. One of the things that we know about lynchings in that period of time is that postcards were made of them and distributed. There was actually an exhibit in New York City of all these postcards and it was quite a sensation two or three years back. There were lines out the door. You know, people were horrified by it, but they were also fascinated by this cultural phenomenon.

And I would also point out that Bob Dylan’s song Desolation Row starts with the line “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” and “The circus is in town”. That whole opening stanza is about what happened in Duluth, Minnesota in the 1920s. The circus came to town and hired black people from Chicago to do the construction and takedown. And the local workers were not given work as a result. And they went and attacked and lynched at least one of the black workers to demonstrate their displeasure. They created postcards based on that. And Bob Dylan wrote about it years later.

David Newstead: You know, several things come to mind like how widespread the KKK was in America during that time. Or you know, those photographs are also known for the bizarrely normal behavior of the white people in the crowd. But also, that lynchings weren’t just something that happened in the South.

Robert Meeropol: Well, I think that there is this presumption that it was just a regional problem. And while it was more prevalent in certain regions, it was certainly not confined to just one region. And you know from reading news reports, the sort of frat boy joking around about ropes and things is quite common to this day. It’s not so far beneath the surface.

Question from a Reader: I want to ask this question and then kind of shift gears. So, there aren’t lynchings anymore. But it still seems like we have public or publicly sanctioned violence against African-Americans and other people of color based on race. In your opinion, do you feel like we’ve actually come that far from when Strange Fruit was released? Because on one hand, I feel like we have and we haven’t, if that makes sense?

Robert Meeropol: That would be a good summary: we have and we haven’t. We don’t have these mass, public, officially sanctioned on a local scale torture and torment festivals that lynching represented through the 1930s and even into the 1940s. It was the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement that really changed that. But the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted that lynching has in some ways taken on a new form. It’s covered up to a degree. It’s carried out more in secret like police killings of young black men. But it still has a similar effect and serves a similar purpose of keeping a population down. So, I think that it’s not a qualitative change, but it’s a change.

David Newstead: Recently, a lot of people have been talking about the Stanford rape case and pointing out that the sentencing would have been much different if the rapist wasn’t an upper crust white male. Or I don’t know if you remember the Affluenza case a few years ago? But my impression of the justice system is that this is when they should throw the book at someone who is seemingly without remorse. But in both examples with white defendants, they got very lenient sentences compared to the huge incarceration rates among African-Americans.

Robert Meeropol: Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow, pretty much highlights the disparate meting out of justice along racial lines. Or I shouldn’t say justice, I should say punishment. The most obvious one is the difference between the sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. You know for using the same thing that has the same impact, you get a sentence that’s sixteen times longer. But also, there’s the overlying gender related issues and rape related issues that impact that Stanford case and that’s another aspect of it. But yeah, I wouldn’t disagree with you.

David Newstead: Going back to Abel Meeropol, I wanted to ask. He also wrote the Frank Sinatra song The House I Live In. This song is very different from Strange Fruit in terms of its tone and content. Knowing him, how do you explain the contrast between those two songs?

Robert Meeropol: First of all, there’s the Frank Sinatra version of The House I Live, which is probably the best known version which leaves out one of the verses. If you want to hear The House I Live In as it was originally written, you have to listen to the Paul Robeson version. And there’s another verse in there in which he talks about “My neighbors black and white”. In other words, it’s a desegregation line, which was controversial. And that was cut out of the Frank Sinatra version! In 1944, a short film was made with Frank Sinatra of The House I Live In. So, they cut out his verse about “My neighbors black and white”. And it’s supposedly this anti-racism film about combating antisemitism, but it turns out that it wallows in its own racism.

The funny story about that is when it premiered at a local theater. Abel Meeropol went to see the premiere. He was in Hollywood at the time. And when he saw that they cut out the entire second verse and removed the line “My neighbors black and white”, he got up and started yelling “They’ve ruined my song!” And he started saying “Shit! Shit! They’ve ruined my song!” And he was thrown out of the theater.

David Newstead: You’ve mentioned that this was a very introverted person who was not prone to doing that kind of thing. So, he must have been pretty unhappy about it?

Robert Meeropol: Oh, he was extremely agitated. Just so uncharacteristic of him, it was like a switch was flipped. But that said, you have to put The House I Live In in the context of the politics of the time. Abel Meeropol was a Communist Party member and he followed the politics of the Communist Party. And while he was not ordered or paid to write Strange Fruit, the Communist Party had a big anti-lynching campaign going on in the 1930s. So, his song was in tune with their politics. And then in the 1940s with the war going, there was a grand coalition of the left to fight the Nazis. His song, The House I Live In, was politically in tune with that united front. So, you put it in that context and I think that explains the difference. And he once said that The House I Live In was more about what America could be than what it actually was.

David Newstead: Keeping with The House I Live In and trying to relate that to current events, the song itself and that entire Frank Sinatra film have a strong message of religious tolerance. When I watched the film on YouTube, it was impossible not to think about recent efforts to ban Muslims from entering the United States or how people demonize immigrants and refugees at the moment. So, what’s your view of that? What do you think about it? What do you think Abel Meeropol would think about it?

Robert Meeropol: He would, of course, be appalled by it. I think that’s pretty obvious given his background. For me, there’s the contrast between multinational corporations being able to move effortlessly around the globe and extract the resources from Third World countries in order to benefit people in the First World. And contrast that with the fact that people are not allowed to move across borders. And that is a real sign of the priorities of the system. And in fact, I would say that the priorities are standing on their head. That’s what strikes me today about it.

I mean, we can all get exorcised about Trump banning Muslims from coming into the country. But Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State essentially banned Honduran women and children from coming into the country. As I’ve heard people say the kind of things that Trump proposes, Clinton has actually done. So, I’m not a fan of either one of them. And sometimes I think that the outrage at Trump’s verbal excesses – which are totally justified – cover up the fact that what is being done in a not-so-outrageous or public manner by leaders who are considered more proper is horrible as well.

So, I have mixed and complicated feelings about these things. But again, I think Abel Meeropol came from an era of less political nuance. So, I don’t know if he would entirely agree with the complexity of my analysis. But that’s hard to say.

David Newstead: Out of curiosity, do you know if Abel’s parents were immigrants?

Robert Meeropol: Yes, his parents were definitely not born in the United States. I am confident of that. He was born in the United States in 1903. His parents came from the Ukraine or what is now western Ukraine. In those days, sometimes it was Russia. Sometimes, it was Austro-Hungry. There was a shifting border area. And you know if you look at the last name Meeropol, there’s actually a town called Meeropol (Miropol or Myropil). But that’s in eastern Ukraine. But “opol” is very much Ukrainian if you think about Sevastopol and all the different names in that area around the Ukrainian conflict.

David Newstead: So, you said he believed The House I Live In is what America could be. In your view, is America in 2016 the country from The House I Live In or the country from Strange Fruit?

Robert Meeropol: That’s a good question. I think he would still see it on the Strange Fruit side. In fact in the 1970s, he wrote a parody version of The House I Live In. And I don’t remember the parody very well except for one line. In the original, it says “A certain word – democracy!” In the parody, it says “A certain word – hypocrisy!” And so he did not feel that we were going in the right direction as he aged. And I see no reason why he wouldn’t have continued with that belief.

And I think he would have had a lot of problems with identity politics, because it just wasn’t in his political universe. Like a lot of people of his generation, I think he would have had a lot of trouble with gay rights. In the 1970s, women’s liberation and that Second-wave of feminism hit and my wife and I were certainly very involved in it. He was sympathetic in a sort of economic way, but I think he was too old to change. But it’s also true that his wife Anne was a very strong personality and they worked as a team a lot in producing political reviews and things. So, he was not a virulent sexist, but he didn’t escape from the cultural norms that existed as he was growing up.

Though I want to say one thing to his credit. When Abel and Anne got married, she kept her own name, her last name for the first two years of their marriage. They felt it was wrong for the woman to have to take the man’s last name, that it wasn’t right. And what Abel said was that it just became too much trouble. In those days in the 1920s and 30s, it was just too much trouble to have two separate names. And they changed it after two years. But that showed that he did have some sense of those kind of things.

David Newstead: That sounds like… I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen the Civil Rights film The Butler. But because there’s this generational difference between the father and the son in the movie, there appear to be these large chasms. And later in the movie, you realize they’re more style differences than anything else. Not necessarily substantive disagreements between what the father and the son are pursuing.

Robert Meeropol: Yep. And we used to argue New Left and Old Left all the time in the late 1960s.

Question from a Reader: I teach History in the Austin School district, which claims the highest percentage of English Language Learners and minorities in the district. In class, I include a discussion over the fear of the Other. Is there anything you would say to these students in relation to their cultural experiences within the United States?

Robert Meeropol: The reality is that this country was built upon stealing another people’s land and committing genocide against them. And then, its economic prosperity at least in the 19th century was to a large degree built on the backs of slaves. And you put those two things together and how can you justify that? Well, the Native Americans have to be the Other. And African-Americans have to be the Other. So, you have two types of people that represented Otherness that is at the core of nation’s success. And while it’s not generally acknowledged in the mainstream when you have that at your core, of necessity that’s going to be a powerful cultural component that’s not going to go away anytime soon.

Then, of course, there’s this sort of standard left-wing response, which is the people who run the show like to divide and conquer. If you keep the white workers fighting with the black workers, they won’t unite and fight against the bosses. That’s oversimplified, but you get the idea. So, you have this cultural component that has to do with both Native Americans and African-Americans. Then, you have this class component, which has to do with dividing the working class. But I don’t know that I’m telling this high school teacher anything that she doesn’t know already.

David Newstead: I saw an interesting PBS piece a month or two ago and it was about demographic changes going forward in the United States. And for people who are entrenched in the way things have been and the demographics of how things have been, there are changes coming down the way that if you have a problem with the Other you’re the odd person out.

Robert Meeropol: I mean, that’s responsible at least in part for the Trump phenomenon. It resonates with all the people who are terrified of becoming the Other themselves.

David Newstead: How do you think Abel Meeropol should be remembered? This year marks 30 years since his death in 1986 and I’m curious what you think his legacy should be?

Robert Meeropol: I think on a political level, he should be remembered for Strange Fruit. It’s clear to me that it was his greatest work, even though it’s less than a hundred words long. It’s the work that’s had far and away the greatest impact. So, that’s on a political or public level.

On a more personal level, I think he should also be remembered for he and his wife both adopting me and my brother. And the way that plays out is that there’s a certain congruousness to having the person whose best known and most powerful work was an attack on lynching then going ahead and adopting the orphaned sons of people who he viewed as being legally lynched. That showed to me that he was that sort of a humanitarian not only in his head, but in his heart.

Read Part Two