Strange Fruit and Abel Meeropol

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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

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.

Quantified Happy Memory Project

By David Michael Newstead.

This week, I presented at DC’s Quantified Self Meetup, detailing a project I’ve been working on in my free time. I spent a year creating a list of every happy memory I could think of, then analyzed the information for greater self-knowledge and personal reflection.

Below, you can listen and follow along to the presentation. And start your own Happy Memory Project with a downloadable sample version.

The Greek and the Greek American

By David Michael Newstead.

I sit down with a Greek immigrant and a Greek American to learn about the importance of their connections to Greek culture, different sides of the immigrant experience, and their views on the pivotal issues affecting Greece today.

Headscarves and Hymens: Book Review

Headscarves

By David Michael Newstead.

Mona Eltahawy’s book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, is part biography, part history, and it reflects on what’s happened since the Arab Spring in 2010. The book describes a double revolution taking place during that time, the revolution we know and the one for women’s rights across the region.

This includes examinations focused on sexual harassment, violence against women, misogyny, the complexities of the hijab, and wide-ranging systems of control against women as well as the guilt-inducing socialization of girls. The author resists the notion that these issues should be sidelined by the term “identity politics”. And throughout her own personal journey, she is both deeply connected to and sometimes separated from events going on in the Middle East as she moves between countries and cultures.

Most notably, Eltahawy recites numerous examples of homegrown advocates of women’s rights in the Middle East over the last century that defy attempts to label these activities as Western. Along those same lines, the book doesn’t request outside assistance, only that people pay attention. In light of that, below I include some passages from the book that were especially interesting to me.

  • I insist on the right to critique both my culture and my faith in ways that I would reject from an outsider.
  • When I write or give lectures about gender inequality in the Middle East and North Africa, I understand I am walking into a minefield. On one side stands a bigoted and racist Western right wing that is all too eager to hear critiques of the region and of Islam that it can use against us. I would like to remind these conservatives that no country is free of misogyny, and that their efforts to reverse hard-earned women’s reproductive rights makes them brothers-in-hatred to our Islamists. On the other side stand those Western liberals who rightly condemn imperialism and yet are blind to the cultural imperialism they are performing when they silence critiques of misogyny. They behave as if they want to save my culture and faith from me, and forget that they are immune to the violations about which I speak. Blind to the privilege and the paternalism that drive them, they give themselves the right to determine what is “authentic” to my culture and faith. If the right wing is driven by a covert racism, the left sometimes suffers an implicit racism through which it usurps my right to determine what I can and cannot say.
  • When I travel and give lectures abroad and I’m asked how best to help women in my part of the world, I say, help your own community’s women fight misogyny. By doing so, you help the global struggle against the hatred of women.
  • Some men were still struggling with the chains it had taken me so long to unclasp, and I found myself moved by their personal revolutions. I would remind myself that men also struggled against sexual guilt and a socialization that produced a warped and unhealthy attitude toward women and sex. I believe – and my experience reaffirmed that belief – that girls and women bear the greater burden of this socialization. But in getting to know Egyptian men better, and in sharing my frustrations with the way our culture and practice of religion had filled us with guilt and stripped us of understanding for each other, I learned that our best allies are those men determined to free themselves of sexual guilt and refuse the false ease of gender double standards.

Read Headscarves and Hymens

The Typewriter Inheritance, Part Two

By David Michael Newstead.

I was eager to restore my grandfather’s typewriter. To start, I researched the company and the product as much as I could, but something told me I should seek out expert advice while such experts were still around. When I called one repairman though, I found myself struggling to explain the typewriter’s condition with the technical vocabulary for a device that had essentially fallen out of use. The man used terms like upright, portable, bracket, and ribbon, which surely referred to something specific that I couldn’t pretend to understand just yet. Later when I went by his workshop, I found a basement filled floor-to-ceiling with old typewriters as he explained how he has to cannibalize parts from one machine to repair others since replacements are no longer being manufactured.

Interestingly, the repairman was an elderly African-American gentleman who said he had worked for the NSA for 30 years, repairing typewriters just as he continues to do in retirement.

We talked for a bit and I tried to say something clever like, “You know, the NSA might be better off if they still used typewriters.”

Then, he said he’d take a look at my machine and get back to me. Weeks passed though and when he finally returned the device, he said there wasn’t much he could do. There were no replacements for that model.

“All the parts are there. It’s just gummed up a little,” he told me, whatever that meant.

I felt discouraged at the time that nothing could be done or done easily, I guess. And a few months would go by before I knew how to proceed. The internet didn’t have much information, which was frustrating. There weren’t a lot of people I could ask. And it’s not as if typewriters are a common thing you pass in the street. In the meantime, I moved apartments again, dutifully carrying my typewriter with me as I had done for the last few years. I mean, I was still interested in restoring it, but how? That was the big question.

Before I consulted another expert, I eventually came up with a new plan. With expert help, I’d be able to identify exactly what needed to be replaced and how and then I’d find a 3-D printer to make the part to specifications! I don’t even know much about 3-D printing, but it seemed like a good idea.

The trouble was, the few typewriter experts that are alive today are a very small group of eccentric old guys. And the knowledge that they possess on this subject also makes talking to them about something like 3-D printing almost comically impossible. So much so that the second repairman I met was a former restaurant owner who said his daughter often tells him that he needs to “get out of the Stone Age.” A self-described Afghan Hippie, he had moved to the U.S. in the early 1970s and got into typewriter school to help mitigate student visa problems. Yet, years later, he had a clear enthusiasm for his profession and a familiarity that could address any of the random questions I asked as he walked me through the particulars about my machine.

“I love these things,” he told me and I believe him.

Still, after taking everything apart and putting it back together again, we ran into the same problem as before. Lack of replacement parts. I needed a new “escapement bracket” for a typewriter model that hasn’t been in production since the mid-1960s. He couldn’t find one and neither could anybody he called. In futility, I tried to solve everything by talking about the wonders of 3-D printing, but I could see that none of my points were really connecting. It turns out that this generation gap was wide and impassible. No matter how much I tried, he didn’t understand. And once again, I’d hit a roadblock.

Later, when I stopped to think about it more, I realized that in a few short years no one will be left who has had any real experience with typewriters – either repairing them or writing with them and everything in between. This isn’t a tragedy exactly and one day the same thing might happen to all the devices I use now. Perhaps if I wasn’t compelled for personal reasons, I wouldn’t care either way. But it’s strange to think that something that was once universally in use is now all but forgotten.

My quest continues.

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