Song of the Century
In 1939 Time magazine denounced Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” as a “prime piece of musical propaganda.” In 1999 Time named “Strange Fruit” the song of the century. How did a poem by a white Jewish New York schoolteacher become one of the most influential protest songs of the civil rights movement? “Strange Fruit” changed the lives of its creator and its famous interpreter and helped end the unspeakable practice of lynching in America.
With its brutal, bloody lyrics comparing the bodies of lynched black men to macabre fruit hanging from a Southern tree’s boughs—“fruit for the crows to pluck”—“Strange Fruit” was a signature song of jazz great Billie Holiday. In Lady Sings the Blues (1956), her ghostwritten autobiography, Holiday helped create the myth that she had composed “Strange Fruit.” “The germ of the song was in a poem written by Lewis Allen [sic],” she explains. He “suggested that Sonny White, who had been my accompanist, and I turn it into music.” But Holiday didn’t write the song. She even misspelled the real author’s pen name. Lewis Allan was the pseudonym of songwriter and schoolteacher Abel Meeropol, composed of the names intended for his stillborn sons. According to his adopted son Robert, Meeropol took legal action to force Holiday to correct her autobiography, but the “myth Billie created survived her.” Meeropol’s other adopted son, Michael, added, “Our father always shook his head and noted that Miss Holiday was ‘a sick woman.’” In 2011 Meeropol was added to the American National Tree, an exhibition at the National Constitution Center commemorating “100 Americans whose actions have helped write the story of the Constitution.”
Abel Meeropol, a teacher of English at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, was so haunted by a photograph of two African American lynching victims that he wrote a poem about it, “Bitter Fruit,” which first appeared in The New York Teacher, a union publication, in 1937. Meeropol set his poem to music, and the resulting song, “Strange Fruit,” was regularly performed at teachers’ union rallies. Meeropol took it to jazz singer Billie Holiday, who turned it into a huge hit. Although royalties from her 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit” helped Meeropol financially, he continued to teach. In 1940 he was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in the public schools and was asked if the American Communist Party had paid him to write “Strange Fruit.” Meeropol said it hadn’t, but he was indeed a member. He left teaching in 1945 and quit the party but continued to write songs. In the 1950s Meeropol and his wife adopted the orphaned sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, American citizens who had been convicted and executed for conspiracy to commit espionage. Author E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) fictionalized the story of the boys’ adoption in his novel The Book of Daniel.
In The Book of Daniel, which The Chicago Tribune described as a “capsule history of the American left in the 20th century,” E.L. Doctorow fictionalizes the aftermath of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s 1953 execution for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. “I didn’t want to write about the Rosenbergs. I wanted to write about what happened to them,” Doctorow has said. The Rosenbergs married in 1939, and in 1942 the KGB recruited Julius to provide classified military information to the Soviets. He worked for the Army Signal Corps engineering laboratories at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, until the Army discovered his Communist Party membership. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, was a machinist on the Manhattan Project, the top-secret U.S. plan to build an atomic bomb. Julius was persuaded by his Soviet contact to recruit Greenglass as a spy—and Greenglass’s testimony was central in sending his sister and brother-in-law to the electric chair. The couple left behind two young boys. Doctorow changes the children’s identities to Daniel and Susan Isaacson in his novel, in which Daniel struggles to deal with his parents’ death and his sister’s increasing radicalization.
As Ethel and Julius Rosenberg sat in Sing Sing Correctional Facility awaiting execution, left-leaning writers and artists like Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, Dashiell Hammett, Jean Cocteau, Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo tried to rally public support for them, and the Rosenbergs’ status as victims of Cold War paranoia has been cemented in American pop culture. They appear in such diverse works of fiction as Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar (1963), Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (1968), Joyce Carol Oates’s You Must Remember This (1987) and Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988). Ethel’s ghost is featured in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. Consisting of two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, the play clocks in at more than seven hours. The first part won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize; the two parts won the Tony for best play in 1993 and 1994, respectively. Subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Angels is set in New York City in 1985, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. Critic John Heilpern wrote in The New York Observer, “Angels in America is the finest drama of our time, speaking to us of an entire era of life and death as no other play within memory.”
As a young playwright, Tony Kushner has said he was “fixated” on Roy Cohn, the assistant to Senator Joseph McCarthy, infamous for his 1950s witch hunts of American communists. “I was fascinated,” Kushner said. “People didn’t hate McCarthy so much—they thought he was a scoundrel who didn’t believe in anything. But there was a venal little monster by his side, a Jew and a queer, and this was the real object of detestation.” Kushner put Cohn front and center as a character in his epic Angels in America. In the play, as in his public life, Cohn remained deeply in the closet; he refused to acknowledge he had AIDS, insisting he suffered from liver cancer. In Angels Cohn tells his doctor, “Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout.” Cohn is rumored to have used his own clout to get preferential treatment with the experimental AIDS drug AZT. Ever a conservative, Cohn framed and hung each of the get-well notes he received from President and Mrs. Reagan. When the AIDS Quilt was displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1987, it included a panel that read, “Roy Cohn. Bully. Coward. Victim.”
Roy Cohn was only 20 years old when he graduated from Columbia Law School; he had to wait until he turned 21 to be admitted to the bar. He then used his political connections to become the youngest assistant district attorney in Manhattan. Cohn gained widespread public notice for his examination of David Greenglass during the espionage trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, at which Greenglass identified Ethel, his sister, as a member of a Soviet spy ring. Four attorneys helped prosecute the Rosenbergs, but Cohn was the one who lobbied Judge Irving Kaufman to impose the death penalty on the couple. According to The Autobiography of Roy Cohn, Cohn told Kaufman that Ethel deserved the death penalty because “she’s the older one, she’s the one with the brains.… She was the mastermind of this conspiracy.” In 2001 a disguised Greenglass appeared on TV’s 60 Minutes II and admitted Cohn had encouraged him to lie on the stand. “As a spy who turned his family in…I don’t care. I sleep very well,” Greenglass added. In the play Angels in America, Roy Cohn, dying of AIDS, is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. She sings him a Yiddish lullaby.
When Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were sentenced to death, in 1951, the judge chastised the couple for their readiness to “sacrifice their children” for radical politics. Ethel and Julius had two sons, Robert and Michael, whom The New York Times called the “most famous orphans of the Cold War.” Robert was six and Michael 10 when their parents were executed. Robert remembers his brother sobbing, “That’s it, then! Good-bye, good-bye,” on June 19, 1953, after they saw a television report announcing their parents would die that day. Later the boys played baseball past sunset; no one wanted to call them inside, where they would learn the Rosenbergs had died in the electric chair at one minute before sundown. In the two years between the sentencing and execution, the boys were passed from relatives to friends; at one point they lived in a shelter. At a Christmas party at the home of African American activist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys met Abel Meeropol, the writer of the song “Strange Fruit.” He and his wife, Anne, eventually adopted them. The Rosenbergs’ sons changed their name to Meeropol and grew up in New York City.
By the late 1930s most left-wing events in New York City included a performance of Abel Meeropol’s anti-racism song “Strange Fruit.” Robert Gordon, director of the floor show at the new Café Society nightclub in Greenwich Village, heard the song at a fund-raiser for anti-fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War and took Meeropol to the club to meet its featured entertainer, Billie Holiday. Meeropol played “Strange Fruit” for Holiday, who asked him only one question, about its lyrics: “What does pastoral mean?” Her rendition became such a sensation that Café Society began to advertise the song itself. “Strange Fruit” became the standard finale of Holiday’s act. She typically sang it with a single spotlight on her face in an otherwise dark room, and no food or drinks were served during the song. Holiday always left the stage when it was over. There was no encore. She was intent on recording “Strange Fruit,” but her label, Vocalion, refused, fearing reprisals from Southern conservatives. In 1939 she recorded it with Commodore, a small, adventurous jazz label run out of a record store. She was paid $500 for the four tracks she laid down that day.
“Strange Fruit” brought Billie Holiday tremendous success: “I opened Café Society as an unknown,” she wrote. “I left two years later as a star.” She also recorded such classics as “God Bless the Child,” “Lover Man” and “Good Morning, Heartache” during the 1940s. In 1946 Hollywood beckoned, and she was cast in the musical drama New Orleans. Holiday thought she would play herself in a nightclub setting, but instead she played a maid. Singer Diana Ross had an easier transition to her film career. In 1971, the year after Ross left her vocal group, the Supremes, her boss (and sometime lover) Berry Gordy wanted his company, Motown Records, to move into the movie business. While appearing on Inside the Actors Studio in 2007, Ross was quoted as calling Gordy a “visionary” and crediting him for investing his “hard-earned dollars” so she could star as Holiday in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues. Many critics and fans disagreed with Ross’s casting, but the movie was a box-office smash, and Ross earned a best actress Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award for most promising female newcomer. Lady’s double-LP soundtrack became Ross’s only number-one album as a soloist in the U.S.
In an interview regarding the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, star Diana Ross commented, “One of the things that I didn’t want to do is try to copy Billie Holiday.” Ross wisely knew she could not duplicate the earlier singer’s unique vocal timing and rough but poignant tone. As rock critic Robert Christgau has written, “It is impossible to cover Billie Holiday songs,” yet many have tried: Such disparate artists as UB40, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sting, Cassandra Wilson, Jeff Buckley and Nina Simone have covered Holiday’s signature song “Strange Fruit.” Although Holiday’s original 1939 recording reached number 16 on the pop charts, the song was widely banned on the radio, and Holiday was sometimes attacked while performing it. Often called the first protest song, “Strange Fruit” was kept alive by civil rights activists, who sent copies of the record to their congressional representatives and senators. Holiday’s recording ultimately sold more than a million copies and became one of the most influential records of all time. Songwriter Abel Meeropol said, “I wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it.”