Friday, June 12, 2015


My latest video for YouTube.
(best viewed in full-screen)

I was about twenty years old when I first discovered Billie Holiday. I bought some of her old albums in an obscure used record shop in downtown Los Angeles. I remember listening to the records late at night, by candlelight, while sipping a glass of wine. I'd listen to the songs over and over, mesmerized by her entrancingly unique vocal style.

Billie Holiday

I was particularly haunted by a song called Strange Fruit. The melancholy melody and disturbing words were unforgettable. It wasn't until years later that I learned the story behind the song. 

The music and lyrics of Strange Fruit were written by Abel Meeropol (1903-1986), who was an American teacher, writer, and musician. Meeropol often used the pseudonym Lewis Allan - in memory of his two deceased children who were stillborn.

In the early 1930's Meeropol was deeply moved by a photo he happened to see, which depicted the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Shipp and Smith were two Indiana black men who were arrested on August 7, 1930, as suspects in a robbery, murder, and the rape of a white woman.

The photo that inspired the song Strange Fruit
taken by Lawrence Beitler on August 7, 1930

That night, the men were dragged from the jail by an angry mob, savagely beaten and lynched. Some of the local police were involved in the lynching (incidentally, the white woman later testified in court that she had not been raped).

Abel Meeropol, who was a life-long activist for human rights, wrote a poem inspired by black lynchings entitled Bitter Fruit. It was published in the New York Teacher in 1937. Meeropol later changed the title to Strange Fruit and set the poem to music.

 Abel Meeropol
and his wife Anne

Abel Meeropol, his musician wife Anne, and black singer Laura Duncan, performed the song in numerous places throughout New York, including Madison Square Garden. The song was later introduced to singer Billie Holiday, who incorporated it into her concerts. She recorded it in 1939 and 1944 and the first recording sold a million copies. Meeropol later wrote numerous other songs, for such popular singers as Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee.

There's an interesting side note to Abel Meeropol and his wife Anne. In the 1950's they adopted Michael and Robert Rosenberg, who were the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg - the infamous American couple who were executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage.

I made the video Strange Fruit last night, and I used the current MovieMaker on Windows 8 - which I'm not at all familiar with (all of my other videos were made with the old Vista Windows MovieMaker). 

Despite my initial apprehensions, I caught on quickly and did a fairly decent job. Unfortunately I eliminated all the transitions and visual effects that I usually use, because - for some reason - they messed up the audio synchronization.

I hope this makes sense, because I haven't slept in 24 hours and I'm a bit groggy. 
I'll probably post the lyrics later but I'm too tired to do it now. 

Here are the lyrics to Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.


  1. I'm at a loss to interpret my feelings right this minute ... almost as if someone's kicked me in the solar plexus.
    But, I mean that in a good way, Jon.

    Being a child of the atomic age (irony intended) -- where it's simple to eradicate our fellow beings without ever having to look in their eyes -- I can't begin to wrap my mind around this sort of hatred.

    After losing their baby sons, that's pretty neat about Abel and Anne adopting the Rosenberg's children!

  2. Myra, I'm really glad that this story left such an impact on you (judging by the lack of comments, I feel you're the only one). It's a very unpleasant subject matter and one that's not easy to deal with. I didn't want the video to be too graphic - I tried to be subtle.
    I was surprised when I heard about the adoption of the Rosenberg children.

    As always, your input is appreciated.

  3. I remember hearing Billie Holiday sing "My Man" when I was a kid, probably on tv. It was about stuff I didn't understand --still don't-- but the song stayed with me. The melody and especially her phrasing. She sang for keeps. The lynching photo, I saw in a book in junior high school and wondered the same thing I wonder now: How could that crowd smile and point and believe themselves so self-righteous; how could they be raised to such a bad idea? My mother was born in Oklahoma the same year as Billie Holiday and, after teaching high-school for some years, left for Berkeley California in 1938 --here, she was not prohibited by law from teaching black children or from marrying. I exist because she sought freedom from a dangerously backward place.

  4. This is a very disturbing subject but one that should never be forgotten. When I was doing some research to confirm my information for this post, I was actually horrified at the photos of lynchings that I found on the Internet. The crowds of onlookers were laughing and gloating - and many were women and children. It's chilling to think of the heartlessness and evil that exists.

    I was raised in Southern California and never really knew what bigotry and racism were until I went to other places.

  5. Your video is stunning Jon. The marriage of visual and audio works beautifully. I wasn't familiar with the history behind the song - most interesting. Lovely about the adoption of the Rosenberg children too.

    1. Many thanks for your kind words. There are numerous other videos of "Strange Fruit" on YouTube but most of them are graphic. I tried to make mine more subtle and poetic, without exactly emphasizing the horror.
      The story of the adoption of the Rosenberg children was surprising.

  6. Billie Holiday has a haunting smoky voice that sounds like it comes straight from her soul. It's hard to listen to her sing anything without feeling something, but now that I know the background story of "Strange Fruit," I better understand why that particular song is so haunting. Thanks for sharing the story. It's a horrible one, but one we should all know.

    You did a great job with the video!

    1. Billie Holiday - much like Judy Garland - sang from her heart. When either of them did a song, it was thereafter uniquely their own. "Smoky" and "haunting" are apt words to describe Holiday's voice. Thanks for the comment, Susan.

  7. now I knew about the rosenberg kids (I read their book), but not the details behind "strange fruit".

    and it's a shame that lynching is still practiced today by h8ers.

    1. I didn't know anything about the Rosenberg kids until recently. They are both still living.
      I never fail to be shocked and depressed by all the hate in his world.

  8. I daren't take the chance of playing your video, Jon, things here being as they are - and I accept from other comments above that the loss is mine.
    Of course I'm very familiar with this particular rendition and I think I'm right in saying that Ms Holliday, when she first heard the song, didn't know what it was about. But of course it's deeply moving. No one with a soul could fail to be stirred by the profundity of it, made more emphatic by knowing the story behind it - and that distressing photo which is almost too painful to look at.

    1. Ray, I can fully sympathize with your computer problems. I'm having almost the exact trouble with my old desktop computer. If I didn't have the laptop, I don't know what I'd do. I let Windows run a diagnostic test and it revealed that I need SEVEN new drivers. I didn't even know a computer had so many drivers........

      I posted my Strange Fruit" video on YouTube (my channel is Jayveesonata) so perhaps someday you can watch it.
      Good luck, and keep in touch when your computer allows you to.

  9. The first present my husband ever gave me was a Billie Holiday LP. She sings such haunting melodies. I admit I did not know the history of these particular song. It is disturbing to say the least. I am awash in sorrow. Such a tragic time. So Shameful.

  10. I didn't know the history of this particular song until fairly recently. It's disturbing but fascinating.

    By the way, I'm still thinking about the ordeal you had with the moving house!
    "Caution! Mobile Houses Ahead!"

  11. Jon,
    I've always been enchanted by Billie Holliday's singing. The unique sound of her voice. I did not know the background of her song "Strange Fruit." What a sad and tragic but interesting story. I've often wondered what the inspiration for this song was. Thank you for the explanation.

  12. I knew a little about the song but I didn't learn the entire story until recently. Billie Holiday used it as her closing song in all of her public performances.


I love comments. Go ahead and leave one - I won't bite. But make sure you have a rabies shot just in case.