‘Probably the most innovative songs in the world’: Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange fruit’ by Kathryn Tyler

February 9, 2011 at 2:46 pm 2 comments

I’ve chosen this song not for it’s musical composition or any elements that involve the sound at all. I’ve chosen it purely on the basis of the subject matter. Released in 1939 this song was hugely controversial. It was written as a poem by a Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx about the lynching of two black men, inspired by the news coverage of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in 1930 in Indiana. It contains the following disturbing lyrics:

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 popular 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 cry.

Billie Holiday started singing this song at live performances despite her fears of the anger it might provoke and she approached her record label Columbia to record the song and release it. Unsurprisingly, they turned her down too afraid of the backlash they’d receive from the South. Unperturbed, she turned to her friend Milt Gabler, who had an alternative jazz label and through Vocalion Records she got her release.

Protest songs became very common in the 1960s but in the 30s it was rare to vocalise political opinion in this way. The song was a huge commercial success and is Holiday’s biggest selling hit. It holds iconic status and demonstrated for the first time how a recording could be used as a tool in a mass political movement, both in raising awareness and motivating the already aware to act. This is why Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange fruit’ has made it as the second of my ‘probably the most innovative songs in the world’ choices.

Listen to the song on Spotify
Or on YouTube

Listen to the ‘probably the most innovative songs in the world’ playlist and send us your suggestions or add them to the playlist as we’ve made it collaborative.

Entry filed under: Just for fun, Most innovative songs in the world.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alecpatton  |  February 11, 2011 at 8:48 am

    This is such an incredible song – and it’s every bit as devastating when you listen to it now as it must have been when it was first recorded.

    Incidentally, the single most offensive thing I ever saw on TV was a perfume commercial that used ‘Strange Fruit’ as its backing track, featured a woman walking through the forest, and featured the tag line (I swear I’m not making this up) ‘Where have all the young men gone?’

  • 2. Marty  |  March 21, 2021 at 5:10 pm

    The lyrics are wrong. The trees are “poplar” trees, not “popular” trees. It is also a “bitter crop,” not a “bitter cry.”


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