January marked the 75th anniversary of the original publication of “Bitter Fruit.” The poem evolved into the song “Strange Fruit,” which was made famous by jazz legend Billie Holiday and was named best song of the century by Time magazine in 1999. But its author and composer, Abel Meeropol, is largely forgotten today.
“Strange Fruit” was nothing short of revolutionary for its time. Shortly after publishing the poem, Meeropol set it to music. Several artists performed the song live before he introduced it to Holiday in 1939, at New York’s famed Café Society. In an era dominated by saccharine torch songs, “Strange Fruit” was a scathing indictment of race-related violence in America; no less unusual because it was delivered by an unrepentantly defiant African-American songstress. The story that is still not properly understood is how it originated from the imagination of a Jewish schoolteacher from New York.
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