According to journalist Eudie Pak and Biography.com, "In March 1939, a 23-year-old Billie Holiday walked up to the mic at West 4th's Cafe Society in New York City to sing her final song of the night. Per her request, the waiters stopped serving and the room went completely black, save for a spotlight on her face. And then she sang, softly in her raw and emotional voice: 'Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees...'"
As Pak continues to report, "When Holiday finished, the spotlight turned off. When the lights came back on, the stage was empty. She was gone. And per her request, there was no encore. This was how Holiday performed 'Strange Fruit,' which she would determinedly sing for the next 20 years until her untimely death at the age of 44."
"Holiday may have popularized 'Strange Fruit,' and turned it into a work of art," Pak notes, "...but it was a Jewish communist teacher and civil rights activist from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol, who wrote it, first as a poem, then later as a song. His inspiration? Meeropol came across a 1930 photo that captured the lynching of two Black men in Indiana. The visceral image haunted him for days and prompted him to put pen to paper."
"After he published 'Strange Fruit' in a teachers union publication," Pak documents, "Meeropol composed it into a song and passed it onto a nightclub owner, who then introduced it to Holiday. When Holiday heard the lyrics, she was deeply moved by them — not only because she was a Black American but also because the song reminded her of her father, who died at 39 from a fatal lung disorder, after being turned away from a hospital because he was a Black man."
As Pak concludes, "Because of the painful memories it conjured, Holiday didn't enjoy performing 'Strange Fruit, but knew she had to."
“It reminds me of how Pop died,” she said of the song in her autobiography. “But I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because 20 years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”
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