Strange Fruit - song composed by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol), performed by Billie Holiday
Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs (studio version, with piano)
Strange Fruit, a song indelibly associated with Billie Holiday (1915-59), is one of the most striking songs ever written. It began life as a poem Bitter Fruit by Abel Meeropol (1903-86) who published it under the pen name of Lewis Allan in 1936. Meeropol, a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, wrote the poem in response to seeing a photograph of a 1930 lynching of two black men in Indiana. Later he set the poem to music and showed it to Billie Holiday in 1939. She adopted the song and used it to close her performances. Despite performing it regularly, it is said that she would still break down every time after she sang it. Because of its content, some venues prohibited her from singing the song, and her regular recording label refused to record it so that she had to make alternative arrangements with a smaller label. Numerous other singers have performed it, including Nina Simone, Josh White, Carmen McRae, Sting and UB40 but it is Billie Holiday's performance which is definitive.
The song can be used as a starting point for exploration of the issues surrounding it and the reason for its impact. Although clearly an anti-racist song, it is not a conventional 'protest' song. The mood is sombre, the style is jazz-influenced, and it does not shirk from graphic description, contrasting the 'pastoral scene' with the horror of the murders.
As well as learning the song and performing it themselves, students could compare different recorded performances in relation to their intention and impact. They could consider the motivation for writing such a song, and the affinity felt by a Jewish-American for the sufferings of Black Americans. They could study it alongside other anti-racist songs and consider their effectiveness in communicating their message. They could use the song as a starting point for writing their own songs about social issues that they consider important; or think about contemporary images that they could use as a stimulus.
Some of the verbal and visual imagery is quite shocking and needs to be handled sensitively. The resource is probably most suitable for KS 4. In addition, when using resources on YouTube, teachers should exercise care and discretion and wherever possible check the accuracy of the material against other sources.
|Links across other subjects within resource
English - writing poetry, song lyrics; study of other writing inspired by the song
History - racism, lynchings, Ku Klux Klan, civil rights movement in USA
PSHE education - racism, social development
Art - photographs as strimulus - interpreting images (through song)
Arts - song could be used as a stimulus for drawing, painting, dance
Billie Holiday: The Complete Commodore Recordings - GRP 401, 1997)
The Essential Billie Holiday EMporio EMPBOX009 (2003)
Nine Simone - Pastel Blues (1965)
Jeff Buckley - Live at Sin-e
Diana Ross - Stolen Moments
Cassandra Wilson - New Moon Daughter (1995)
Other resources/ organisations