1939 April 20

Billie Holiday Records “Strange Fruit”


The great jazz singer Billie Holiday recorded Strange Fruit, a powerful anti-lynching song, on this day. Columbia Records, with whom Holiday was under contract, had refused to record the song because of its strong political message. As a result, it was recorded and released by Milt Gabler’s Commodore Records. The song became the one for which Billie Holiday is most often remembered.

The lyrics were written by Lewis Allan, a pseudonym for Abe Meeropol, a writer and New York City schoolteacher. Years later, Meeropol and his wife adopted the two sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed on June 19, 1953 for allegedly stealing the secret of the atomic bomb. The Rosenberg prosecution was filled with legal problems, including misconduct by the prosecutors.

Although largely forgotten today, on September 30, 1933 the popular African American singer Ethel Waters introduced an anti-lynching song, “Supper Time,” on Broadway, in the musical review As Thousands Cheer, by the famed songwriter Irving Berlin.

Hear Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

Read about the song and the recording: David Margolick, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (2000)

Watch the documentary film Strange Fruithttp://www.pbs.org/independentlens/strangefruit/film.html

Read: Leslie Gourse, The Billie Holiday Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary (1997)

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