I just finished reading the delightful little book Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song by David Margolick. It details the life of the song “Strange Fruit” written (under the pen name “Lewis Allen”) by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish school teacher from New York City, and made famous in performances and recordings by Billie Holiday (though other renditions have been sung by Nina Simone, Josh White, Sting, Cassandra Wilson and many others).
I highly recommend the book to anyone concerned with the relationship between art and social change, as it details from many vantage points the “effects” (and affects) the song had on people, ranging from highly personal emotional reactions to transformative experiences that catalyzed people towards activism, as well as broader cultural and policy shifts.
It was disappointing for me to realize that after my friend James Tracy had suggested I read the book that I actually hadn’t ever heard the song. I listened to it several times while reading the book, and am presenting some of the audio below so you get a sense of how it sounded with different voices and contexts.
The most powerful in mine, and most people’s opinion is Billie Holiday:
Sting did a great job but it just doesn’t hit me the same way:
Nina Simone is so good and the music is eerie, but I think the fact that it was recorded so much later than Holiday really takes some of the effect away because it was so much more acceptable to speak critically about racism in Simone’s time:
Diana Ross played Billie Holiday in the movie Lady Sings the Blues and did this version:
Squeeky Blonde, whom I had never heard of before today, also performed the song:
A Stanford University choir adapts it:
It continues to be sung by female Jazz singers like Dee Dee Bridgewater regularly:
And probably my least favorite version is by the Gutter Twins who manage to turn it into a rock ballad that could easily be mistaken for a breakup song: