Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ Was Written by a Communist School Teacher

Music legend Billie Holiday is regarded as one of the most soulful American singers of the ‘50s. But her most powerful song, “Strange Fruit,” put Holiday on the federal government’s hit list, and ultimately led to her drug arrest. 

However, the song has an even deeper history. Originally a poem, “Strange Fruit” was written by a white Jewish communist from New York City, who like Holiday, came under fire for highlighting social injustice. 

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Abel Meeropol was the New York City school teacher who wrote ‘Strange Fruit’

Abel Meeropol was an English teacher at Dewitt Clinton High School in the 1930s. According to NPR, after seeing a photo of a lynching, Meeropol was so haunted, he put his emotions into words and penned “Strange Fruit” under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. His haunting poem paints a vivid picture of hypocrisy, pain, and injustice:

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. / Pastoral scene of the gallant South, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. / Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, And the sudden smell of burning flesh! / Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck. / For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.

‘Strange Fruit’ by Lewis Allan, aka Abel Meeropol
Abel Meeropol and his wife, Anne
Abel Meeropol and his wife, Anne | Leroy Jakob/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

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Abel Meeropol was investigated after Billie Holiday started singing the song

After “Strange Fruit” was published in a Teacher’s Union paper, Meeropol composed music for the piece and performed it at a local club. The club owner ultimately gave the song to Holiday, who layered soul and emotion to every word she sang. In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday said the song reminded her of her father, who died when a hospital turned him away because he was Black.

“It reminds me of how Pop died,” she wrote. “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.”

Meeropol, like many New York City school teachers at the time, was a communist who believed in civil rights. So when Holiday started singing “Strange Fruit,” he became the subject of a state investigation. In 1940, lawmakers began looking into communism in the school system.  As part of the investigation, Meeropol had to testify that he was not paid by the American Communist Party to write the poem.

Holiday’s life and legal struggles are the subjects of Lee Daniels’ new film,  The United States vs. Billie Holiday. The singer’s haunting performances of “Strange Fruit” were not well received by the federal government, particularly Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger.

Anslinger forbade Holiday from singing “Strange Fruit.” But when she refused, he had her arrested, tried, and sent to jail on unrelated drug charges.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday stars Andra Day as Holiday and Garrett Hedlund as Anslinger. The film is currently streaming on Hulu.