by Abel Meeropol
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.
The poem was written in the 1930s, after Meeropol saw a gruesome photo of a Southern lynching, and long before he met Holiday. At the time he was teaching at De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx. “Strange Fruit” was first printed as “Bitter Fruit” in the January 1937 issue of The New York Teacher, the publication of the Teachers Union, in which the Communist Party then played a dominant role.
Writing under the pen name of Lewis Allan, the names of his two children who were stillborn, Meeropol set the poem to music on his own. For the first two years after it was written, the song was performed in political circles, at meetings, benefits and house parties. In early 1939, however, Billie Holiday was performing in the newly-opened nightclub Café Society in lower Manhattan. Meeropol got the song to Barney Josephson, the owner of the club, and asked if Holiday would sing it. By some accounts, Holiday was at first not particularly impressed by the lyrics and perhaps not fully aware of the meaning of the song. Her rendition, however, made an enormous impression. She began performing it nightly, and then recorded it in April of that year.
source: article by Peter Daniels, 2002