• Courtney E. Smith

'Strange Fruit' & The Role Of Murder Ballads In The Fight For Civil Rights

The absorption of murder ballads in American folk, country, soul and blues music, after being imported by European immigrants of various origins, has been so thorough that it’s hard to separate certain songs from the voices that make them famous.

In addition to murder ballads, there were slave ballads (addressing the import of slaves to the American colonies as well as various cautionary tales for slaves who behaved outside of the social norm), work songs (traditional chants and songs passed among slaves and sung during work hours), Black spirituals (hymns adapted by and for Black church services — the difference from other spiritual services was documented, somewhat controversially, by Alan Lomax), and protest songs. These forms were largely influenced by the folk songs of rural America. While a song could be both a murder ballad and another form of ballad or spiritual, one special song from this collection became known as the first protest song, combining murder ballad, elements of spiritual arrangement and social commentary.

There are a few murder ballads that address the phenomenon of lynching, but easily the most famous and revered is “Strange Fruit.” The song, most famously performed by Billie Holiday, was written in 1938 by a white Jewish teacher from the Bronx named Abel Meeropol under the pen name Lewis Allan. He was disturbed after seeing a photo of a lynching and couldn’t get the image out of his head. To put how forward-thinking and against the grain of the times writing this song was for the modern person, 1938 was a lot closer to Boardwalk Empire than Mad Men in terms of how society was dealing with integration. America was still years away from integration in public places like schools and restaurants.

At the time of “Strange Fruit,” Black people still had to sit in separate sections on public transport and drink from different water fountains in parts of the country. A performer like Billie Holiday might not have been allowed to have a drink or eat in the clubs where she performed. The Constitutional Rights Foundation found that between 1882 and 1968, mobs lynched 4,743 people and that 70 percent of those were African Americans. By the late 1920s, 95 percent of lynchings in America were happening in the South.

What makes “Strange Fruit” stand out is its moral stance. Earlier murder ballads were rooted in the sensibility of true crime writing. Without judgment, they recounted brutal, grisly murders and often in great detail for the amusement of the listener or, at best, as a cautionary tale. The lyrics to “Strange Fruit” not only paint a very vivid and bloody picture of a man who has been hanged but include the turn of phrase, “Here is a strange and bitter crop,” to express disappointment and disapproval of the inhumane actions. In fact, the poem was thought to be so incendiary that the state of New York brought Meeropol before a committee to investigate alleged Communist influence in the public school system. Meeropol was a Communist, but what the committee wanted to know was if the Communist Party had commissioned and paid for the poem, which was initially published in The New York Teacher, then a publication for the Teacher’s Union.

The song was recorded by Holiday in the spring of 1939 and was rarely played on the radio as the result of an informal ban. However, she added it to her nightly setlists, and the track went to №16 on the Billboard charts in that same year as a result of song sales.

“Strange Fruit” anticipated the musical waves to come. In the ’50s and ’60s, the push for civil rights would take center stage in American culture and protest songs, along with a resurgence of interest in folk music and the murder ballads that are part of their tradition, would become an important tool in effecting change.

“Strange Fruit” is not the last chapter in the lynching-themed murder ballad, however. It is worth noting that Toby Keith, in his 2003 song “Beer For My Horses,” suggests lynching as a crime for what are thinly disguised references to Arab people and observers of the Islam religion — or at the very least members of Al-Qaeda — in the wake of the World Trade Center attack on 9/11.

The problem with the vigilante justice he advocates for in his lyrics is that they also tacitly endorse the old ways, including lynching, that are sympathetic to white privilege and operate entirely out of the justice system. “Grand pappy told my pappy back in my day son / A man had to answer for the wicked that he’d done / Take all the rope in Texas find a tall oak tree / Round up all of them bad boys, hang them high in the street / For all the people to see.”

Songs like “Strange Fruit” and “Beer For My Horses” are born of a certain time and circumstance. It’s unfortunate that a regressive voice has the last word, for the time being, on the matter, but the murder ballad can be revitalized and evolved by a new generation at any time — including the murder ballad that raises social consciousness and functions as a protest of crimes against humanity.

This story was originally published on June 5, 2013.

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