As a student, I liked to sing revolutionary songs and shout slogans at meetings and demonstrations. But I don’t remember being moved by a song like I was by “Strange Fruit”. The lyrics of this song have haunted me since I heard it a few months ago. Every word is written with deep pain and sung with anguish rooted in pain and anger.
I came across the song while lazily surfing the net. Immediately it struck a chord in my heart. The song’s story should be remembered on June 19 or Juneteenth, the National Independence Day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States of America. It was only last year that America recognized the day as a federal holiday.
Written against the backdrop of the lynching of African Americans, “Strange Fruit” has iconic status as it is considered the first protest song of the civil liberties movement in the United States. The song was made famous by billie holidaywho sang it in 1939. Getting the song on record was difficult as Columbia Records wouldn’t touch it.
The song depicts the lynching in all its brutality:
The southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swaying in the southern breeze,
Strange fruits hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
Eyes bulging and mouth twisted,
Sweet and fresh magnolia fragrance,
And the sudden smell of burnt flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to gather,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to fall,
Here is a strange and bitter harvest.
The story of this song has been written in books and portrayed through movies. He is at the heart of the dramatic film USA vs. Billie Holiday (now streamed online), which traces the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s efforts to silence Holiday over the song.
For more than a decade, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics targeted Holiday with drug arrests and effectively barred her from the nightclub circuit after an eighteen month prison sentence. She died of liver disease in 1959, aged 44.
A book about the song’s history, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, by David Margolick, was published in 2000. It describes how the song articulated the growing awareness and anger which were to rise during the mass civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. A 57-minute documentary directed by Joel Katz named after the song also tell his story.
The song was not written by an African American but by a Jewish teacher who was a member of the American Communist Party. He wrote it under the name of Lewis Allan. His real name was Abel Meeropol, and he was born in 1903 and died in 1986. Meeropol’s family was made up of Russian Jewish immigrants living in the Bronx in New York. He taught English at a school where one of his students was James Baldwin, the famous writer.
Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” in response to the lynchings of black Americans. He is conservatively estimated that there were at least 4,440 lynchings in the half century before 1940, the vast majority in the South. Little outrage was expressed at these pogrom-like activities. Socialists and Communists were at the forefront of the fight against lynchings.
Anti-Communist politicians generally agreed with Southern racists that the struggle for racial equality was essentially a left-wing plot. In 1941, Meeropol was brought before the witch hunt Rapp-Coudert Committee, which the New York State Legislature had set up to investigate alleged communist influence in the public school system. He was asked if the Communist Party commissioned “Strange Fruit” or if he was paid by the party to write the song.
Meeropol was at a party at the home of famed author WEB Du Bois, where he met Michael and Robert, the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 on charges (later turned out to be wrong) spying for the Soviet Union. Meeropol and his wife, singer Laura Duncan, adopted the boys, and they are named after their adoptive father.
The story of “Strange Fruit” is an inspiring story of solidarity and support based on political ideology, which has brought together various struggles, unlike identity politics, which quickly extinguishes the history of these struggles. The song and its history could well serve as lessons for us in India.
When Kishore Kumar songs were banned
When an emergency was imposed in 1975, singer Kishore Kumar was blacklisted by All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan for refusing to perform at a political rally in Mumbai. The Minister of Information and Broadcasting (I&B), Vidya Charan Shukla, wanted Bollywood to help promote on AIR and Doordarshan the twenty-point agenda that Indira Gandhi declared after imposing the emergency. Sanjay Gandhi asked Kishore to sing for the event, but he refused.
A Times of India report states that CB Jain, then Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of I&B, called Kishore Kumar to inform him of what the government wanted. He insisted that they meet at Kishore’s residence. However, the singer refused. According to the report, Jain was offended and informed I&B Secretary SMH Burney of Kishore’s refusal to meet. After that, with Shukla’s sanction, Burney banned all of Kishore’s songs on AIR and Doordarshan. The ban lasted from May 4, 1976 until the end of the state of emergency. Shukla was close to Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay.
The author is a human rights lawyer, teacher, activist and writer. Opinions are personal