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Strange Fruit by Abel Meeropol


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In 1937 Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from New York, saw a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Meeropol later recalled how the photograph "haunted me for days" and inspired the writing of the poem, Strange Fruit. Meeropol, a member of the American Communist Party, using the pseudonym, Lewis Allan, published the poem in the New York Teacher and later, the Marxist journal, New Masses.

After seeing Billie Holiday perform at the club, Café Society, in New York, Meeropol showed her the poem. Holiday liked it and after working on it with Sonny White turned the poem into the song, Strange Fruit. The record made it to No. 16 on the charts in July 1939. However, the song was denounced by Time Magazine as "a prime piece of musical propaganda" for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

Meeropol remained active in the American Communist Party and after the execution of Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg he adopted their two sons. He taught at the De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx for 27 years, but continued to write songs, including the Frank Sinatra hit, The House I Live In.

There is an interesting article by Caryl Phillips in today's Guardian about the background to the song.

http://arts.guardian.co.uk/theatre/drama/s...2151142,00.html

However, he fails to mention that Billie Holiday insisted her name appeared on the writing credits before she agreed to sing the song. Here is Billie Holiday's account of how she got to record the song:

"The germ of the song was in a poem written by Lewis Allen. When he showed me that poem, I dug it right off. It seemed to spell out all the things that had killed Pop (Holliday's father had died of pneumonia in 1937 after several segregated southern hospitals refused to treat him). Allen, too, had heard how Pop died and of course was interested in my singing. He suggested that Sonny White, who had been my accompanist, and I turn it into music. So the three of us got together and did the job in about three weeks." (Billie Holliday, Lady Sings the Blues, 1956)

Does anyone know why Abel Meeropol used the pseudonym, Lewis Allan, when he first published the poem?

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You might refer to Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, by David Margolick, Foreword by Hilton Als, published in 2000 by Running Press of Philadelphia and London.

I read the book at the time of its initial appearance, and, thanks to John's prompting, I'll happily revisit this slim, eloquent volume with the hope of answering the question at hand.

Readers of this Forum may be interested to know that Mr. and Mrs. Meeropol adopted the sons (Michael and Robert) of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Charles

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In 1937 Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from New York, saw a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Meeropol later recalled how the photograph "haunted me for days" and inspired the writing of the poem, Strange Fruit. Meeropol, a member of the American Communist Party, using the pseudonym, Lewis Allan, published the poem in the New York Teacher and later, the Marxist journal, New Masses.

After seeing Billie Holiday perform at the club, Café Society, in New York, Meeropol showed her the poem. Holiday liked it and after working on it with Sonny White turned the poem into the song, Strange Fruit. The record made it to No. 16 on the charts in July 1939. However, the song was denounced by Time Magazine as "a prime piece of musical propaganda" for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

Meeropol remained active in the American Communist Party and after the execution of Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg he adopted their two sons. He taught at the De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx for 27 years, but continued to write songs, including the Frank Sinatra hit, The House I Live In.

There is an interesting article by Caryl Phillips in today's Guardian about the background to the song.

http://arts.guardian.co.uk/theatre/drama/s...2151142,00.html

However, he fails to mention that Billie Holiday insisted her name appeared on the writing credits before she agreed to sing the song. Here is Billie Holiday's account of how she got to record the song:

"The germ of the song was in a poem written by Lewis Allen. When he showed me that poem, I dug it right off. It seemed to spell out all the things that had killed Pop (Holliday's father had died of pneumonia in 1937 after several segregated southern hospitals refused to treat him). Allen, too, had heard how Pop died and of course was interested in my singing. He suggested that Sonny White, who had been my accompanist, and I turn it into music. So the three of us got together and did the job in about three weeks." (Billie Holliday, Lady Sings the Blues, 1956)

Does anyone know why Abel Meeropol used the pseudonym, Lewis Allan, when he first published the poem?

John, in my life I've had the pleasure of knowing jazz drummer Chris Columbo and Billy Holiday's early pianist Carlton Drinkard, both of whom performed with Holiday and ended their careers in Atlantic City, Chris having a stroke at 90 something while playing in the lobby of the Showboat Hotel-Casino, Drinkard while serving as a highroller host at Harrah's.

Drinkard, whose fingers were broken by the mob, as misportrayed in the Holloywood movie "Lady Sings the Blues"? - said that Holiday's bio of the same name was 95% fiction, written by her manager-business partner to fullfill a publishing contract.

The manuscript of the true story was destroyed in a Baltimore hotel fire in the 60s.

Both provided me with tons of colorful background for a feature article I did when the movie "the Cotton Club" came out.

Chris Columbo was the house band drummer at the Club Harlem on Kentucky Avenue in Atlantic City for decades, until casions came in the late 70s.

On Chris Columbo's 100th birthday in 2002, I visited him in a nursing home on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. He was asleep when I got there and I waited for him to wake up. A TV crew from Philadelphia were there earlier and left a cake. He was in a curled up and a head almost as big as his body, and I wasn't even sure it was him until he woke up and I talked and I recognized his voice. I talked with him briefly. He remembered me as "the writer" who wrote about a dozen articles about him since the early 70s. Then he said, "Strange Fruit," and fell asleep again.

I had yet to register it with the Billy Holiday song, but when he died a few weeks later I started looking into it, and like "Rosebud," it lead to some interesting places, which I wrote about in my obit of Columbo.

I'll try to locate a copy and see if there's anything there worth sharing.

Bill Kelly

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Does anyone know why Abel Meeropol used the pseudonym, Lewis Allan, when he first published the poem?

He thought the name sounded too Jewish and that this might make people prejudiced against the poem/song. I find this surprising as the poem only appeared in the New Masses and other left-wing journals. Lewis and Allan were the names of his two still-born sons. As Charles pointed out, Abel and his wife adopted the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Michael and Robert, after their parents' execution. Abel was a member of the American Communist Party during the 1930s and was blacklisted and unable to work as a New York teacher after the arrival of Joseph McCarthy on the political scene.

Abel also wrote two other best-selling songs "The House That I Live In" (Frank Sinatra) and "Apples, Peaches and Cherries" (Peggy Lee). Abel died at the age of 83 in 1986.

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This thread brings to mind the problematic "Georgia Rose," by Harry Rosenthal (music) and Alex Sullivan and Jimmy Flynn (words).

Tony Bennett amended and recorded the ambiguous lyric (minus the verse) in the '60s -- and took considerable flak for his efforts.

[Verse 1]

Mam-my is feel-ing sad to-day,

Her child is called Black Rose at play,

She says "come here and kiss me, my hon-ey dear,

Things are not as bad as they ap-pear."

[Chorus]

Geor-gia Rose, Geor-gia Rose

You're the most prec-ious rose Dix-ie grows;

'Tho it don't seem quite right,

'Cause your skin's dark as night

I know you've a heart li-ly white.

To the good Lord a-bove We all look just the same,

So don't hang your head in shame;

Geor-gia Rose, Geor-gia Rose,

Don't be blue 'cause you're black Geor-gia Rose.

I write "ambiguous" not because of the original lyric's clear condemnation of Rose's skin color, but rather for Bennet's subtle yet beautiful rewriting of the chorus's third, fourth, and fifth lines:

"Now some folks don't think it's right,

That your skin's dark as night,

But I know your heart's lily white."

The unfortunate black/white symbology remains, but the thought is clear and noble.

Charles

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Does anyone know why Abel Meeropol used the pseudonym, Lewis Allan, when he first published the poem?

He thought the name sounded too Jewish and that this might make people prejudiced against the poem/song. I find this surprising as the poem only appeared in the New Masses and other left-wing journals.

I don't find it surprising at all because it has long been common for Jewish and other immigrants and their descendants in America and Britain to adopt anglicized names. The song author's name presumably appeared on all the labels (45s, EPs and LPs) and album covers.

An excerpt of the Margolick book can be read here

http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0762406771...111#reader-link

EDIT Link added

Edited by Len Colby
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  • 1 year later...

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