Articles written for JEWISH WEEK by Leonard J. Lehrman


Song of the Century

April 7, 2000

by Leonard J. Lehrman

[passages in brackets were cut by the editor]

photo: Abel and Anne Meeropol, author-composer and probable first singer of "Strange Fruit," circa 1930.

In one of the supreme ironies of the millennium, "Strange Fruit," the 1939 song about Southern lynchings, was chosen "song of the century" by Time Magazine last December (beating out Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," among others), and attributed to Afro-American blues singer Billie Holiday, who made it famous.

In fact, the lyrics and music were written by Abel Meeropol (1903-86), a Jew from the Bronx [changed by editor to "a Bronx Jew"] who taught English at DeWitt Clinton High School.

Reporter David Margolick has expanded his September '98 Vanity Fair article on the song into a 160-page book, "Strange Fruit : Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights," which is being released today (April 7) by Running Press of Philadelphia to coincide with what would have been Holiday's 85th birthday. She died in 1959 at the age of 44.

Margolick's book has begun the sorely needed documentation of the song's origins and its impact on American life. Though lacking an index, the book abounds in lively interviews and features a discography listing 34 other artists in addition to Holiday, who recorded the song--from Amasong to Webster Young, and including Nina Simone, Sting, Shirley Verrett, and Josh White, not to mention Pete Seeger and others who included it in "The People's Songbook" (1947), which became mother's milk for "a few thousand Red Diaper babies," [this reviewer among them].

Abel and Anne Meeropol's own two sons, Lewis and Allan, died in infancy. The couple adopted the orphaned sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Michael and Robert, who have since made careers of their own in economics and law/sociology.
"Lewis Allan" became Abel's pen name, under which he would write not only "Strange Fruit" but also "Apples, Peaches and Cherries" and the words to Earl Robinson's "The House I Live In," as well as libretti to operas by Elie Siegmeister ("Darlin' Corie"), Lehman Engel ("Malady of Love" and "The Soldier"), Martin Kalmanoff ("The Insect Comedy"), Milos Vacek ("Wind from Alabama"), and Robert Kurka ("Good Soldier Schweik" [--which will be revived in Chicago next year). (See Margaret Ross Griffel, Operas in English, Greenwood Press, 1999.])

Abel's papers are in the Special Collections of Boston University, along with those of Yuri Suhl, James Aronson, and other progressive writers. [His literally thousands of poems, songs and other works await the cataloguing and appreciation they deserve. Perhaps this book will help that to happen soon.]