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It was during my stint at Café that a song was born which became my personal protest -- "Strange Fruit." The germ of the song was in a poem written by Lewis Allen. I first met him at the Café Society. When he showed me that poem, I dug it right off....

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. I also got a wonderful assist from Danny Mendelsohn, another writer who had done arrangements for me. He helped me with arranging the song and rehearsing it patiently. I worked like the devil on it because I was never sure I could put it across or that I could get across to a plush night-club audience the things that it meant to me.

I was scared people would hate it. The first time I sang it I thought it was a mistake and I had been right being scared. There wasn't even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping....

Not many other singers ever tried to do "Strange Fruit." I never tried to discourage them, but audiences did. Years after me at the Café Society, Josh White came on with his guitar and his shirt front split down to here and did it. The audience shouted for him to leave the song alone.

A few years later Lillian Smith told me the song inspired her to write the novel and the play about a lynching. You know what she called it.

BILLIE HOLIDAY, Lady Sings the Blues, New York, NY (Penguin), 1986, pp. 84-86

It was a bold move at that time [1939] as songs of protest about racial discrimination were almost unknown.... It was a song totally out of character and unlike anything else that Billie had ever done. It brought Billie into contact with a new and different strata of society and John Hammond was scathing in his criticism of what he saw as a badly judged move. "Artistically the worst thing that ever happened to her was the overwhelming success of her singing of... Strange Fruit, which amassed a host of fans among the intelligentsia and the left."

ALUN MORGAN, Liner notes for "The Voice of Jazz -- Complete Recordings 1933-1940," 1991

First recorded by Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra (Frankie Newton, Tab Smith, Kenneth Hollon, Stanley Payne, Sonny White, Jimmy McGlin, John Williams, Eddie Dougherty), New York, NY, 20 Apr 1939 (two takes)

Lyrics as reprinted in Tom Glazer (ed.), Songs of Peace, Freedom & Protest, Greenwich, CT, 1970, pp. 294-296
© 1940, E. B. Marks Music Corp.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood on the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scenes 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.