What is the famous song “Strange Fruit,” by Abel Meeropol, a New York Jewish communist schoolteacher, and most famously performed by Billie Holiday, the immensely influential and important black singer, about?
Lynching. It’s about lynching. It’s about whites lynching black people in the US South.
See how easy that was? Very few words.
Here’s what Annie Lennox thinks it’s about:
“Strange Fruit” is a protest song and it was written before the Civil Rights movement actually got on its feet, got established. And because of what I’ve seen around the world, I know that this theme, this subject of violence and bigotry, hatred, violent acts of mankind against ourselves. This is a theme. It’s a human theme that has gone on for time immemorial. It’s expressed in all kinds of different ways, whether it be racism, whether it be domestic violence, whether it be warfare, or a terrorist act, or simply one person attacking another person in a separate incident. This is something that we as human beings have to deal with, it’s just going on 24/7. And as an observer of this violence, even as a child, I thought, why is this happening? So I’ve always had that sense of empathy and kind of outrage that we behave in this way. So a song like this, if I were to do a version of “Strange Fruit,” I’d give the song honor and respect and I try to bring it back out into the world again and get an opportunity to talk about the subjects behind the songs as well.
Yeah, you can vague that up as much as you like, Lennox, but at some point you might want to mention lynching. Because it’s not about “one person attacking another person in a separate incident.” It’s about a very specific expression of a very specific violent racism. It’s not about domestic violence; it’s not about warfare; and if you want an opportunity to talk about “the subjects behind the songs,” you might want to mention lynching. Because that’s what it’s about. Because the suffering and struggle endured by black people in the US isn’t some vague “theme” that can be lifted lock, stock, and barrel and emptied of specificity. At least not ethically.
You can tell it’s about lynching because of subtle hints like, well, the lyrics:
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
This is not a subtle thing. It’s not an interpretation. It’s very specifically, very vividly, about lynching. So stop fucking around, Lennox, and say so.