“Strange Fruit” may have been written by American song-writer and poet Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allen), but ever since Billie Holiday sang the three brief stanzas to music in 1937, she’s owned it.
Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, said she always thought of her father when she sang “Strange Fruit.” He died at age thirty-nine after being denied medical treatment at a Texas “whites only” hospital. Because of that memory, Holiday was reluctant to perform the song, but did so anyway to tell people about the reality of life as a black man in America.
“It reminds me of how Pop died,” she wrote in her autobiography. “But I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”
The song was so poignant for Holiday that she laid down some rules when she sang it at her gigs: She would close the evening with the song; the waiters would stop service when she began; and the room would be in total darkness except for a spotlight on her face. There would be no encore.