The 1954 song seemingly celebrates grapes and harvests, the wild nature and the warm wind. Actually, none of these. Indeed, this quite naturalist painting, disturbing, denounces racial crimes. A sort of pastiche of the American naturalist poem, Strange Fruit, written by Abel Meeropol (and not Billie Holiday herself) uses the naturalist allegory, objectifying the obscene, in an attempt to denounce atrocities.
The corpses hanging from the poplar trees and swinging are the fruits. They crowd this sad lullaby, a poem composed in three quatrains, each verse rhyming following a AABB scheme. The verse metric is rather free, in spite of a eneasyllable dominant. Yet the effect is less terrifying than melancholic. And if the suggestion is rather obvious, the message gets through.
Holiday is the voice that exposes the unbearable and customary lynchings of African-Americans. This kind of song was mostly never heard at he time. At least, some of the yiddish repertoire songs offered cristal clear metaphores built as fables, such as the infamous Dona Dona written by Sholom Secunda and Aaron Zeitlin (1941), where a calf is promised to the slaughter – an evocation of death camps where Jews where murdered.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
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
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then 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 the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
Strange Fruit is a perfect a example of a Jewish-African American partnership, drawing from an experience of persecution (Meeropol was a Bronx native, born from Jewish Russian parents who fled USSR, while Eleanora Fagan, aka Billie Holiday, was still suffering segragation).
The suave singing tone contrasts entirely with the cruelty of the scene and turns the dreadful piece into a major anti-racism anthem.
This song is the base on which the evolution of the lexicon and the interpretations of the performers are discussed, in the turn of the Civil Rights, in 1964. Consequently, it can be considered as the first song advocating Civil Rights, whereas Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come (1964) embodies the outcome, the dawn of a new era. Such a masterpiece of grim truth within the American Dream will undoubtedly influence the various branches of Black American music and set the scene for them, from classic rhythm & blues to Soul music and to hip hop.
For the French reader, the song was translated by Michèle Valencia (Allia, 2009), inside the book by David Margolick, Strange Fruit.
DES ARBRES DU SUD
Des arbres du Sud portent un fruit étrange,
Du sang sur les feuilles et du sang aux racines,
Un corps noir oscillant à la brise du Sud,
Fruit étrange pendu dans les peupliers.
Scène pastorale du valeureux Sud,
Yeux exorbités, bouche tordue,
Parfum de magnolia doux et frais,
Et une odeur soudaine de chair brûlée !
Ce fruit sera cueilli par les corbeaux,
Ramassé par la pluie, aspiré par le vent,
Pourri par le soleil, lâché par un arbre,
C’est là une étrange et amère récolte.