The Power of a Poem

(The following is an article from the March/April 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. Editor Audrey Fischer wrote the story. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

This portrait of Billie Holliday performing in a New York nightclub appeared in Down Beat magazine in 1947. William P. Gottlieb, Gottlieb Collection, Music Division.

This portrait of Billie Holliday performing in a New York nightclub appeared in Down Beat magazine in 1947. William P. Gottlieb, Gottlieb Collection, Music Division.

Billie Holiday’s iconic song about racial inequality was penned by a poet whose works are preserved at the Library of Congress.

Recorded in 1939, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” brought the topic of lynching to the commercial record-buying public.

Few may be aware that the song was based on a poem written several years earlier by Abel Meeropol (1903-1986), a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, who was deeply affected by a 1930 photograph of a lynching.

Born in the Bronx, Meeropol attended DeWitt Clinton High School, where he later taught English. The school’s other notable creative alumni include James Baldwin, Countee Cullen, Richard Rodgers, Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon and Ralph Lauren.

Meeropol published most of his work under the pseudonym “Lewis Allan,” in memory of the names of his two stillborn children. In 1937, his poem originally titled “Bitter Fruit” was published under his given name in the Teachers’ Union publication “The New York Teacher” and under his pen name, in the Marxist publication “The New Masses.”

Meeropol later set it to music and gave it to the owner of Café Society, an integrated cabaret club in New York’s Greenwich Village. The club owner shared it with Billie Holiday, one of the club’s regular performers, who sang it at the end of a set in 1938–to a stunned audience. She recorded it the following year under the title “Strange Fruit.” In 1999, Time magazine named “Strange Fruit” the song of the century. In 2002, it was selected for preservation in the inaugural National Recording Registry.

Abel with wife Anne Meeropol, the first person to sing “Strange Fruit” in public, circa 1935. Courtesy of Michael and Robert Meeropol.

Like many who railed against social injustice during the 1930s, Meeropol was a member of the Communist party. At a Christmas party at the home of civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, Meeropol and his wife were introduced to the young children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, a couple convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. The children were orphaned when their parents were executed in 1953 at the height of the McCarthy Era. A few weeks later, the children were sent to live with the Meeropols and took their last name.

Meeropol, who taught until 1945, continued to write songs for such artists as Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra. One of his more well-known works, “The House I Live In,” was sung by Sinatra in a 10-minute short film written by Albert Maltz. The 1945 film, which was made to oppose anti-Semitism and racial prejudice at the end of World War II, received an honorary Academy Award and a special Golden Globe award in 1946. In 2007, it was added to the list of films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

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