Abel Meeropol and his sons Robert and Michael play with a train set.
Once upon a time, when I was a young teen, the public high schools of New York City were the crown jewels of public education in America. Out of them graduated kids whose names are today known all over this nation. You can read about the one I attended in the 1950s here:
Among these crown jewels was DeWitt Clinton HIgh School in the Bronx.
James Baldwin went there. Richard Rogers. Burt Lancaster. Neil Simon. Ralph Lauren. You get the picture.
A young Jewish kid named Abel Meeropol graduated from DeWitt Clinton in 1921 and went on to teach English there for 17 years. He was also a social activist and a poet.
Meeropol was very disturbed by the continuing racism he saw in America; one day he saw a photo of a lynching which put him over the edge. Out of his rage and sorrow came a poem which was published in a publication of the teacher’s union. An amateur composer, he set his words to music and played it for a club owner – who ultimately gave the song to Billie Holiday.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body 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 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.
In 1999 Time Magazine named Strange Fruit the Song of the Century. The Library of Congress put it in the National Recording Registry. It was been recorded dozens of times, Many of those recording it expressing surprise it was written by a white Jewish man from the Bronx.
For you see, it took extraordinary courage for Meeropol to write the song and for Billlie Holiday to sing it. The 1960s hadn’t happened yet; things like lynching were simply not talked about and certainly never sung about.
His protest song gained a certain success in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden
New York lawmakers didn’t like Strange Fruit. Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. Did the American Communist Party pay him to write that song? It did not, but Meeropol was like many New York teachers at the time, a communist.
While there are a multitude of reasons to disparage communism today, American communists of the pre-war variety had fought for social security, unemployment insurance, public housing, public works programs, unionism and racial equality.
Billie Holiday first performed the song at Café Society, New York’s first integrated night club in 1939. She said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation but, because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing the piece, making it a regular part of her live performances. Because of the power of the song, she and the club manager drew up some rules: Holiday would close with it; the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday’s face; and there would be no encore. During the musical introduction to the song, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer.
At the end, the light went out and when it came back on she was gone.
Do you applaud, awed by the courage and intensity of the performance, stunned by the grisly poetry of the lyrics, sensing history moving through the room? Or do you shift awkwardly in your seat, shudder at the strange vibrations in the air, and think to yourself: call this entertainment?
“This is the question that still throbs at the heart of the vexed relationship between politics and pop decades later, and this is the first time it has demanded to be asked.”
Holiday’s record label, Columbia, blanched and refused to record the song so she turned to Commodore records, a left wing outfit which specialized in alternative jazz at the time. The song, recorded April 20, 1939 became Holiday’s greatest achievement.
In October 1939, Samuel Grafton of the New York Post described “Strange Fruit”: “If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise.
Meeropol quit his job as a teacher in 1945 and quit the communist party after the war. He began writing under a penname: Lewis Allan, purported to be the names of the two sons of he and his wife Anne Meeropol who were still born and never lived.
But Abel and Anne would have two sons – Robert and Michael, not biologically theirs but whom whey would raise as their own.
Robert and Michael were the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs had also been communists. Their trial and execution made national headlines – “the first married couple to die in the electric chair.”
At the time Robert and Michael were 6 and 10 respectively; photos show them dressed in suits visiting their parents in prison. Robert Meeropol says that in the months following his parents’ execution, it was unclear who would take care of him and his brother. It was the height of McCarthyism. Even family members were fearful of being in any way associated with the Rosenbergs or Communism.
Our government it seems, executed their parents and simply didn’t worry much about what would happen to their two children.
Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. DuBois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.
Anne Meeropol with Robert and Michael Rosenberg
“One of the most remarkable things was how quickly we adapted,” Robert says. “First of all, Abel, what I remember about him as a 6-year-old was that he was a real jokester. He liked to tell silly jokes and play word games, and he would put on these comedy shows that would leave me rolling.”
There is something else about Abel Meeropol that seems to connect the man who wrote “Strange Fruit” to the man who created a loving family out of a national scandal. “He was incredibly softhearted,” Robert says.
Not a bad legacy for a Jewish communist kid from the Bronx whom no one remembers today as the pen of our greatest protest song, a fighter for racial justice and an all around good guy.