Interesting

Abel Meeropol

Abel Meeropol

Abel Meeropol was born into a Jewish family on 10th February, 1903. After leaving college he became a teacher in New York City. His students included Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon and James Baldwin. Meeropol was also a member of the American Communist Party.

Meeropol was also a writer and worried about anti-semitism and chose to publish his poem under the pseudonym "Lewis Allan", the first names of his two stillborn children.

In 1937 Meeropol saw a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Meeropol later recalled how the photograph "haunted me for days" and inspired the writing of the poem, Strange Fruit. The poem was published the poem in the New York Teacher and later, the Marxist journal, New Masses.

After seeing Billie Holiday perform at the club, Café Society, in New York City, Meeropol showed her the poem. Holiday liked it and after working on it with Sonny White turned the poem into the song, Strange Fruit. The record made it to No. 16 on the charts in July 1939. However, the song was denounced by Time Magazine as "a prime piece of musical propaganda" for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg were executed on 19th June, 1953. As Joanna Moorhead pointed out: "From the time of their parents' arrests, and even after the execution, they (Rosenberg's two sons) were passed from one home to another - first one grandmother looked after them, then another, then friends. For a brief spell, they were even sent to a shelter. It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people - even family members - were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so."

Abe Meeropol and his wife Anne, eventually agreed to adopt Michael Rosenberg and Robert Rosenberg. According to Robert: "Abel didn't get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s... I can't say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted." Both boys later changed their name to Meeropol.

Meeropol taught at the De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx for 27 years, but continued to write songs, including the Frank Sinatra hit, The House I Live In and Apples, Peaches and Cherries that was successfully recorded by Peggy Lee. A French version of this song, Scoubidou, was a number one hit in France for Sacha Distel.

Abel Meeropol died on 30th October, 1986, at the Jewish Nursing Home in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

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.

The germ of the song was in a poem written by Lewis Allen. When he showed me that poem, I dug it right off. It seemed to spell out all the things that had killed Pop (Holliday's father had died of pneumonia in 1937 after several segregated southern hospitals refused to treat him). Allen, too, had heard how Pop died and of course was interested in my singing. He suggested that Sonny White, who had been my accompanist, and I turn it into music. So the three of us got together and did the job in about three weeks

I had always assumed that Billie Holiday composed the music and lyrics to "Strange Fruit". She did not. The song began life as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a schoolteacher who was living in the Bronx and teaching English at the De Witt Clinton High School, where his students would have included the Academy award-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, the playwright Neil Simon, and the novelist and essayist James Baldwin. Meeropol was a trade union activist and a closet member of the Communist Party; his poem was first published in January 1937 as "Bitter Fruit", in a union magazine called the New York School Teacher. In common with many Jewish people in the US during this period, Meeropol was worried (with reason) about anti-semitism and chose to publish his poem under the pseudonym "Lewis Allan", the first names of his two stillborn children.

Even more than half a century on, it's hard to hear this story without being affected by its magnitude. As Robert Meeropol describes what happened on that evening 56 years ago, I have tears in my eyes. When Meeropol describes how, earlier that same day, his brother began moaning, "That's it then! Goodbye, goodbye"; when the news flashed on to the television that the executions were going ahead that night; and when he describes seeing the press reports counting down his parents' final days, I can hardly bear to listen.

Meeropol (whose name was later changed to that of the couple who adopted him) is used to journalists getting emotional on him. "It's different for you," he says understandingly, "I've lived with this all my life; I'm used to it." But how does anyone get used to the fact that their parents have been put to death by their country; how does anyone pick up the pieces of a childhood left that broken? What is most extraordinary about Meeropol, in fact, is how entirely ordinary he seems today. We meet in Berlin, where he is currently on a book and campaigning tour. Now 62, bespectacled and balding, he is every inch the liberal east-coast lawyer and grandfather he has become. Yet, as he's the first to point out, his life is permeated by the story of the parents he knew for such a short space of time: their legacy has taken up much of his life, certainly much of his last 30 years, and fighting against the death penalty, and being an advocate for children who suffer as he did because of their parents' politics, is now his full-time occupation...

Doesn't Meeropol ever feel, though, that the choice Ethel and Julius made was fundamentally selfish: that their most important role was as parents? "Absolutely not," he says. "The world was very different then: capitalism and communism were engaged in a globe-spanning battle to determine the world's fate. Lots of people chose sides in this life-and-death battle. Also, my mother didn't actively participate in what went on - maybe that was a conscious effort to ensure that at least one parent would be around to raise the children if my father was caught."

But even when they were arrested - Julius was taken first, then Ethel - there seems little doubt that they could have acted to save themselves. Wouldn't that have been better for their children? Again, Meeropol thinks not. "Neither of my parents had a choice whereby they could come forward and say, 'OK, I admit I've done this, now how can I save my life?' What the government wanted them to do - and remember this was the McCarthy era - was become puppets, to dance to their tune and to provide a list of others who would then be put in exactly the position they were in. They would have had to renounce all that they believed in. To save themselves, they'd have had to betray others and that was too high a price to pay."

But all this went way over the heads of the two small boys who suddenly found themselves without a mother and father, shunted from home to home while the sand ran through the timer counting down the final months and weeks of the Rosenbergs' lives. It's clear from everything he says that the events of that desperate time were almost unfathomable to him; it's clear, too, that he'd have given anything for an ordinary home and an ordinary family. He remembers, for example, seeing his cousins with their parents and thinking, why can't we be like that? But, interestingly, the adult Meeropol believes that, while the little boy he once was suffered for his parents' stubbornness in the face of death, the adult self he became has gained enormously from it. He is immensely proud of them, even grateful: he says he hopes that, in their shoes, he would have made the same decision they did - the decision not to betray their friends.

But more than that, what the Rosenbergs bequeathed to their younger son was something every life needs. They left him a purpose. Campaigning against the death penalty and working for his fund have given his life a structure and a cause: their decision half a century ago is continuing to shape his life.

Pull him back to his stories of the personal encounters he remembers with his parents, and it's clear, too, that he knows he was a much-loved little boy. The time Ethel and Julius had with him might have been short (he was three when they were taken away to prison), but they made it count with their love and concern. What is more - and this, too, is almost unbearably poignant - it's clear that they tried to parent him as best they could from their prison cells. There were letters - lots of them - all unfailingly upbeat and cheerful; there were visits...

The Meeropols, who were not friends of the Rosenbergs but were members of the American Communist Party, came into the boys' lives after a period of constant upheaval. From the time of their parents' arrests, and even after the execution, they were passed from one home to another - first one grandmother looked after them, then another, then friends. For a brief spell, they were even sent to a shelter.

It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people - even family members - were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so. After he and his wife had adopted the boys, says Meeropol, Abel didn't get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s. "I can't say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted," he says.

His debt to Abel and Anne is profound: he feels he is at least as much a product of their upbringing as of that of Julius and Ethel. "They were childless, and like our birth parents they were people who believed in standing up for what they believed in," he says. "They were more artistically inclined than my parents [Abel wrote the anti-racism song Strange Fruit, sung most famously by Billie Holiday]."

It was, against the odds, a happy childhood, punctuated with visits to summer camp, music and fun. Very quickly, Robert began to call his new parents mommy and daddy; today, he says he feels he had not two but four parents in his life. "I'm the sort of person who finds the upside in life," he says. And having four parents was, he believes, a blessing.

Another blessing was Michael. In his book, Meeropol describes Michael as "the one constant presence ... in my life. Our four-year age difference diminished our sibling rivalry. We always slept in the same room." Before the Meeropols, Michael was "the only person I felt 100% safe with". To this day, the brothers are extremely close.

Having lost his parents, says Meeropol, family became paramount for both brothers: "Both of us married young, and both of us are still married to the person we married all those years ago. Creating a family, and maintaining it, has been central to both of us." Meeropol has two daughters, now in their 30s; the younger has a one-year-old called Josie. If there is anything that resonates down the years, he says, it is that he often finds himself thinking: if I was taken away, what would my family have to remember me by? What would my little granddaughter know of her grandfather if suddenly he was removed from her life?

If having the Rosenbergs as parents has given their sons a strong sense of family, it has also given them profound insight into what happens when a family is torn apart. Because one of the most remarkable aspects of the trial in 1952 was that it was Ethel's own brother, David Greenglass, who provided the testimony that sent the couple to their deaths.

Greenglass had been an army machinist at the plant where the atomic bomb was being developed, and was recruited by Julius as a spy; to save himself and his wife, Meeropol believes, he betrayed his sister and her husband. Unsurprisingly, this is a family split that never has been, and never can be, mended. "I have never had any connection with David Greenglass or the Greenglass family," says Meeropol. "I saw him interviewed on television once and the thing I noticed was how he denied responsibility for everything. Nothing was his fault - it was all someone else's fault." He pauses. "In some ways," he says, "I've defined myself, all my life, as someone who is not David Greenglass."

The fallout for his uncle and his family (there are two cousins, and now there are Greenglass grandchildren too) has been, in fact, a testament to what would have happened to the Rosenbergs if they had switched sides. "The Greenglasses had to have new names, they have had to live their lives in secrecy, they have lived in fear.

"What my parents gave me and Michael, though, was a life in which we have never had to hide, a life in which we can stand up and be ourselves and do the things we believe in." He pauses. "In a way," he says, "the best revenge is simply living a good life. And that's what I believe I'm doing."


Abel Meeropol (1903 - 1986)

Abel Meeropol was born into a Jewish family on 10th February, 1903. After leaving college he became a teacher in New York City. His students included Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon and James Baldwin. Meeropol was also a member of the American Communist Party.

Meeropol was also a writer and worried about anti-semitism and chose to publish his poem under the pseudonym "Lewis Allan", the first names of his two stillborn children.

In 1937 Meeropol saw a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Meeropol later recalled how the photograph "haunted me for days" and inspired the writing of the poem, Strange Fruit. The poem was published the poem in the New York Teacher and later, the Marxist journal, New Masses.

After seeing Billie Holiday perform at the club, Café Society, in New York City, Meeropol showed her the poem. Holiday liked it and after working on it with Sonny White turned the poem into the song, Strange Fruit. The record made it to No. 16 on the charts in July 1939. However, the song was denounced by Time Magazine as "a prime piece of musical propaganda" for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg were executed on 19th June, 1953. As Joanna Moorhead pointed out: "From the time of their parents' arrests, and even after the execution, they (Rosenberg's two sons) were passed from one home to another - first one grandmother looked after them, then another, then friends. For a brief spell, they were even sent to a shelter. It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people - even family members - were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so."

Abe Meeropol and his wife Anne, eventually agreed to adopt Michael Rosenberg and Robert Rosenberg. According to Robert: "Abel didn't get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s. I can't say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted." Both boys later changed their name to Meeropol.

Meeropol taught at the De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx for 27 years, but continued to write songs, including the Frank Sinatra hit, The House I Live In and Apples, Peaches and Cherries that was successfully recorded by Peggy Lee. A French version of this song, Scoubidou, was a number one hit in France for Sacha Distel. 1) Abel Meeropol, Strange Fruit (1939) 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.

Meeropol was the writer of countless poems and songs, including the Frank Sinatra and Josh White hit "The House I Live In" and the libretto of Robert Kurka's opera "The Good Soldier Schweik". Meeropol chose to write as "Lewis Allan" in memory of the names of his two stillborn children. Later, he and his wife Anne adopted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's two sons, Michael and Robert, after their parents' executions. Michael and Robert took the Meeropol surname.

According to Robert Meeropol, "Strange Fruit", "The House I Live In" and the Peggy Lee hit "Apples, Peaches and Cherries" provided most of the royalty income of the family. The latter especially after it had been translated into French by Sacha Distel (French singer and sometime boyfriend of Brigitte Bardot). The resulting number one hit in France "Scoubidou" still earns Michael and Robert Meeropol royalties however, these only started coming in after Distel and Abel Meeropol settled a copyright infringement law suit over Distel's plagiarism.


Abel Meeropol died on 30th October, 1986, at the Jewish Nursing Home in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.


The Strange Story Of The Man Behind 'Strange Fruit'

One of Billie Holiday's most iconic songs is "Strange Fruit," a haunting protest against the inhumanity of racism. Many people know that the man who wrote the song was inspired by a photograph of a lynching. But they might not realize that he's also tied to another watershed moment in America's history.

The man behind "Strange Fruit" is New York City's Abel Meeropol, and he really has two stories. They both begin at Dewitt Clinton High School, a public high school in the Bronx that has an astonishing number of famous people in its alumni. James Baldwin went there. So did Countee Cullen, Richard Rodgers, Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Richard Avedon and Ralph Lauren.

Meeropol graduated from Dewitt Clinton in 1921 he went on to teach English there for 17 years. He was also a poet and a social activist, says Gerard Pelisson, who wrote a book about the school.

In the late 1930s, Pellison says, Meeropol "was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge."

Meeropol once said the photograph "haunted" him "for days." So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.

When Holiday decided to sing "Strange Fruit," the song reached millions of people. While the lyrics never mention lynching, the metaphor is painfully clear:

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's been recorded dozens of times. Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller did an instrumental version, with Miller evoking the poem on his mournful bass clarinet.

Miller says he was surprised to learn the song was written by a white Jewish guy from the Bronx. "Strange Fruit," he says, took extraordinary courage both for Meeropol to write and for Holiday to sing.

"The '60s hadn't happened yet," he says. "Things like that weren't talked about. They certainly weren't sung about."

New York lawmakers didn't like "Strange Fruit." In 1940, Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. They wanted to know whether the American Communist Party had paid him to write the song. They had not — but, like many New York teachers in his day, Meeropol was a Communist.

Journalist David Margolick, who wrote Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, says, "There are a million reasons to disparage communism now. But American Communism, one point it had in its favor was that it was concerned about civil rights very early."

Meeropol left his teaching job at Dewitt Clinton in 1945. He eventually quit the Communist Party.

And that's where the second part of Meeropol's story begins. The link is the pseudonym he used when writing poetry and music: Lewis Allan.

"Abel Meeropol's pen name 'Lewis Allan' were the names of their children who were stillborn, who never lived," says his son, Robert Meeropol. He and his older brother, Michael, were raised by Abel and his wife, Anne Meeropol, after the boys' parents — Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — were executed for espionage in 1953.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs had also been Communists.

The couple's trial and execution made national headlines, and there was also something of a salacious element, given that the Rosenbergs were a married couple. News accounts described it as "the first husband and wife to die in the electric chair."

At the time, the Rosenberg sons, Robert and Michael, were 6 and 10, respectively. News photographs of the boys show them dressed in suits visiting their parents in prison.

"They're these little boys and they're wearing these caps, and they look so young and so vulnerable. It's really a very poignant image," says Margolick.

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.

Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.

"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.

For example, there was an old Japanese maple tree in their backyard, which sent out many new seedlings every year.

"I was the official lawnmower," Robert says, "and I was going to mow over them, and he said, 'Oh, no, you can't kill the seedlings!' I said, 'What are you going to do with them, Dad? There are dozens of them.'

"Well, he dug them up and put them in coffee cans and lined them up along the side of the house. And there were hundreds of them. But he couldn't bring himself to just kill them. It was just something he couldn't do."

Abel Meeropol died in 1986. His sons, Robert and Michael, both became college professors. They're also both involved in social issues. Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children. And he says that even after all these years, he still finds himself unable to kill things in his own garden.


Portside

The left would go crazy over Jewish American dissidents Abel and Anne Meeropol if they were alive today. Their tale is a radical epic so poignant that one wonders where the 10-part miniseries is. It covers a range of contemporary themes: children separated from parents, the political persecution of dissidents, and social justice warriors doing battle against a racist, xenophobic, increasingly fascistic America.

It’s a story so fantastical, and containing so many celebrated names, that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t stuck better into the mainstream. Then again, a tale involving judicial executions on fake charges of espionage and the heroism of Jewish and Black radicals probably wouldn’t get the prestige TV greenlight. The only way the Meeropols’ story would get approved by network executives is if it were pitched by someone like Aaron Sorkin—who would no doubt fill his script with speechifying neoliberals.

While Hollywood isn’t going to tell the real story of the Meeropols anytime soon, if I were to make that TV series, I would open it on a party scene in the front parlor of a Brooklyn brownstone. The room is decorated for Christmas. The house belongs to Black socialist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. It’s December 1953.

At the party, perhaps standing off to the side of the partygoers, is the poet-songwriter Abel Meeropol (also known by his pen name, Lewis Allan), the author of famous anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit.” He stands beside his wife, Anne Meeropol, a public school teacher and union organizer. They are waiting patiently for the orphaned sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to arrive. Abel and Anne are going to be their new parents.

“We were told that we were going to go live with them,” Robert Meeropol, the youngest son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, recently told me of meeting his adoptive parents for the first time. “At that point we had been shuttled around so much… we said OK.”

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were the first U.S. civilians to be executed for espionage during peacetime. Their sons, Robert and Michael, were three and seven when their parents were arrested in 1950 after being accused of sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviets. During their parents’ imprisonment, the boys lived with their grandparents, spent a brief period in an orphanage, and finally were sent out of New York City to the home of family friends in Toms River, New Jersey. It was here that a news bulletin interrupting their Yankees game informed them of the hour of their parents’ impending execution. By 1953, photographs of Robert and Michael Rosenberg, in suits and Brooklyn Dodgers caps, had been plastered across newspapers for three years. They were the famous sons of communist spies.

How Robert and Michael were going to live—and who they were going to live with—remained an open question after their parents were executed. Emanuel Hirsch Bloch, the Rosenbergs’ lawyer and a renowned left-wing defense attorney who had defended numerous people accused of communist sympathies, acted temporarily as their guardian. Bloch was informed of the Meeropols’ request to adopt the boys through Shirley Graham Du Bois, wife of W.E.B. Du Bois. She was one of the trustees of the fund that was raised for Robert and Michael’s upbringing.

In our phone interview in September 2020, Robert Meeropol spoke to me for over an hour, with tremendous fluidity and frankness, about the circumstances surrounding his parents’ execution and how he and his brother were adopted by the Meeropols.

Manny [Emanuel Hirsch] Bloch knew about Abel’s reputation as the author of “Strange Fruit” and knew that Abel and Anne were both supportive of my birth parents, Robert Meeropol told me. So, he met them, he liked them, and he said, “OK, you can adopt them!”

The Rosenbergs were executed June 19, 1953. Michael and Robert Rosenberg went to live with the Meeropols in January of 1954. However, before the adoption had been formalized, Bloch suffered a heart attack and died.

“At that point, right-wing groups tried to have us taken from Abel and Anne, and a court custody battle developed,” Robert Meeropol told me. “We were actually seized by New York City police and sent to an orphanage. But the Meeropols won the legal battle and we were reunited with them in the fall of 1954. We dropped from public sight and within a couple of years our names were changed to Meeropol.”

It is this part of the story, the part about the left showing deep care for their own, that I might seize on for my imaginary prestige TV show. My story would begin with the Christmas party at the Du Bois’ and end with Robert and Michael being reunited with the Meeropols, after they had won their legal battle. My story would focus not on the government’s case against the Rosenbergs, nor Bloch’s defense. I would sidestep David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother who implicated her and Julius in the spy ring, and on whose testimony much of the evidence in the case relied. I actually wouldn’t approach the trial or the appeals much at all. This material has been combed over in countless books and articles. It’s even been fictionalized by E.L. Doctorow in The Book of Daniel (a beautiful example of navel-gazing Sorkinesque white guy writing if there ever was one). I’d stroll around that material, which I believe has been over examined and lost much of its humanity.

I would instead focus my story on the left-wing community in New York City who rallied around the Rosenberg family. I would zero in on the interconnected network of unions, socialist organizations, and civil rights groups that events like the execution of the Rosenbergs left in tatters.

Abel and Anne Meeropol deciding to adopt the sons of the Rosenbergs, and their being in a position to actually do so, was one of those convergences so poetic it doesn’t seem real. It’s as if a DSA member on Twitter were writing left-wing fan fiction. The sons of accused spies, taken under the wings of famous civil rights icons, wind up in the care of radical artists and activists. It’s easier to think of the story as a Coen Brothers film (I’m seeing John Turturro and Frances McDormand cast as the Meeropols) than as history.

Perhaps you’ve already guessed the secret behind this odd convergence of people. Perhaps you already know what the Du Bois’, the Meeropols, and the Rosenbergs all had in common. Maybe you already know that these people flew in the same circles because they were at some point either members of the Communist Party or, at the very least, friendly to the socialist cause in America.

Like many artistic New York City lefties, the Meeropols joined the Communist Party in the 1930s. The Party at the time was a hotbed of creative activity. It encouraged cultural work and supported artists through organizations like John Reed Clubs for writers and the Pierre Degeyter Club for musicians.

Abel was a public school English teacher (he taught a young James Baldwin at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in the early 1940s) who gave half his salary to the Communist Party. He wrote songs for left-wing reviews that were supported by or in the orbit of the Party. He barely escaped blacklisting by changing jobs, moving around the country, and lying and obfuscating when interrogated by government agents. Robert Meeropol suspects that Abel and Anne only quit the Party in order to adopt him and his brother. They remained friendly with Party members throughout his childhood.

In the 1930s, the Communist Party USA swelled to about 80,000 members at the height of its popularity. It was in this era that an up-and-coming jazz singer named Billie Holiday was introduced to Abel Meeropol at Café Society, the first integrated nightclub in New York City. There she first sang his song “Strange Fruit” to hushed and astonished audiences.

Abel had written “Strange Fruit” when the left was rallying in support of an anti-lynching bill in the Senate. It first appeared as a poem, “Bitter Fruit,” in the New York Teacher, a publication for the New York City Teachers Union. The song consists of 12 lines comparing a southern idyll (“Pastoral scene of the gallant South”) with a brutal lynching (“The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth”). Abel had a spare, imagistic style and could use simple language to devastating emotional effect. His type of artistry was ideal for writing politically powerful songs.

“Abel was no turn-the-other-cheek liberal,” said Robert Meeropol. “A lot of what he wrote was biting satire and had a nasty edge to it. ‘Strange Fruit’ has often been described as a dirge-like ballad. I think that misses the truth. The point of ‘Strange Fruit’ was that it was an attack song. It was an attack on the perpetrators of lynching.”

It was also in this period that Abel Meeropol wrote the poem, “Beloved Comrade.” The poem, at eight lines, is even shorter and sparer than “Strange Fruit.” Addressing a dead friend (“To you, beloved comrade, we make this solemn vow / The fight will go on”), it comforts them in the knowledge that the struggle that they had fought and died for would continue until the final victory (“Sleep well, beloved comrade, our work will just begin / The fight will go on till we win”).

When put to music by composer Fred Katz, “Beloved Comrade” became an anthem sung at socialist funerals. Probably written for Spanish Civil War soldiers from the International Brigades, it was sung by Josh White for Franklin Roosevelt and by Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert in memory of Sacco and Vanzetti (two Italian anarchists framed for murder and executed in 1927). Recently, Sing in Solidarity, a choir composed of members of Democratic Socialists of America (of which I am a member), sang it for the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Abel Meeropol was a communist, “Beloved Comrade” belongs to no faction and has been sung in solidarity by many left-wing movements. Robert Meeropol believes that this is exactly how Abel intended the song to be used.

Leftist solidarity was a theme that ran throughout Abel’s songwriting career and political life. It was also what enabled him and Anne to adopt the sons of the Rosenbergs. As lefty public school teachers, the Meeropols were both heavily involved in the New York City Teachers Union. This was a radical union and many of its members were also members of the Communist Party. It was through the union that they came to know teacher and Party member, Alice Citron. After being blacklisted in the 1940s and fired from her teaching job, Citron went on to work as Shirley Graham Du Bois’ personal secretary. Through this daisy chain of personal ties, the Meeropols were ultimately able to adopt Robert and Michael.

Under constant threat of persecution, the New York City left was necessarily close knit. But there was only so much protection a network of friends could provide each other. In 1945, the Meeropols, fearful of being blacklisted like Alice Citron and so many of their fellow Teachers Union members, left their teaching jobs and took off for Los Angeles. Here, Abel wrote television scripts. He also attended a socialist reading group that the Communist Party ran for Hollywood screenwriters. Robert Meeropol recalls:

They were at this study group reading Lenin or something and Abel raised his hand to the party functionary who was doing the teaching and he said, “I don’t know why I have to read all this stuff. I know who the workers are, I know who the owners are, I know who our allies are, I know who our enemies are, that’s good enough for me!

For his impertinence, Abel got written up by the Party functionary.

According to Robert Meeropol, Abel had a visceral “anger over injustice and a willingness to act upon that.” Alongside these deep feelings also appears to have been a uniquely attuned moral clarity. It was no doubt this same fearless, clearheaded nature that made him write an anti-lynching song at the height of Jim Crow and to adopt the sons of the Rosenbergs at the height of the Cold War. Eventually, it would also lead him to return to the community he’d left behind, blacklists be damned.

The Meeropols were living back in New York City in 1954 when they adopted the Rosenberg boys. Robert and Michael were raised in a loving, quirky, left-wing home. “There was no regular job,” Robert Meeropol recalls. “There was this, that, and the other thing. It was very artistic. There was always a stream of writers and artists and performers coming and visiting. I guess it was a pretty exciting and rich environment for a young kid growing up.” His parents were forever running off to rehearsals and performances of left-wing concerts. Robert Meeropol remembers Malvina Reynolds singing “Little Boxes” on their living room sofa.

The Meeropol boys today are in their 70s. If you didn’t know their back story, they would appear much like the other “red diaper babies” of their generation—that coterie of diehards who protested Vietnam, kept the faith through the dire neoliberal period, and even sent their kids to socialist summer camp. People who grew up on the American left, and especially the Jewish American left, might feel a flicker of recognition at the mention of their birth names. For the rest of us, the saga of the songwriter and the sons of the murdered “spies” seems like a secret history, a potshard buried beneath the sand that speaks of a whole fallen civilization.

I first learned the Meeropols’ story in 2018 when, as a member of Sing in Solidarity, I was taught to sing “Beloved Comrade” for a memorial to Heather Heyer—the young woman murdered in the Charlottesville terror attack in 2017. I was new to the left, having joined DSA after volunteering for Bernie Sanders in 2016. Hearing this story made me feel bound to my new community, and made me think how powerful a collective memory like this can be. It made me feel as if I had just brushed aside half a century’s worth of dust and discovered a part of my own past. I felt rejuvenated and included. It was a little reward for having the faith in humanity that had brought me to the left in the first place.

It also made me think about how small and secretive the left was for so many decades, and in some ways continues to be. My feeling of belonging came part and parcel with a feeling of exclusivity. I had to be initiated and committed to the movement in order to hear these stories. For that movement to grow, however, it needs to be able to tell its stories to the uninitiated. It needs to be able to frame those stories for widespread consumption. The Bernie Sanders campaigns understood that. DSA understands that.

The left, however, is currently small (relatively speaking) and neoliberal cultural hegemony isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In our current moment of widespread helplessness, when narrativizing our past would be a therapeutic and politically expedient practice, left-wing history is instead being rewritten by liberals like Aaron Sorkin. As the tumultuous present unearths the radical past, Hollywood keeps putting out films that capitalize on public interest while propping up existing power structures. Films like Lincoln (2012), On The Basis of Sex (2018), and, most recently, Sorkin’s 2020 drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 lean into top-down proceduralism and emphasize the enduring, unshakeable nature of American institutions. It is vital that the left continue to punch back at these rewritings of radical history. But we also need to do our own storytelling, to make creative narrative works that mythologize our own past.

We can see the current left movement’s need for such works in the wildly successful career of a writer like Sorkin. His show, The West Wing, is admittedly very bad art. However, its delusionally “pragmatic” messaging had a real effect on liberal political discourse and practice. To acknowledge this fact is to acknowledge the need for ambitious left-wing storytelling that can act as a counternarrative. Before Sorkin produces his take on the Rosenbergs, and we have to endure a walk and talk between Roy Cohn and Joseph McCarthy, I think it’s time to start sharing our own history.

To be sure, rebuilding those links in the chain of memory and teasing out the secrets of the American left won’t be an easy task. Crowdsourcing funds for left-wing art won’t be an easy task either. It is also not an impossible one, as the existence of independent left media (like this magazine) proves. The new movement needs its own works of art, and the means to make those works are within reach. It is long past time that we claimed our past, and publicly narrated our stories—stories like Abel and Anne Meeropol’s—and won back the (currently Sorkinized) political ground in the popular imagination.

Annie Levin is a New York City-based writer and arts organizer. She has taught writing and literature at New York University and Fordham University. Her recent work has been published in the Indypendent, Public Seminar, and The Maine Review.

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Click HERE to read more about the Rosenberg Fund for Children Supporting Children of the Resistance Since 1990


Meet The Communist Jew Who Wrote The Song That Brought ‘Racist’ Lynchings Into Popular Culture

Not surprisingly, it was a communist Jew from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol, the son of Jewish-Russian immigrants, who wrote the lyrics to the infamous song, “Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of Blacks in the American South, popularized by Billie Holiday, whose birth name was also decidedly Jewish:

In the late 1930s….Meeropol “was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge.”

Meeropol once said the photograph “haunted” him “for days.” So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.

When Holiday decided to sing “Strange Fruit,” the song reached millions of people. While the lyrics never mention lynching, the metaphor is painfully clear:

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’s been recorded dozens of times…

…New York lawmakers didn’t like “Strange Fruit.” In 1940, Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. They wanted to know whether the American Communist Party had paid him to write the song. They had not — but, like many New York teachers in his day, Meeropol was a Communist.

Journalist (((David Margolick))), who wrote Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, says, “There are a million reasons to disparage communism now. But American Communism, one point it had in its favor was that it was concerned about civil rights very early…

“Abel Meeropol’s pen name ‘Lewis Allan’ were the names of their children who were stillborn, who never lived,” says his son, Robert Meeropol. He and his older brother, Michael, were raised by Abel and his wife, Anne Meeropol, after the boys’ parents — Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — were executed for espionage in 1953.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs had also been Communists…

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.

Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.

Billie Holiday’s birth name was Eleanora Fagan, suggesting that her unwed mother, who was a prostitute, was probably part Jewish herself — which accounts for Holiday’s light complexion — or perhaps her family’s former slave owners were Jewish, which was very common in the South.

So a Jew from New York City — Meeropol — who had never set foot in the South — saw a photograph of a lynching and automatically assumed that the Black who had been lynched was innocent of any crime — the ‘victim’ of irrational White racists.

Thousands of Whites have been lynched in America — and Europe — going back centuries, but apparently every single one of them was justified — if anyone should be afraid of the mere sight of a noose, it’s White people.

In fact, the first famous lynchings in colonial America were White men who were turncoat loyalists to the British crown — long before Blacks were brought here as slaves in any significant numbers.

But Jews like Meeropol have been instrumental in creating the myth in America that White Southerners were irrational racists who liked to terrorize, rape, and lynch Blacks for no reason whatsoever other than they were Black.

Just as the Jews likewise claim that irrational, violent White Christians have historically like to round up Jews with torches and pitchforks, put them all in a barn and burn it down — for no reason whatsoever other than they were Jews.

If White people are such irrational, violent people who cannot control their murderous impulses, how was it possible for them to build every great advanced civilization the world has ever known?

And why is it that despite having this ugly reputation for being violent racists, every person of color in the world never the less still wants to live among us in our ‘dangerous’ racist nations?

The irrational racist White man was an invention of Jews in Hollywood and the Communist Party — which the McCarthy hearings proved, not surprisingly, to be one and the same.


The Strange Story Of The Man Behind 'Strange Fruit'

One of Billie Holiday's most iconic songs is "Strange Fruit," a haunting protest against the inhumanity of racism. Many people know that the man who wrote the song was inspired by a photograph of a lynching. But they might not realize that he's also tied to another watershed moment in America's history.

The man behind "Strange Fruit" is New York City's Abel Meeropol, and he really has two stories. They both begin at Dewitt Clinton High School, a public high school in the Bronx that has an astonishing number of famous people in its alumni. James Baldwin went there. So did Countee Cullen, Richard Rodgers, Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Richard Avedon and Ralph Lauren.

Meeropol graduated from Dewitt Clinton in 1921 he went on to teach English there for 17 years. He was also a poet and a social activist, says Gerard Pelisson, who wrote a book about the school.

In the late 1930s, Pellison says, Meeropol "was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge."

Meeropol once said the photograph "haunted" him "for days." So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.

When Holiday decided to sing "Strange Fruit," the song reached millions of people. While the lyrics never mention lynching, the metaphor is painfully clear:

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's been recorded dozens of times. Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller did an instrumental version, with Miller evoking the poem on his mournful bass clarinet.

Miller says he was surprised to learn the song was written by a white Jewish guy from the Bronx. "Strange Fruit," he says, took extraordinary courage both for Meeropol to write and for Holiday to sing.

"The '60s hadn't happened yet," he says. "Things like that weren't talked about. They certainly weren't sung about."

New York lawmakers didn't like "Strange Fruit." In 1940, Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. They wanted to know whether the American Communist Party had paid him to write the song. They had not — but, like many New York teachers in his day, Meeropol was a Communist.

Journalist David Margolick, who wrote Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, says, "There are a million reasons to disparage communism now. But American Communism, one point it had in its favor was that it was concerned about civil rights very early."

Meeropol left his teaching job at Dewitt Clinton in 1945. He eventually quit the Communist Party.

And that's where the second part of Meeropol's story begins. The link is the pseudonym he used when writing poetry and music: Lewis Allan.

"Abel Meeropol's pen name 'Lewis Allan' were the names of their children who were stillborn, who never lived," says his son, Robert Meeropol. He and his older brother, Michael, were raised by Abel and his wife, Anne Meeropol, after the boys' parents — Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — were executed for espionage in 1953.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs had also been Communists.

The couple's trial and execution made national headlines, and there was also something of a salacious element, given that the Rosenbergs were a married couple. News accounts described it as "the first husband and wife to die in the electric chair."

At the time, the Rosenberg sons, Robert and Michael, were 6 and 10, respectively. News photographs of the boys show them dressed in suits visiting their parents in prison.

"They're these little boys and they're wearing these caps, and they look so young and so vulnerable. It's really a very poignant image," says Margolick.

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.

Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.

"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.

For example, there was an old Japanese maple tree in their backyard, which sent out many new seedlings every year.

"I was the official lawnmower," Robert says, "and I was going to mow over them, and he said, 'Oh, no, you can't kill the seedlings!' I said, 'What are you going to do with them, Dad? There are dozens of them.'

"Well, he dug them up and put them in coffee cans and lined them up along the side of the house. And there were hundreds of them. But he couldn't bring himself to just kill them. It was just something he couldn't do."

Abel Meeropol died in 1986. His sons, Robert and Michael, both became college professors. They're also both involved in social issues. Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children. And he says that even after all these years, he still finds himself unable to kill things in his own garden.


An Irrevocable Separation

The disturbing images and soundtracks of young children being torn from their parents’ arms have reopened the wounds of my childhood.

My parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were arrested and jailed shortly after my third birthday in May 1950. Until then, my brother Michael, who was seven, and I were living in what I remember as a warm and loving family. Over the next three years, we were shuttled between family members. Some were terrified to have us in their homes because of the virulent hate spread by the policies of the McCarthy period, so we also spent time in a children’s shelter.

I was perplexed and heartbroken. Where were my parents? I didn’t see them for almost a year. In the shelter, I was even separated from my brother. When Michael and I were finally allowed to visit our parents in prison, my first question was, “Why you no come home?”

Many are familiar with my parents’ case they were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and ultimately executed in 1953 for supposedly stealing what the government called “the secret of the Atomic bomb.”

The government’s steadfast determination that they pay for their actions or name others clearly took precedence over any regard it had for our welfare as children. What I did not know then was that Michael and I were also being used as political pawns. The public record makes it clear that my parents had been offered a deal. If they cooperated, and named names, my father would not have been executed and my mother would be released so she could take care of her children.

Anne Meeropol with Robert, left, and Michael, right, in 1954. After their parents' execution, armed police removed the Rosenbergs' sons from the Meeropols' home and placed them in an orphanage before they could be legally adopted by the couple.

Courtesy of Robert Meeropol

After the execution, we began living with Anne and Abel Meeropol, who began the adoption process. But government forces were not done with us. Our legal guardian, Emmanuel Bloch, died of a heart attack before he could complete the transfer of our guardianship to the Meeropols. Conservative groups found out about this and filed a petition in Children’s Court, correctly claiming that the Meeropols were not our legal guardians, and falsely charging that we were being “politically” abused. After a month of our new life with Anne and Abel, armed police came to our door to remove us. The next day we were taken to an orphanage.

As I wrote in my memoir, An Execution in the Family, “I did not fear the monster under the bed. Instead, the home, as Michael and I came to call the orphanage, was an all-too-real bogeyman. We had to be careful we were being tested, and I feared what might happen if we failed.”

The Meeropols won the custody battle that ensued. After a few days, we were released to our grandmother’s care and several months later, we were reunited with our adoptive parents. We dropped from public sight, and the period my brother still calls the long nightmare ended.

Abel Meeropol with Robert, left, and Michael, right, in 1954.

Courtesy of Robert Meeropol

This second forced separation is alarmingly similar to what has happened to thousands of children at our southern border. Except that there is some chance they will see their parents again, I imagine their terror is even worse than mine. While our seizure from Abel and Anne was vigorously protested and fought, the Meeropols knew where we were. We were in relatively familiar territory. We spoke the dominant language. Today’s victims are in strange land, and do not speak English. At least two childcare workers at the detention centers have quit after realizing how these children were being treated. Both reported incessant crying and workers told they could not hug the children.

As Michael and I were 65 years ago, these children are being victimized as pawns by a government with a strong political agenda. We hear that asylum seekers have been told that their children will be returned to them if they drop their asylum claims and agree to leave the country.

History may not be repeating itself, but it is echoing loudly. The savage manipulation of children is a human rights abuse, a kind of state-sponsored terrorism. To me, it’s personal. To all of us, the manipulation of children should be unacceptable. Together, we can and must stop it.

Robert Meeropol is the younger son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the author of “An Execution in the Family,” and with his brother, Michael, of “We Are Your Sons.” He is the founder of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.


‘Strange Fruit’: The Timely Return of One of America’s Most Powerful Protest Songs

Last year, North Carolina rapper Rapsody was searching for an introductory track for her new album, Eve, a concept LP about the history and power of black women. Her producer suggested a song she didn’t know well: Nina Simone’s 1965 version of “Strange Fruit.” A concise but graphic evocation of a Southern lynching, &ldquoStrange Fruit&rdquo was one of America’s earliest and most shocking protest songs, drawing attention to the thousands of acts of racist terrorism against black people in this country’s history. &ldquoBlack 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,&rdquo went one of its verses.

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&ldquoAs soon as I heard it, I knew that was the intro,&rdquo says Rapsody, who used the sample as the basis for her song “Nina.” &ldquoI&rsquove always been drawn to hearing about that part of our history, and I&rsquove been drawn to artists who speak to the reality of the times we live in. And even 80 years later, that song still speaks to the times. You don&rsquot need more than 91 words. What else needs to be said?&rdquo

This year, with the return of Black Lives Matter protests to national headlines, a song written just over 80 years ago has taken on startling new relevance. In the first six months of this year, Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit” &mdash the first and most famous version of the song &mdash was streamed more than 2 million times, according to Alpha Data, the data-analytics provider that powers the Rolling Stone Charts. On his SiriusXM show last month, Bruce Springsteen included “Strange Fruit” on his playlist of protest songs, and in an interview called it &ldquojust an epic piece of music that was so far ahead of its time. It still strikes a deep, deep, deep nerve in the conversation of today.&rdquo

Veteran R&B singer Bettye LaVette moved up the release of her new cover of “Strange Fruit” after the police killing of George Floyd. “I watch the news all day long, and the language started to change from ‘unarmed black man’ to ‘lynching,'” she told RS last month. “So I called the [record] company and told them that it seemed like we keep telling this story over and over and over.”

Director Lee Daniels will retell the song’s story in an upcoming movie, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, just picked up for distribution by Paramount Pictures. Playing Holiday is Andra Day, known both for her inspirational R&B career. Three years ago, Day covered &ldquoStrange Fruit&rdquo in a rendition created to bring attention to the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative, which works to end mass incarceration. (Holiday will also be the subject of a new documentary, director James Erskine’s Billie, arriving in November.)

&ldquo&lsquoStrange Fruit&rsquo is still relevant, because black people are still being lynched,&rdquo says Day. &ldquoIt&rsquos not just a Southern breeze. That&rsquos the polite version of it. We&rsquore seeing that everywhere.&rdquo

The story of “Strange Fruit” is full of drama and surprises. As recounted in the work of author David Margolick (Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Biography of a Song), Joel Katz’s 2002 documentary Strange Fruit, and a study by scholar Nancy Kovaleff Baker, the song was first written by a white Jewish schoolteacher in the Bronx. Abel Meeropol, who taught English at DeWitt Clinton High School starting in 1927, was a dedicated Communist and progressive thinker who was also a part-time writer and poet.

Sometime in the Thirties, Meeropol came upon a photo of a lynching, most likely in a magazine. At the time, lynchings were shockingly commonplace: According to an updated study done last year by historians Charles Seguin and David Rigby, 4,467 people &mdash 3,265 of them black &mdash were lynched in America between 1883 and 1941. Photos of those horrific sites were turned into postcards (the line &ldquoThey&rsquore selling postcards of the hanging&rdquo in Bob Dylan&rsquos &ldquoDesolation Row&rdquo refers to the practice). The image Meeropol saw stayed with him and first appeared in a poem, &ldquoBitter Fruit,&rdquo that he wrote for a 1937 union publication.

Meeropol, a self-taught composer and pianist with no musical training, soon set the poem to a spectral, meditative melody. The renamed &ldquoStrange Fruit&rdquo was performed on several occasions, including by singer Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden, before it made its way to Holiday, who was then performing at New York&rsquos Café Society club. Holiday didn’t just sing it she inhabited it, earning her recording a place in history.

Holiday wasn&rsquot immediately sure her audiences would want to hear the song. &ldquoI was scared people would hate it,&rdquo she wrote in her memoir, Lady Sings the Blues. &ldquoThe first time I sang it I thought it was a mistake and I had been right being scared. There wasn&rsquot even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.&rdquo “Strange Fruit” became the centerpiece of Holiday&rsquos set, often performed at the end of the show for maximum effect. As one critic wrote at the time, &ldquoThe song is by far the most effective cry Miss Holiday&rsquos race has uttered against the injustice of a Christian country.&rdquo

Fearing controversy, Holiday&rsquos label, Columbia, opted out of recording the song, so Holiday turned to a smaller label, Commodore, and cut it in 1939. Between its sparse, unconventional arrangement and vivid lyrics, her recording of &ldquoStrange Fruit&rdquo became a sensation and a hit for Holiday when it was released by Commodore that year.

As music, &ldquoStrange Fruit&rdquo was hard to categorize. &ldquoIs it a blues song?&rdquo asks Meeropol’s son Robert. &ldquoIt has a bluesy introduction, but it&rsquos not rhythm and blues. It&rsquos not blues. It&rsquos not anything. It&rsquos also unlike anything Abel ever wrote musically. I defy anyone to categorize the music.&rdquo

One undeniable fact, as Holiday wrote, was that the song took &ldquoall the strength out of me&rdquo when she sang it. Cassandra Wilson, who has recorded two versions of the song, the first in 1996, agrees: &ldquoThe problem is not that it&rsquos difficult to sing,” she says. “It&rsquos emotionally draining. When we performed it live, we always did it as the last song. You can&rsquot do anything else after that.&rdquo

Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” generated a range of reactions, positive to negative, appreciative to enraged. It also impacted Meeropol, who had published the song under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, based on the names of his and his wife Anne&rsquos stillborn children. Shortly after Holiday&rsquos version shook the music world, Meeropol testified before the New York state legislature’s Rapp-Coudert Committee, which was investigating supposed Communist influence in the state’s public schools and colleges. Robert Meeropol, who recalls that his father was asked whether the Communist Party had instructed him to write the song, says his father found the hearings &ldquovery amusing.&rdquo

Meeropol was surprised when, in her book, Holiday implied she had helped set his poem to music. This was untrue, according to the Meeropol family, but Abel Meeropol kept his complaints quiet: &ldquoHe didn&rsquot want to give the racists any ammunition against Billie Holiday,” says Robert, “so he never publicly attacked her for falsely claiming his work.&rdquo At the urging of her book publisher, Holiday issued a statement that “Strange Fruit” was indeed “an original composition by Lewis Allan,” who was “the sole author.”

By 1953, Meeropol had relocated to Los Angeles to become a full-time songwriter his other best-known composition was the anti-prejudice song &ldquoThe House I Live In,&rdquo immortalized by Frank Sinatra. That year, Meeropol&rsquos name returned to headlines when he and his wife adopted Robert and Michael &mdash the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple executed by the U.S. government that year for supposedly passing American atom-bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. (Both Rosenbergs maintained their innocence.) Gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who’d taken a McCarthyite turn in that era, was among the many who stoked the fires of red-baiting rumor: &ldquoThe Abe Meeropol who hid the Rosenberg children at his home and has a commy membership name (Lewis Allen) [sic] wrote the song &lsquoStrange Fruit,&rsquo&rdquo he groused in print.

Robert Meeropol, who was almost seven when he was adopted by the Meeropols, says he&rsquos unclear whether his natural-born parents were familiar with &ldquoStrange Fruit.&rdquo In his memory, the Rosenbergs had no Holiday albums in their collection and didn&rsquot go out to clubs much. But he says they referenced the song in one of their prison correspondences before their death. &ldquoIt&rsquos clear to me that they knew about it,&rdquo he says. &ldquoAnd given their politics, it would be surprising [if they hadn’t].”

Nina Simone in 1964, the year before she recorded “Strange Fruit.”

Holiday kept singing the song through the years, but especially after her death in 1959, &ldquoStrange Fruit&rdquo took on a lower profile. Simone recorded her version in 1965, and Diana Ross sang it in her starring role as Holiday in the 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues. By the Seventies, though, Abel Meeropol was worried about the future of the song that made him most proud. As his son Robert recalls, &ldquoI remember him saying, &lsquoI wish I could help you boys out more. If it was played more, you&rsquod get more royalties.&rsquo&rdquo

In 1980, a new version appeared when UB40 recast &ldquoStrange Fruit&rdquo to a reggae groove, and Meeropol&rsquos friend Pete Seeger played him a tape of the song on a visit to the nursing home where Meeropol was suffering from Alzheimer&rsquos. Still thinking his song was on the verge of being forgotten, Meeropol died at 83 in 1986 an old friend performed &ldquoStrange Fruit&rdquo at a memorial meeting at his house.

A few other covers emerged, like Siouxsie and the Banshees&rsquo string-drenched 1987 cover in the early Nineties, Tori Amos released a stripped-down version, and Jeff Buckley regularly included the song in his sets at the club Sin-é New York. Then, in 1996, Wilson included the song on her album New Moon Daughter, which focused on songs with Southern themes.

Wilson says she was inspired to include &ldquoStrange Fruit&rdquo for two reasons: Her mother had once told her about the time she had witnessed a lynching, and Wilson also connected the theme of slavery to music business practices. (Three years before, Prince had famously written the word &ldquoSlave&rdquo on his face to protest his treatment by Warner Brothers Records.) &ldquoSlavery is not just something in our past,&rdquo she says. &ldquoThe music business has a lot of the same elements of it. So it could have been that I was forecasting something.&rdquo

New Moon Daughter went on to win a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal performance, and Robert Meeropol feels that Wilson’s version helped reignite interest in the song. It has now been covered by more than 60 artists, including, recently, Annie Lennox, India.Arie, and Fantasia. The song’s emergence in hip-hop has been particularly striking. Over the last two decades, tracks like Cassidy&rsquos &ldquoCelebration” and Pete Rock&rsquos &ldquoStrange Fruit&rdquo have sampled it, along with Rapsody’s “Nina.”

Kanye West, whose song “Blood on the Leaves” sampled Simone’s “Strange Fruit” in 2013.

Lloyd Bishop/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Rapsody feels that hip-hop artists are drawn to both the lyrics and the soulful singers, like Holiday and Simone, who sang “Strange Fruit.” Others have suggested that the political fury beneath the song’s chilled melody may be another reason it resonates today. &ldquoIf the hip-hop generation is taking it to heart, they recognize it&rsquos not mournful,” says Michael Meeropol. “Abel wasn&rsquot mourning the deaths he was calling out Southerners who were doing the murders.&rdquo Wilson agrees: “It&rsquos a very angry song. &lsquoThe bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.&rsquo That&rsquos pretty damn descriptive. How many lyrics do you hear like that?&rdquo

Seven years ago, Kanye West shone the brightest light on “Strange Fruit” when he incorporated a sample of Simone&rsquos rendition in &ldquoBlood on the Leaves,” one of the most gripping moments on Yeezus. According to Elon Rutberg, the writer, director, and songwriter who was one of West’s collaborators on the song, “Blood on the Leaves” began as part of a discussion equating basketball players with modern slavery. &ldquoWe thought that was very powerful,&rdquo he recalls. &ldquoIt was the idea that people have everything but they don&rsquot have the freedom they&rsquore longing for.&rdquo

The result was a song narrated by an athlete tormented by professional and personal-life issues. &ldquoIt&rsquos this outrageous ask for the listener to connect with a wealthy person&rsquos persona and private trauma, but it&rsquos still connected to this larger struggle,” Rutberg adds. “‘Strange Fruit’ is about finding a way to articulate the feelings you have when you stare terror in the face, and we did not want to disrespect Nina or the original song.”

The Meeropols admits they were initially puzzled by West’s song: &ldquoRobby and I were like, &lsquoWhat&rsquos going on here?&rsquo&rdquo recalls Michael. Adds his brother, &ldquoThat started a discussion, and people were talking about Nina Simone and were starting to cover the song. Abel would not have minded that in the slightest.&rdquo

West’s “Blood on the Leaves” was streamed nearly four times as often as Holiday’s original in the first half of this year, according to Alpha Data. The Meeropols continue to earn royalties off the song: Thanks to several changes in copyright law, the lyrics and melody to “Strange Fruit” won&rsquot go into public domain until 2033, 98 years after its initial 1939 copyright. The song has generated about $300,000 in royalties in just over the last 22 years. A portion of Robert Meeropol&rsquos earnings has gone toward the establishment of the Abel Meeropol Social Justice Writing Awards in 2017, the first recipient was black poet Patricia Smith, a multiple-time National Poetry Slam winner.

The fact that &ldquoStrange Fruit&rdquo is newly relevant is &ldquoa sad, sad commentary,&rdquo says Michael Meeropol. &ldquoWe were supposed to have killed Jim Crow in 1964 and &rsquo65. There&rsquos a trope that says, &lsquoUntil the last anti-Semite is dead, I&rsquom Jewish.&rsquo Now, until the last racist is dead, &lsquoStrange Fruit’ will be relevant. And the last racist is now president of the United States.&rdquo


Abel Meeropol

Abel Meeropol (pseudonym: Lewis Allan born February 19, 1903 in New York City , † October 30, 1986 in Longmeadow , Massachusetts ) was an American songwriter and writer.

Meeropol attended Dewitt Clinton High School in New York's Bronx until 1921 , where he taught English literature for twenty-seven years. He was also active as a writer for theater, film, radio and television and was politically active in the Communist Party . Under the impression of photos of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, he wrote the song Strange Fruit in 1937 , for which he also composed the melody. The anti-racist song became famous as interpreted by Billie Holiday and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978 .

The song The House I Live In , which Frank Sinatra sang in the film of the same name in 1945, and Apples, Peaches and Cherries , which he wrote for Peggy Lee , also became famous . In the field of classical music he mainly worked with the composers Robert Kurka and Elie Siegmeister and wrote a. a. the libretti for the operas The Good Soldier Schweik , Darling Corie , Malady of Love and The Soldier as well as the text of the cantata The Town Crier .

In 1953 he and his wife adopted the two sons of the executed Ethel and Julius Rosenberg .


&aposStrange Fruit&apos Named Song of the Century

Holiday may not have predicted the impact her Time magazine review would have, but she did understand the power of the song. Holiday’s vocalizing and improvisational abilities gave Meeropol’s poetry force and emotional impact.

“The first time I sang it I thought it was a mistake and I had been right being scared,” Holiday writes in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. “There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.”

Holiday went on to record “Strange Fruit” with the Commodore Records jazz label on April 20, 1939. The song helped raise Holiday to national prominence𠅊t just age 23.

Not all audiences appreciated Holiday&aposs performance of the song. Among them was the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger. Anslinger, who openly espoused racist views, saw to it that Holiday, who struggled with drug use, was targeted, pursued andਊrrested in 1947 for possession of narcotics. She was sent toਊlderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginiaਏor a year. Upon her release, Holiday was barred from securing a�ret performer’s license.

Despite her struggles, Holiday&aposs performance of "Strange Fruit" continued to resonate𠅊nd it remains among her bestselling recordings. In 1999, Time magazine named Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit” the “Song of the Century.”

Karen Juanita Carrillo is an author and photographer focusing on African American and Afro-Latino history, literature and politics.


Watch the video: Andra Day - Strange Fruit Official Music Video (January 2022).