British singer Rebecca Ferguson, who was the runner-up for the 2010 season of The X-Factor, claimed on Twitter on January 2 that Donald Trump asked her to sing at his inauguration ceremony on January 20. Ferguson said she would do it, but only if she could sing the legendary protest song “Strange Fruit.”
The song was written by Abel Meeropol and is considered one of the first ever protest songs against racism, specifically against lynching. “Strange Fruit” was first published in 1937, but became a standard thanks to Billie Holliday’s performance of the song in 1939. Since then, the song has been covered by countless artists, including Nina Simone, who recorded it in 1965 during the Civil Rights movement.
Here’s a look at the song and Ferguson’s explanation for why she wants to sing it.
1. Ferguson Wrote That ‘Strange Fruit’ Reminds Us ‘How Love Is the Only Thing That Will Conquer All the Hatred in This World’
Ferguson announced on Twitter that she was asked to perform at Trump’s inauguration ceremony. She wrote that she would do it, but only if she could perform “Strange Fruit.”
Here’s Ferguson’s complete statement:
I’ve been asked and this is my answer. If you allow me to sing “strange fruit” a song that has huge historical importance, a song that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. A song that speaks to all the disregarded and down trodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world, then I will graciously accept your invitation and see you in Washington. Best Rebecca X
Ferguson has made it clear during her career that she respects the acts that came before her by recording an entire album of songs made famous by Billie Holiday. Titled Lady Sings The Blues, the album did not include “Strange Fruit.” However, it includes songs like “Get Happy,” “Summertime,” “Blue Moon” and “Stormy Weather.”
Ferguson‘s most recent album is Superwoman, which was released in October 2016. In 2012, Ferguson contributed to a recording of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” as a member of The Justice Collective.
2. ‘Strange Fruit’ Was Written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish New Yorker Disturbed by Photos of Lynching
The song was first written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, published under the pseudonym Lewis Allan in 1937. Meeropol was a New Yorker who was haunted by photographs of lynchings in other parts of the country. Meeropol was Jewish and a socialist.
The one photo that really made an impact on him was the photo of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930 by Lawrence Beitler. As NPR notes, the two men were accused of murdering a factory worker and raping his companion, but the case was never solved. Local police couldn’t stop a mob from lynching the two men.
“I wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it,” Meeropol once said, reports The Guardian.
Meeropol’s lyrics never mention the word “lynching,” although the metaphor is clear, notes NPR. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” reads the first two lines of the song.
For the complete lyrics to the song, click here.
3. Meeropol Said Holiday’s Singing ‘Fulfilled the Bitterness and the Shocking Quality I Had Hoped the Song Would Have’
Billie Holiday was not the fist singer to perform “Strange Fruit.” After writing it, Meeropol put music to his lyrics and the song gained attention in New York. Black singer Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden before Holiday heard it.
In 1939, Cafe Society founder Barney Josephson introduced the song to Holiday. Meeropol later went to the club to hear his song performed by an icon. He was stunned.
“She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation of the song which could jolt the audience out of its complacency anywhere,” Meeropol said, according to With Billie: A New Look at the Unforgettable Lady Day by Julia Blackburn. “This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it. Billie Holiday’s styling fulfilled the bitterness and the shocking quality I had hoped the song would have. The audience gave a tremendous ovation.”
The song became a major part of her repertoire. After some difficulty with her record label, Columbia, she had to work out a deal with Vocalion Records to get her recording released.
4. Kanye West Used Nina Simone’s Version of ‘Strange Fruit’ in ‘Blood on the Leaves’
In 1965, Nina Simone recorded “Strange Fruit.” This is the version that Kanye West sampled in his song “Blood on the Leaves,” from the album Yeezus.
“It’s the one song you can count on everyone knowing something about,” Craig Werner, the author of A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America, told MTV News in 2013. “So, in a sense, the symbolic value is more important than what it was [at the time] because everyone who thinks about it thinks, ‘This is that anti-lynching song.'”
The song has also been recorded by John Martyn, Sting, Robert Wyatt and India.Arie. Bob Dylan said in the film No Direction Home that he was inspired by the song.
As The New York Times noted in its review of David Margolick’s 2002 book Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, record producer Ahmet Ertegun once described “Strange Fruit” as “a declaration of war … the beginning of the civil rights movement.”
5. Billie Holiday’s Recording of ‘Strange Fruit’ Joined the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in Its First Year
In 2002, the Library of Congress began adding important American recordings to the National Recording Registry to ensure that they will survive the test of time. Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” was among the 50 recordings added in the first year.
“This searing song is arguably Billie Holiday’s most influential recording. It brought the topic of lynching to the commercial record-buying public,” the Library notes.
“Strange Fruit” was also named the “Best Song of the Century” by Time Magazine in 1999. It also topped the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s 100 Songs of the South list.