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Strange Fruit

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You might think that a single song couldn’t sustain a documentary, but Strange Fruit is no ordinary tune. The documentary airs on “Independent Lens” on many PBS stations tonight (check local listings).

The song about lynching was first recorded by Billie Holiday and written by Abel Meeropol (under the name Lewis Allen). He later wrote “The House I Live In” which was performed by Frank Sinatra in a Oscar winning 1945 film short promoting tolerance.

The documentary’s website puts the song in the context of the history of protest music and has an interview with filmmaker Joel Katz. Don Byron composed the music for the documentary.

I saw it with over a thousand people at last year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. During the Q&A after the film some people talked about their experience in the civil rights movement. Others about Meeropol’s adoption of the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The PBS airing is sure to spark many smaller discussions.

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About Steve Rhodes

  • I just added Amazon links to albums by Nina Simone, Siouxsie & the Banshees and Cassandra Wilson with Stange Fruit on them (you can listen to audio clips from the latter two).

    I’m not sure what you mean about the headline.

  • Just throwing this in — Strange Fruit was also the title of a novel, and quite a controversial one; one of the first to deal sympathetically with interracial love. And Steve — you might wanna fix that headline.

  • Billie’s is certainly the defining version, however, there have been a number of others who have tackled the song. You can see a list here.

    Thanks for the heads up on the documentary.

  • You’re welcome. It really is a good doc.

    There have been a lot of people who have sung it though Holiday’s version is obviously the one most people know (one scene scrolls the names of a bunch of people and groups who have done cover and it ends with a version by Nina Simone).

  • Robert Wyatt did a particularly affecting version in 1979 or thenabouts. It’s on the Nothing Can Stop Us album — probably not a Blogcritics favorite as it also contains “The Reg Flag” and “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin'”…

  • Eric Olsen

    An important and amazing song on many levels including jazz history – was the first time a given recorded performance of a song was considered indelible and definitive. No one else even tried to record it – as far as I know – for over 50 years.

    Thanks Steve