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The Strange History Behind ‘Strange Fruit’

Linking the iconic song to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

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Billie Holiday(courtesy: PBS)

NPR has a great story about the history of the song “Strange Fruit” which, while made famous by Billie Holiday, was written by a Bronx-born Jew named Abel Meeropol. The song, which Time named the song of the century back in 1999, was a protest song inspired by a gruesome photograph of a 1930s Indiana lynching.

But in addition to writing the song, years later Abel Meeropol also adopted the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg following their infamous 1953 execution for espionage.

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.

Of course, Tablet was on the case when we listed “Strange Fruit” at number sixteen in our 100 Greatest Jewish Songs feature back in 2010 (Jody Rosen also did mention the connection to the Rosenbergs in the blurb).

Nevertheless, the whole article is definitely worth a read for tidbits like Meeropol’s high school, Dewitt Clinton, also graduated names like James Baldwin, Richard Rodgers, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, and Ralph Lauren.

Also, here’s a rare video of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” (although I’m partial to the Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley versions):

Related: Songs of Songs [Tablet Magazine]
The Strange Story of the Man Behind ‘Strange Fruit’ [NPR]

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For a slightly different perspective, you could see the article on this topic I wrote for the Forward last year:

http://forward.com/articles/134615/from-moses-and-miriam-to-meeropol/

And then there’s the side story, of what Abel’s adopted son, Robert Meeropol, (Julius and Ethel’s younger son), has done with his life: creating the Rosenberg Fund for Children (www.rfc.org) which honors the legacies of both of his sets of parents. And sometimes also features “Strange Fruit” in its artistic programs, like here, as introduced by Angela Davis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oc4FPC3Qo8c&list=SPAA3F8AF3C23133B2&index=10&feature=plpp_video

terri greene says:

Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit is
heart-breaking.

2000

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The Strange History Behind ‘Strange Fruit’

Linking the iconic song to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

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