Navigate to News section

The Strange History Behind ‘Strange Fruit’

Linking the iconic song to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Adam Chandler
September 06, 2012
Billie Holiday(courtesy: PBS)
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]

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.