In cynical times, it’s far too easy to dismiss the value of the arts. But listen to Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit.” When Holiday put Bronx high-school teacher Abel Meeropol‘s lyrics to music, she captured the bizarre pain and insanity of a legacy of lynching in the American South. Meeropol’s morbid lyrics juxtapose a “Pastoral scene of the gallant south” against the gruesome spectacle of a lynching. The “strange and bitter crop” of history–the hanging flesh of dead black men–is preserved forever in this sad and bitter elegy. Art–song and poetry–has a capability to tell an abstract truth in a way that the concrete annals of history cannot achieve.
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black 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,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.