Southern trees bear a 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 magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
Strange Fruit is the first documentary exploring the history and legacy of the Billie Holiday classic. The song’s evolution tells a dramatic story of America’s radical past using one of the most influential protest songs ever written as its epicenter. The saga brings viewers face-to-face with the terror of lynching even as it spotlights the courage and heroism of those who fought for racial justice when to do so was to risk ostracism and livelihood if white – and death if Black. It examines the history of lynching, and the interplay of race, labor and the left, and popular culture as forces that would give rise to the Civil Rights Movement.
While many people assume Strange Fruit was written by Billie Holiday herself, it actually began as a poem by a Jewish schoolteacher and union activist from the Bronx who later set it to music. Disturbed by a photograph of a lynching, the teacher wrote the stark verse and brooding melody about the horror of lynching under the pseudonym Lewis Allan in 1938. It was first performed at a New York teachers’ union rally and was brought to the attention of the manager of Cafe Society, a popular Greenwich Village nightclub, who introduced Billy Holiday to the writer.
The documentary includes a moving recitation of the lyric by Abbey Lincoln and a powerful musical performance by Cassandra Wilson. But it’s the footage of Lady Day herself performing her bitter and heart-wrenching signature song that stands at the center of the film. Holiday sang it until her death in 1959.