Bitter Crop

Here’s another project that didn’t work out. It was going to be a book of stories about songs of social justice. Alas, no takers. This is the proposed first chapter of said book, which I had titled The Gasoline of Democracy. That comes from a quote from activist Bonnie Raines: “Dissent is the gasoline of democracy.”

I’m happy to report that my employer, Boston University, houses the papers of Abel Meeropol, who wrote “Strange Fruit” and who also adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, after the execution of their parents. From all evidence, Meeropol was a great dude and I enjoyed looking through his papers in our Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.

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Copyright © 2024 William McKeen

Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
LEWIS ALLEN, Strange Fruit

Look at the girl. She’s maybe sixteen, with her hair either cut short or tossed over her shoulder. It’s hard to tell from the battered photograph. She wears a patterned, sleeveless dress. What we see is her excitement and anticipation. She’s smiling. 

The boy next to her — we suspect he’s the boyfriend — has a wide and triumphant grin above his whalebone jaw. His hair is slicked, with a severe part, and he’s wearing a necktie. There was no school that day and it being a blistering and humid summer night, a necktie seems too formal. Perhaps this kid had some kind of a job, maybe the soda fountain at the drug store. We’ll never know, but we can’t forget his face, and the pleasure so obvious in his eyes.

A few steps away, on the other side of an old woman, is that other face — terrifying in its severity and hatred. He stares bullets and his thin lips are tight, to control his sputtering rage. Above the lips, a black square,  a block mustache. He resembles that dictator who will rise to power later in the decade.

There are children in the crowd.

This is Marion, Indiana, on a midsummer night in 1930. The girl and her presumed  boyfriend, the man with the cruel eyes … they’re part of a crowd. There may be hundreds pictured here, elbow to elbow on the courthouse square. We can best see the people at the front of the frame. Here’s a man in a straw skimmer. In the foreground, the old woman is pained, searching for someone or something in the distance. On the right, barely within the frame, is the expectant and over-exposed face of another teenage boy turning to look behind him, where the photographer stood, taking this picture of the crowd. By the time the photograph was made, the crowd been here for hours, enjoying the spectacle. It was a festival of a sort.

Only a few people in the picture look up at the tree. The man with the mustache points upward, but his eyes bore into the camera, and into the hundred years of eyes that would see this image of hatred. 

A local physician, E. Frank Turner, witnessed the whole depraved spectacle, as the crowd pulled the men from the jail and prepared to torture and kill them. As he recalled, “The body went up, dangling on the rope, and a demoniacal yell surged from the crowd. It was hideous! That mob sounded like wild wolves, the yells were more like vicious snarls. Some even clapped their hands.”

In the tree are two black men, lynched earlier that hot August night. The man with the Hitler mustache points at the two bodies in the tree. Pointing is common in the photographs of lynching now collected in archives as testaments to America’s self-inflicted atrocities. The idea was to provide a warning to black Americans. Remember this. That’s what the man with the mustache says. Remember.

And so we do. This may be the most heartbreaking and horrific picture of America’s racial cancer.  

George Orwell wrote that governments abused language in order to distance their citizens from feeling. Rather than call a part of town a slum and inspire concern, bureaucrats invented the term depressed socio-economic area. Already we feel better. When people live in a slum, we worry. When they live in a depressed socio-economic area — well, that doesn’t sound so bad. Now we can get a good night’s sleep. It’s all right for us to feel less.

George Orwell

So the term invented to blanket the depravity of lynching is “extrajudicial killing,” which rings antiseptic in our ears. Primary targets of lynching were black Americans, and the killings surged in the antebellum years before the Civil War. There were enormous number of lynchings in the post-Reconstruction era, and these persisted deep into the 20th Century.

They persist today, sometimes on television or online.

Between 1877 and 1950, at least 4,400 Black Americans were murdered in these extrajudicial killings in the Deep South. More than 400 lynchings were documented in northern or western states. But the records are not easily verified. The actual number of the murdered is widely assumed to be significantly higher. 

The Tuskegee Institute began keeping track of lynchings in 1908 and shared its data with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1936, the NAACP began flying a banner to report a lynching. The solemn flag proclaimed A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY and was draped outside the organization’s headquarters at 69 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. 

The Tuskegee staff members who tracked the murders had this working definition:

  • There must be legal evidence that a person was killed.
  • That person must have met death illegally.
  • A group of three or more persons must have participated in the killing.
  • The group must have acted under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition.
Outside the headquarters of the NAACP

Lynchings were social events for white residents. They’d watch and often participate in the execution. Though hanging was the primary method of murder, it is not synonymous with lynching. Victims were burned and tortured. 

Then came the party. Townsfolk gathered to watch the spectacle. It was festive, and if you missed it, you could still get to viewed the disfigured bodies. Photographers sold these haunted pictures of the dead as post cards.

Three black teenagers stood in their separate cells in the Grant County Jail, part of a five-floor fortress made out of Indiana limestone. The government building was a  stone landmark in the middle of Marion, a town just shy of 25,000 residents and the home of Indiana Wesleyan University. It was a humid August night and the boys inside the jail could hear the shouting through the jail’s windows.

Kill the niggers!

The boys were James Cameron, sixteen, Thomas Ships, eighteen, and Abraham Smith, nineteen. They’d been in jail since the previous night, when they were picked up for the murder of a white man, Claude Deeter, and the rape of his girlfriend, Mary Ball.

Cameron and Shipp attended the same school, and Shipp had graduated, got a job at a foundry and owned a car, unusual for a Black man at that time.

Sheriff Jacob Campbell

The next day, word spread that Sheriff Jacob Campbell was holding three young black men in the jail. Over coffee cups at the diner and the cash register at the grocery, word spread. 

Flossie Bailey was the president of the state’s NAACP and had organized a chapter in Marion. She was a beloved figure in Indiana’s black community and her home was an unofficial bed-and-breakfast for black travelers when they were turned away from Marion’s hotels. As she saw the crowd numbers grow outside the jail, she frantically made phone calls to jails in nearby counties, trying to arrange transport for the prisoners.

It’s unclear how it was obtained, but someone in the crowd produced Deeter’s blood-stained shirt. Someone hoisted it up as if it was a flag and hung it from the jail’s second floor window as a tattered shroud. It thus advertised on what floor the prisoners were housed.

The boys were in three adjacent cells and could hear talk from the street below that started as conversation and grew louder as the hours passed. Jailers said the boys spent most of their time behind bars on their knees, praying.

The Marion Chronicle said “three colored boys” had ambushed Deeter, a twenty-four-year-old factory worker, and his girlfriend. The boys fought with Deeter, but one of the boys pulled a gun and shot him. Then, the newspaper report said, the boys took their turns with Deeter’s girlfriend, Mary Ball.

Deeter was hospitalized and lay for hours in agony. He held on well into the next day, lasting until early afternoon but with the clenching pain of a gut shot. Doctors told the family it was only a matter of time.  His mother leaned over him, told him he was was dying, and urged him to find a way to forgive the boys. She did not want him to die in a pool of anger. He forgave them, held his mother’s hand, and died. 

Now the boys would be charged with murder.  

When Flossie Bailey saw the bloody shirt hanging from the jail’s window, she called Sheriff Campbell. She wasn’t having any luck, she said, but could he arrange transport? The boys needed to be taken to jail in a neighboring county, away from the rabid crowd outside the jail. But when Campbell went into the city’s garage, he found that all the tires on his county’s prisoner vans had been slashed. All the gasoline was drained from the tanks.

As it grew dark, the hatred accelerated. By 9:30 pm, the crowd was estimated at 5,000. Using sledgehammers and crowbars, men broke into the jail, used their weapons to destroy the bars of the cells, and grabbed the three suspects, beating them viciously. The jailers stood back and watched.

Rioters tightened a noose around Abram Smith’s neck and hung him from the window of the jailer’s office, over the seething crowd below. Smith reached up and held the noose with his hands, pulling it away from his neck, hoping to stave off death.  This infuriated the crowd, so the rioters lowered Smith to the ground, and used sledge hammers and crowbars to shatter his arms, rendering them useless to struggle with the noose. A crowbar slammed his head and fractured his skull. He was strung up again and died hanging from the jailer’s window.

Witnesses said some police officers took part in the lynching.

Later, those in the crowd reported on what was being said there on the courthouse lawn. The crowd seemed angrier about the alleged rape of Mary Ball. Claude Deeter’s murder was secondary. Most of the talk was about the woman who’d been violated by the black men. (A year later, Mary Ball admitted the rape never occurred.)

Mary Ball

The mob carried Smith’s body and Shipp and Cameron, battered nearly to death, and hanged the three from a giant oak in the town square. A woman cried out  that Cameron was innocent, and — remarkably — he was taken down from the tree limb and spared. But Shipp was hanged next to Smith’s body as the crowd whooped like the spectators at a rodeo. As the rope tightened around his neck, he kicked and jerked as the crowd cheered, roaring when he was finally still.

Jailers returned Cameron to his cell. (He eventually was tried as an accessory and sentenced to 35 years in prison. After four years, he was released for good behavior.)

The coroner came to the square and asked police for help retrieving the bodies of Shipp and Smith. The crowd surrounded the tree, blocking the police to advance. The crowd appeared to want the bodies to remain hanging, as a warning to Marion’s black community.

A couple rioters knew where the families of Shipp and Smith lived. They hopped in their cars and drove by their houses, hooting, and screaming, “We lynched your sons! Cry your eyes out!” 

Walter White was acting secretary of the NAACP. He said the Marion murders of the two young men were the “most horrible and brutal in the whole history of lynching.” 

Writer David Margolick noted that lynchings took place in small towns deprived of more conventional entertainment. As the iconoclastic journalist HL Mencken said, in small backwater towns lynchings took the place “of the merry-go-round, the theater [and] the symphony orchestra.”

A photographer named Lawrence Beitler took the picture of the festive crowd in front of the horrifying carnival. By his account, Beitler didn’t sleep for the next 36 hours, as he worked through the days and nights to meet demand for prints of the picture. The people of Marion were eager to pay for a print as a souvenir of that night in the life of their town. The picture was also sold nationwide as a postcard and was frequently printed in magazines.

Now it’s a few years later: 1937, and the nation is pulling itself from the Great Depression. Schoolteacher Abel Meeropol holds a copy of his union magazine, The New York Teacher. He turns the page and beholds suddenly the gruesome picture. There is no escape. He looks at it for a long time, revolted and entranced by Beitler’s photograph. He closes the magazine, wiping his tears on his sleeve.

Abel Meeropol

Meeropol was born in 1903, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in the Bronx. He attended Dewitt Clinton High School, where Countee Cullen, the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, was a classmate.  He earned his bachelor’s degree from City College of New York and a master’s from Harvard. He returned home to the Bronx and his alma mater as an educator. He taught English for nearly two decades at Dewitt Clinton. One of his students was James Baldwin, the esteemed essayist, philosopher and activist.

Raised in an immigrant household with its focus on those who were outsiders, Meeropol grew up in a deeply liberal home. Always concerned with social justice, Meeropol joined the Communist Party as a young man. The American version of the party was attractive to Meeropol, since one of its goals was to push for civil rights legislation. The Democrats would not introduce the concept of civil rights to its political platform until the dawn of the 1950s. 

Meeropol had experienced anti-Semitism and witnessed racism. He was transfixed by the lynching picture in The New York Teacher.  He kept returning to the magazine, as if to make sure the horrible image was still there. Finally, he closed the magazine and vowed to write something to convey his revulsion. 

Later generations would call it his side hustle. Meeropol’s teaching job (unionized) paid the bills, but his love was songwriting. He played piano as a child and began creating melodies. But it was the lyrics that excited him. He loved composers with their clever turns of phrases that somehow came to rhyme. He thought he could turn his progressive ideas into songs. He wrote songs about unions, much like Woody Guthrie was doing during that period.

He felt a response brewing to the photograph. Melody did not come. At first, the revolting lynching picture led him to try to describe the horror of the smiling couple, the pointing man and the burned bodies. How could he convey his anger and disgust?

Not by ranting. Not by going into a rage. He thought the best way to channel his anger was by not showing it. He would never win over anyone with unwavering anger. He would err on the side of subtlety. He was following the advice E.B. White would offer in The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.”

It comes as a poem. Indiana was too long, too many syllables. That state had a troubled racial history and was the primary site of the reborn Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. But Meeropol takes some license and sets his poem in the Deep South: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit.”

He wants to unfurl a mystery. The first verse introduces something that can go anywhere. Just the evocation of a tree that bears fruit. But by the second line, he’s talking about blood. The third line: “Black body swinging in the Southern trees.”

Well that can be anything. Still — what is this?

The second verse also contains juxtapositions. He evokes the pastoral South and the smell of magnolia. Yet he alternates those lines with “bulging eyes” and the “sudden smell of burning flesh.”

By the third verse, it’s clear: This is the aftermath of a lynching. This is the brutal end to a life.

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 a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

He finishes, and the poem overwhelms him. He isn’t even sure where it comes from.

Abel Meeropol showed it to his wife, Anne, who shared his political beliefs and was also an activist. Both were communist and committed to civil rights. .

Meeropol called the poem “Bitter Fruit,” and was able to publish it in his teachers union publication. He knew the poem was stark and powerful, with a strong and compelling message. He wanted a larger audience, so he decided he would set it to music.

Words took precedence over music in his songs. Earl Robinson, the great activist-singer (composer of  the classic union song “Joe Hill”) was astonished by Meeropol’s “inexhaustible ability to turn out topical lyrics.” The melodies he used were serviceable, not particularly memorable. For once, he’d written a song that didn’t really need a melody.

Meeropol knew that he didn’t need much to turn “Bitter Fruit” into a song. He played a dirge and asked Anne, a gifted singer, to sing it.

It was a powerful performance, just the two of them in their apartment. 

The community of the Left and communist groups gathered regularly then, not worried they would be persecuted at a time when the nation was facing the reality of collapse. 

They first tried out the song at one of their political parties. There was food and drink and some revelry, but the conversation rarely strayed from progressive ideas and suggestions for reform. 

Abel and Anne knew the song was a dark, funereal work, so they waited until late in the evening, just before they sensed the crowd was about to peel off. Before they lost critical mass, Abel said he had a new song he’d written, and that Anne would sing it.

And she did. When it was over, there was silence. Then a gasp, then a shaking of heads, then firm but tentative applause. 

This was a hell of a song.

She was Eleanora Fagan at birth, and in the vernacular of the time, she was illegitimate. Her parents were teen-agers who had a brief affair. Her mother, Sadie, had been kicked out of her Baltimore home by her parents when she became pregnant. She migrated to Philadelphia, where Eleanora was born in 1915. Other than being present at conception, her jazz musician father, was absent for her life.

Eleanora grew to be a gifted fabulist. She ran through a telephone directory of names, calling herself Theresa or Madge and other disposable identifies. She invented a childhood — sometimes pathetic, worse that what she experienced, and sometimes a wonderland of delights. Was she lying? Another performer, Bob Dylan, was a masterful truth-bender. As Bobby Zimmerman, he was the son of a northern Minnesota appliance salesman who pledged a fraternity at the University of Minnesota before dropping out, hitchhiking to New York and assuming his new identity. As Bob Dylan, when he talked about working in carnivals and living in Gallup, New Mexico, he wasn’t lying. The life, like the new identity, was make-believe.

Billie Holiday

Dylan was following the path blazed by Eleanora Fagan. After rolling through her identities, moving around frequently with her prostitute mother, she discovered she could sing and named herself Billie Holiday. She invented a life for Holiday, and it was fluid — depending on her mood. Details about her are scarce, though it is documented that she was sent to reform school at age ten. 

She was impressed by the music she heard in the bawdy houses — recordings by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. As she began to sing, she realized she was too weak to belt out songs like Smith. She was a singer in the new electronic age and needed a microphone to perform. She also had a limited range, but she managed to wring suffering and pathos out of her one-and-a-half octave range.

Like Dylan and Aretha Franklin and Benny Goodman and Bruce Springsteen, Holliday could lay claim to being discovered by John Hammond. Something of a dilettante from Clan Vanderbilt, Hammond loved the music of Black America. During the days of music industry segregation, he blurred racial lines and produced a Carnegie Hall concert called “From Spirituals to Swing.” It was nothing less than a history of American Black music.

Hammond’s “discovery” of Billie Holliday occurred when he dropped into a Harlem night club and was entranced by the singer onstage. Hammond was a music journalist at this point and raved about Holiday in the pages of Melody Maker, noted that Holiday — then just eighteen — “sings as well as anybody I ever heard.” Hammond boosted her career by introducing her to some of the best musicians in American jazz. — Johnny Hodges and Benny Goodman, for two — and she began her recording career. Working with small combos, she first released “Riffin’ the Scotch” when she was nineteen. 

She recorded some of the great songs of the time, including “These Foolish Things” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” but didn’t begin to hit her musical stride until 1937, when she first partnered with Lester Young, a saxophonist from Count Basie’s band. Young had a sympathetic ear and knew how to cushion Holiday’s weary, delicate voice in a band arrangement. Together, they created masterful recordings of  “They Can’t Take that Away from Me,” “My Man” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It.”

In 1938, former shoe salesman Barney Josephson opened Cafe Society, a new nightclub on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. Here, there were no apartheid rules. It became one of the few clubs to allow black and white patrons side by side. White hipsters no longer had to truck up to Harlem and Black fans found a safe landing spot in the Village. (Black fans were not welcome at some nightclubs in Harlem. The Cotton Club featured Black musicians performing for an all-white audience, with exceptions made for prominent blacks.)

John Hammond’s fingers were also in Cafe Society and he advised Josephson on what artists to book. Every night was like his spirituals-to-swing concert recreated in a small club. A lot of great artists got their first major gigs at Cafe Society: Big Joe Turner, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Ruth Brown and many others. 

John Hammond

Openly mingling audiences rendered Cafe Society somewhat subversive. Far Left fund-raisers and Communist Party meetings were held there — the kinds of meetings Abel and Anne Meeropol attended. The conservative columnists in New York papers began taking potshots at the club, but Josephson persisted in his policy and nurturing young talent.

He took a personal interest in Billie Holiday, now twenty-four and secure in her steady if not terribly prosperous career. He helped her craft set lists that accentuated the drama in her soft, heartbreaking voice. To build to a great closing, she needed a special song, something powerful.

Josephson showed her the sheet music of an unusual and dramatic new song to Holiday. Close with this, he advised her.

Josephson’s night club Café Society was a firmly left-wing operation. No one shied away from politics amid the tinkling ice cubes in their drinks.

Billie Holiday at Club Downbeat in February 1947

He’d heard the song at a party and apparently approached Meeropol about coming to the club and playing the song. (Josephson denies credit; he said Meeropol just showed up one night.)

Josephson introduced Meeropol to Holiday. She was the definition of a torch singer, more concerned with affairs of the broken heart than politics. One claim was that she read exclusively comic books. Such a serious song didn’t seem right for her. So she thought as Meeropol played the piano, carefully enunciating his lyrics for Holiday.

Afterward, she was quiet and Meeropol sensed she was disturbed by the song. “I didn’t feel she felt comfortable with the song,” he said later.

She had only one question. She asked Meeropol to tell her what “pastoral” meant.
Afterward, she asked Josephson, “What do you want me to do with that, man?”

Josephson said that he sensed at first Holiday didn’t truly understand the song. She sang it for him, offstage, mostly as a favor. But after a few attempts at the song, Josephson saw a tear running down her cheek and he knew: she got it.

Years later in Lady Sings the Blues, her fanciful autobiography, Holiday told a different story. In this version, she recognized the song’s greatness: “Some guy’s brought me a hell of a damn song that I’m going to do.” She also claimed co-authorship of the song and Meeropol took issue. (The credit was removed in later editions of the book.)

Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit” made its public debut at Café Society in 1938. She did her regular set of cast iron songs and torch ballads, leaving “Strange Fruit” for the end. Meeropol was there. “She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation,” he later wrote.

The audience was still when she finished. Her pianist stood up and left the stage. There was nothing else to say. Holiday stood there and after a few moments of silence, the crowd erupted in cheers.

“Strange Fruit” became a signature song for Holiday, but it took years for it to be widely recognized. She approached her label, Columbia Records, the industry giant, about issuing the song. The label demurred and suggested the take the song to Commodore, an independent jazz label. The song was too controversial, her mentors thought.

Holiday’s mother was also dubious: Why sing such a song, she asked her daughter. Because it can make things better, Holiday told her.

The song brought her a great deal of attention and Josephson believed that when Holiday appeared in Time magazine, illustrating a piece about “Strange Fruit,” it was the first time a Black person had appeared in that publication.

The editors were not kind. The piece, titled “Strange Record,” began thus: “Billie Holiday is a roly poly young colored woman with a hump in her voice. She does not care enough about her figure tp watch her diet, but she loves to sing.”

“Strange Fruit” was an anomaly in Holiday’s repertoire. In her halting, distinctive voice, she sang beautiful songs of heartbreak, such as “Fine and Mellow” and “My Old Flame.” The forties was a decade of success for Holiday, but soon her chronic use of drugs ate at her life and art. She was frequently arrested for possession or narcotics in her last years and battled alcoholism and parasitic and unkind men. She continued to record, but her voice grew rough. Suffering cirrhosis and heart disease, she died in 1959.

“Strange Fruit” achieved new life in the sixties, when it was recorded by Nina Simone. Atlantic Records had absorbed the recordings from Commodore and her first recording of the song was released in a collection called Strange Fruit, released in 1973.

Meeropol continued writing songs and had his greatest success with “The House I Live In,” a plea for racial tolerance recorded by Frank Sinatra during the Second World War. Though he maintained his career as an educator, he filled notebooks with songs, cartoons, jokes and love notes.

He and Anne had lost two children – both boys were stillborn. They named their children Lewis and Allen. For his songwriting pseudonym, he chose Lewis Allen.

When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by the federal government in 1954, having been found guilty of espionage, Abel and Anne Meeropol adopted their orphaned sons, Michael and Robert. Abel and Anne were loving parents and Abel wrote frequently to the boys when they went off to college and began their adult lives. Rarely did he send a letter without an illustration. When Anne died in the early seventies, Abel was bereft and spent his last decade in a chasm of grief. He died in 1986.

“Strange Fruit,” the song first assailed by Time magazine when it appeared, was in 2000 named the Song of the Century by the same magazine.

Holiday near the end