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Evolution Of A Song: 'Strange Fruit'

The story behind the song "Strange Fruit" is well-known. Shocked by a postcard bearing a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith in Marion, Ind., Bronx schoolteacher Abel Meeropol put pen to paper. Full of unforgettable imagery, his poem "Bitter Fruit" was published under the name Lewis Allan in 1936. He later supplied a melody so it could be sung at political rallies, but jazz icon Billie Holiday and her pianist Sonny White refashioned the simple tune.

In the hands of many singers, "Strange Fruit" feels like a period piece — more of a memorial than a protest song, a symbol of less enlightened times. Poke around online and you'll find that the song has found a life beyond the jazz canon through Diana Ross, Cocteau Twins, Sting and India.Arie, just to name a few. There's even a hip-hop collective called the Strange Fruit Project. No matter the genre, however, rare are the performers who have invested the song with new meaning, fraught as it is with the legacy of America's troubled past.

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Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Times and the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.