The Story Behind 'Strange Fruit,' the Song That Inspired 'The United States Vs. Billie Holiday'

Hulu's The United States vs. Billie Holiday opens with titles stating a historic fact: "In 1937, a Bill to finally ban the lynching of African-Americans was considered by the Senate. It did not pass." As the words come more clearly into view, the camera moves across a black-and-white photo of a gathering of white men, smiles plastered across their faces, as the body of a Black man—charred and mutilated—rests at their feet.

It's a chilling photo that captures a specific and familiar horror Black Americans faced throughout history. And it's an image that embodies the same type of cruelty and violence described in Holiday's biggest hit, "Strange Fruit."

The song serves as the basis of the legal drama depicted in the new Hulu film, in which a haggard and tired-looking Holiday—played by Andra Day—shares an account of her life's highs and lows during an interview.

Sure, she's battled heroin addiction, and it's drugs that ultimately help the FBI convict her. But it's the song—its powerful messaging surrounding the harsh reality many Blacks in the U.S. endured in the early 1900s—that essentially put Lady Day on the agency's hit list. The department was concerned that the themes and painful lyrics of "Strange Fruit" would incite a riot and further fuel the burgeoning civil rights movement.

As viewers see in the Lee Daniels–directed film, which released on Friday, the FBI wanted Holiday to stop singing the song. So, they sent in a Black Federal agent to infiltrate Holiday's inner circle and help the department nab her on narcotics possession charges in 1947. Holiday spent a year behind bars, and 10 days after her release, she performed the song as her closing number during a showcase at New York City's Carnegie Hall, according to author Dorian Lynskey's 2010 music history book, 33 Revolutions Per Minute.

The Story Behind 'Strange Fruit' Song
Andra Day appears as Billie Holiday in the Hulu film, "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday," premiering on February 26. In the film, the FBI wanted Holiday to stop singing "Strange Fruit," so they sent in a Black federal agent to infiltrate Holiday's inner circle and help the department nab her on narcotics possession. Takashi Seida/Hulu

Originally titled "Bitter Fruit," the song actually began as a poem written in 1937 by Abel Meeropol, a poet and teacher at the DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, which was attended by notable figures like James Baldwin, Robert Klein, Ralph Lauren, Stan Lee and Neil Simon, among others.

Gérard Pélisson, who wrote The Castle on the Parkway, a book about the school and its impact on American culture in 2008, recalled Meeropol's inspiration for the poem, noting that the teacher was "was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge." According to a 2012 NPR report, Meeropol was allegedly "haunted" by the image of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abe Smith, who were hung side-by-side from a poplar tree in Indiana, and the words of the poem just spilled out of him.

The poem was soon picked up and published in a New York teachers union publication with its new title, "Strange Fruit." Meeropol later set the words to music and began performing it with his wife at parties and gatherings in 1938, and the song even made it to Madison Square Garden when Black singer Laura Duncan belted it out that same year.

It was during Duncan's performance when Robert Gordon, who worked with the talent at a new jazz club Cafe Society, heard the tune and thought Holiday, who was set to be the club's headlining performer, would do it justice, according to a 2011 Guardian report. Gordon was right in his assumption about Holiday—with her smoky-voice and raw emotion, she owned the song, and within a year she was asked to record the tune.

Just as "Strange Fruit" led to the FBI's investigation on Holiday, it brought the song's original writer Meeropol legal trouble too. He was made to testify before a committee in New York in 1940 where he was grilled on communism in public schools. Officials wanted to know if the American Communist Party asked him to pen the song, according to NPR. Although Meeropol was, in fact, a Communist, the party had nothing to do with his creation of "Strange Fruit."

While not the first protest song to ever exist, "Strange Fruit" is perhaps one of the most influential. In 1999, Time magazine named the solemn tune Song of the Century. Today, it sits in the National Library of Congress' National Recording Registry. Kanye West even sampled Nina Simone's version of the song for his platinum hit "Blood on the Leaves" in 2013.