Do you remember the first time you heard a song that gave you the chills? For me, that moment happened the same month Richard Nixon resigned. Too young to fully grasp current events, I still knew that a disturbing otherness was intruding into daily routines, something unsettling enough to make grownups forget their keys at the supermarket or lose their train of thought in mid-sentence. People seemed strange, and I didnâ€™t know why. During these culminating moments of Watergate, a Billie Holiday anthology from the library gave me my first taste of â€œStrange Fruit.â€ For reasons I couldnâ€™t explain, the way she sang her way through her numbness captured the unsettling strangeness around me. I had no idea that the song was about lynching; for years, I still thought it was about fruit. Decades later, when I saw photographer Amy Kubesâ€™ â€œLittle Worriesâ€ collection, which features images of a bandaged pear and a cantaloupe wearing underpants, I couldnâ€™t stop hearing â€œStrange Fruitâ€ in my head.
For the past few weeks, â€œStrange Fruitâ€ has followed me everywhere. Partly thatâ€™s because recent events made me recall a picture of two studious-looking little boys who reminded me a bit of myselfâ€”little Robert, dressed in a Brooklyn Dodgers t-shirt, looking over the shoulder of his big brother Michael, with his face buried in a newspaper. But these boys were the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the newspaper in Michaelâ€™s hand bore details of their parentsâ€™ impending execution. Robert and Michael became the adoptive sons of Abel Meeropol, a Bronx-based schoolteacher, union activist, and occasional poet/ songwriter who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. After seeing Lawrence Beitlerâ€™s gruesome image of a lynching in Marion, Indiana, Meeropol wrote a haunting poem that he later turned into â€œStrange Fruit.â€ One wonders whether he saw the Rosenbergsâ€™ execution, which Jean-Paul Sartre once termed a â€œlegal lynching,â€ as strange fruit of a different sort.
The iconic picture of Robert and Michael reading the newspaper reappeared in the news this month along with new evidence confirming Julius Rosenbergâ€™s involvement as a Soviet spy, while adding to doubts that Ethel was guilty of more than being a loyal wife. That news prompted the Meeropol brothers, who spent decades attempting to prove both parentsâ€™ innocence, to confront the strange reality that things were not quite what they seemed. Ironically, the revelations about the Rosenbergs coincided with the near-collapse of the banking system and plans for the most sweeping state takeover of private enterprise in American historyâ€”not because of a Russian invasion, but because under-regulated and over-leveraged financiers ran out of ways to creatively repackage crushing debt. Time will tell whether the reaction to this crisis will, 78 years after the lynching that inspired â€œStrange Fruit,â€ lead to the election of our first African-American president. Iâ€™m trying to be hopeful, but much of the time, Iâ€™m singing my way through my numbness and feeling a little strange.
Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”