Strange Fruit | Chicago Reader

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57 minutes · 2001

A famous song becomes a window onto the complexity and diversity of culture in Joel Katz's fine 2001 documentary on the title jazz ballad. Written in 1938 by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher in the Bronx, to protest lynchings (“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”) and initially banned from radio, “Strange Fruit” was taken up by Billie Holiday and later sung by performers as varied as Archie Shepp and Tori Amos. The video's details reveal the fabric of the times: Holiday first performed the song at the integrated Greenwich Village nightclub Cafe Society, where the doormen wore rags to parody pretentiousness; singing the song in public could attract anticommunist witch-hunters; after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage in 1953, Meeropol and his wife adopted their two young sons, who tell their story on-screen.

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