“Strange Fruit” began as a poem about the lynching of a black man written by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx Abel Meeropol, who used the pen name Lewis Allan (the names of his two children, who died in infancy). Meeropol and his wife were also the adoptive parents of the children of the executed spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in the 1950s. “Strange Fruit” was written as a poem expressing his horror at the lynchings,and was first published in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine. Though Meeropol/Allan often asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music he set Strange Fruit to music himself and the song gained a certain success as a protest song in and around New York. Before Holiday was introduced to the song, it had been performed by Meeropol, by his wife, and by a black vocalist called Laura Duncan, who performed it at Madison Square Garden.
Meeropol said later that he had been inspired by seeing Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. “Strange Fruit” was eventually heard by Barney Josefson the founder of Cafe Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub, who introduced it to Billie Holiday. Holiday performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939, a move that by her own admission left her fearful of retaliation. Holiday later said that the imagery in “Strange Fruit” reminded her of her father’s death, and that this played a role in her persistence to perform it. The song became a regular part of Holiday’s live performances.