A postcard from the hanging. Strange Fruit began life as a poem by Abel Meeropol, written sometime in the mid-1930s, and eventually published in 1936 under Meeropol's pen name of Lewis Allen. Meeropol wrote Strange Fruit after seeing the infamous 1930 photo of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. Meeropol would eventually set the song to music, and Strange Fruit enjoyed a minor notoriety among the New York intelligentsia club set during the late 1930s before becoming popularized by Lady Day.
Although Billie Holiday is often mistakenly identified as one of the authors of Strange Fruit (a fiction compounded by her Lady Sings the Blues ghostwriter) she probably wasn't familar with the song until 1939, when the owner of the Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, Barney Josephson, brought it to her attention. Strange Fruit quickly became a staple of Lady Day's live performances. Holiday also recorded the song for the Vocalian label in 1939 after Columbia - fearing a backlash from their Southern customers - refused. As it turned out, Strange Fruit would become Holiday's biggest selling record.
A man without fear, Abel Meeropol would also write the lyrics for the Frank Sinatra hit, The House I Live In, and with his wife Ann adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their parents execution for espionage against the United States.