‘Strange Fruit’ is a song with layers and layers of history behind it. The track actually started out as a poem by the Jewish-American writer, teacher, and songwriter Abel Meeropol, as a protest against the lynchings that were persistent throughout the American South.
The poem came out under the title ‘Bitter Fruit’ in 1937. Soon after, he set the poem to music, a song which was first performed by his wife, as well as Black vocalist Laura Duncan, who performed the song at Madison Square Garden.
When Billie Holiday heard the song, she was determined to record it. However, she received overwhelming criticism and pushback from record labels and producers, who found the song too controversial. However, after fighting for the song and teaming up with Milt Gabler, owner of the Commodore label, Holiday was given a single-song release from her Columbia recording contract to produce the song in April of 1939.
To this day, Billie Holiday is known as the primary singer of the historic track ‘Strange Fruit’. However, there have been plenty of artists to bring their take to it over the years. Siouxsie and the Banshees, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Josh White, UB40, Bettye LaVette, Jeff Buckley, Edward W. Hardy, Annie Lennox, and so many more have taken on the song. Even Kanye West sampled it in one of his songs.
However, Nina Simone is still one of the most influential artists to take the song on. Her cover of it closely resembles the arrangement of Billie Holiday’s but offers her distinct, soulful voice that is unmistakable in any musical setting.
Although you can listen to this song in basically any format, Nina Simone delivers an especially memorable performance a cappella. This song also has a history of acapella performances, considering how it started as a poem and how Billie Holiday herself convinced Gabler to collaborate with her by performing the song that way.
In Nina Simone‘s performance, you can hear the talent and the emotion in her voice, making it a stunning listen. If you want to check out her rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’, you can listen to it here. Remember, you might just want to drop everything else and give it your full attention.