Provocateur Kanye West’s new album “Yeezus” is the #1 record in the country. Known for his controversial outbursts, West is arguably one of the greatest living musicians. His new record has received across the board acclaim from critics, though some aren’t too fond of the graphic lyrics. One of the more striking songs is the title track, “Blood on the Leaves,” which samples Nina Simone’s version of the iconic protest song “Strange Fruit.” The song is well known. Much less well known is that a white Jewish communist wrote its lyrics.
Abel Meeropol — writer, teacher, and songwriter — first wrote the lyrics as a poem printed in a teachers union magazine. Entitled “Bitter Fruit,” Meeropol wrote the poem in 1939 after he saw a picture of a black man lynched in the South. Meeropol could not get the horrific image out of his head. His poem is full of explicit imagery of black people explaining that “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves, blood on the root … strange fruit hanging on the poplar trees.” Later that year, Meeropol, along with his wife and friends, wrote the song’s melody and began singing it at protest concerts. He later made a push to have Billie Holiday sing it. That version became world famous. In 1999, Time Magazine dubbed “Blood on the Leaves” the song of the century.
Meeropol wrote numerous political poems and songs, but “Strange Fruit” is by far his most popular. He also wrote “The House I Live In,” which described a utopian America where people of all races live in peace and harmony. Frank Sinatra starred in a short film based on the song in which he chases away some boys who are harassing a Jewish child then sings this song to a group of children. In the film, Meeropol’s line about blacks and white was excised, much to the author’s anger. Later in his life, Meeropol, adopted the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Jewish couple executed for spying for the Soviet Union.