Robert Meeropol





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Robby speaking at the re-launch of the Mary Pitawanakwat Fund in Toronto

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The Birth of a Nation

May 28, 2016

Tags: The Birth of a Nation, Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropol

Most of you probably know about D.W. Griffith’s horrible 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. It glorified the Ku Klux Klan. President Woodrow Wilson, a virulent racist, showed it in the White House.

African-American filmmaker Nate Parker’s new film with the same title is the story of Nat Turner, who led the great Virginia slave rebellion in 1831. There is already a lot of buzz about this film, which will be released on October 7. It has generated rave advance reviews and sparked an unprecedented bidding war for distribution rights at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I’m eager to see the film, which I hear is presented from Turner’s point of view. The trailer (link to the left) features Nina Simone singing Strange Fruit, written by my father, Abel Meeropol.

Some may wonder what Strange Fruit, a song about lynching written in the late 1930’s, has to do with a slave uprising that took place over 100 years earlier. I don’t know if Strange Fruit is played in the body of the movie, so I don’t know how entwined the song is with the plot. But despite the 100-year gap, given what I know about Nat Turner’s rebellion, the film and song are well matched.

Strange Fruit is often referred to as a “sorrowful dirge,” or as a “protest song.” While it does fit within the protest song category, I think that term misses its essence. Strange Fruit is an attack song. With his couplet “Pastoral scene of the gallant South. The bulging eyes and twisted mouth,” Abel was saying that beneath its genteel facade the South was rotten. Its scornful tone infuriated many whites so much that its performance was banned in some cities and radio stations refused to play it. There were riots at some of the venues where it was performed. In 1940, my father was called before a committee investigating communist school teachers and asked if the Communist Party paid him to write the song.

Similarly, the 2016 version of The Birth of a Nation is an attack movie. It isn’t about the moral superiority of non-violent protesters peacefully asking for desegregation and civil rights in the 1960’s. Instead, it is a justification – and possibly a glorification – of an armed rebellion.

How would my father feel about the use of his greatest work in this manner? He once said he wrote Strange Fruit because he hated lynching and he hated the people who perpetrated it. Abel was no turn-the-other-cheek pacifist. He would have applauded the slaves taking up arms. He would have loved having his song used in this new film.

I look forward to seeing the movie. I intend to watch it through two sets of eyes, my own and my father’s.

Strange Convergence: Billie Holiday and Ethel Rosenberg

February 4, 2015

Tags: Billie Holiday, Ethel Rosenberg, Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropol

If Billie Holiday and Ethel Rosenberg were alive, they’d both celebrate their 100th birthdays this year. At first glance they may seem an unlikely couple, but a closer look reveals surprising parallels.

They were each born into poverty six months and a hundred miles apart. Billie in April 1915 in Philadelphia, and Ethel in September in lower Manhattan. Both had extraordinary singing voices, although Billie’s vocal genius eclipsed Ethel’s. Still, Ethel’s teachers considered her voice so special that they called her out of class to sing the national anthem at assemblies.

Both girls were precocious. Ethel graduated high school at 15 and tried to pursue a singing and acting career. At the height of the depression, she could only find work as a clerk-typist in New York’s garment district. There she helped organize and lead a strike at 19. Billie was singing in clubs in Harlem at 17, and made her mark as a recording artist before she was 20.

Both got in trouble with the law. Billie first ran afoul of powerful forces for singing “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching anthem. Her performances generated threats, even riots. Josh White also sang the song and was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy period. He bowed to their demands that he stop. Billie defiantly refused and continued singing “Strange Fruit.” Many believe that her resistance led law enforcement to hound and arrest her in 1947 for drug possession. She served almost a year in prison, and her conviction disrupted her career for the rest of her life.

In 1950 Ethel was arrested with her husband Julius and charged with Conspiracy to Commit Espionage; they were convicted and sentenced to death. The government knew she had not committed espionage, but they held her as a hostage to coerce her husband into cooperating with the authorities. She refused to confess to something she did not do and backed her husband’s refusal to implicate others. The FBI files never claimed she was guilty, but consistently described her as “cognizant and recalcitrant.”

You might conclude that Billie and Ethel had similar talents and defied similar enemies.

Both died prematurely, victimized by law enforcement. Ethel was executed in 1953 at age 37, and Billie died in a hospital bed at age 44, while awaiting arraignment after another drug arrest.

Billie and Ethel followed different paths in life and probably never met, but they converged in death. High school English teacher, poet, and songwriter Abel Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” after seeing a photograph of a lynching. He played it for Billie Holiday in 1939, when she was performing at Cafe Society. Fourteen years later, Abel helped carry Ethel Rosenberg’s coffin to her grave site. Within a year, Abel and his wife Anne had adopted Ethel and Julius’ sons. The man who abhored lynching adopted Ethel’s orphans, my brother and me.

We remember Billie Holiday for singing about lynching and we remember Ethel Rosenberg for being legally lynched.

Strange Thanks

November 24, 2014

Tags: Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropol

I’ve written about 50 blogs since retiring as RFC Executive Director, but the one I published last Thanksgiving is my favorite. I’m revisiting it here for that reason and because Strange Fruit has been even more culturally present during the last twelve months. Not only did Audra McDonald sing it almost daily on Broadway for most of 2014 in her Tony Award winning Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, and Annie Lennox cover it this fall in her new hit album, Nostalgia, but it has, among other things, become a popular hook for commentaries about racism worldwide.

Strange Thanks

November 27, 2013

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Strange Fruit.

My adoptive father, Abel Meeropol, wrote the words and music to Billie Holiday’s signature song, Strange Fruit. Abel, a high school English teacher with a passion for writing, reacted to a gruesome photograph of a lynching in late 1936, with a poem entitled “Bitter Fruit.” In 1937 or 1938 he set the poem to music and changed the title. Billie Holiday did not perform it until 1939. Strange Fruit was the composition my father was most proud of, but one that he never lived with easily. In 1940, Abel was called before New York State’s Rapp-Coudert Committee, a legislative commission attempting to root out communist teachers, and asked if the Communist Party ordered him to write the song.

Later, Billie Holiday claimed in her ghost-written autobiography that she set Abel’s poem to music. To this day you can find online references to Strange Fruit that attribute its words to Abel Meeropol and music to Billie Holiday. Growing up in the Meeropol household I witnessed Abel’s frustration at his inability to correct this misperception.

But Abel was even more troubled by the song’s eclipse. It was widely recognized in the 1940’s, but in the great red scare of the 1950’s, it almost disappeared from the public arena. In fact, by the time Abel died in 1986 the song had faded into relative obscurity. This was one of Abel’s biggest regrets.

But the strange fruit allusion - lynched bodies hanging from trees – was one of genius. It had gotten under our culture’s skin, and as time went on, it seeped out of its pores.

The song’s rebirth was slow at first, recorded out of the country or at the edges of acceptability. The Jamaican group UB40 taped it in 1980. Sting performed it on an album celebrating Amnesty International’s 25th anniversary in 1986, and the punk group, Siouxsie and the Banshees, followed suit in 1987. Cassandra Wilson introduced Strange Fruit to a new generation in her widely acclaimed debut album in 1995. In 2000, Time Magazine named it the “song of the century” and Daivd Margolick’s book, Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, sold well. That was followed by Joel Katz’s film documentary about the song, in 2002.

David Margolick wrote that although Abel wrote Strange Fruit, he was best known for adopting my brother and me. I don’t know if that was ever the case, but it certainly has not been so for the last decade. Nowadays there are more online references to Abel Meeropol as the author of Strange Fruit, who “by the way,” also adopted the son’s of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, than to any other member of our family.

2013 has seen the Strange Fruit concept, explode. Kanye West’s sampling of Nina Simone’s version in his Yeezus CD made it an internet sensation. Almost every week I hear about new recordings, concert performances, musicals, dances and even art exhibits inspired by the song. The November 20th episode of the TV series Criminal Minds, which ironically features heroic FBI agents, was entitled “Strange Fruit.” It has even been used as a verb. To “strange fruit” someone, is to do what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin.

Close to 80 years after Abel wrote those 97 potent words (that’s right, the entire song contains less than 100 words), the pot is in full boil. I am so thankful for Abel’s brilliant creation because Strange Fruit’s growing power gives me hope. The pen just could be mightier than the sword after all.

Strange Thanks

November 27, 2013

Tags: Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropol

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Strange Fruit.

My adoptive father, Abel Meeropol, wrote the words and music to Billie Holiday’s signature song, Strange Fruit. Abel, a high school English teacher with a passion for writing, reacted to a gruesome photograph of a lynching in late 1936, with a poem entitled “Bitter Fruit.” In 1937 or 1938 he set the poem to music and changed the title. Billie Holiday did not perform it until 1939. Strange Fruit was the composition my father was most proud of, but one that he never lived with easily. In 1940, Abel was called before New York State’s Rapp-Coudert Committee, a legislative commission attempting to root out communist teachers, and asked if the Communist Party ordered him to write the song.

Later, Billie Holiday claimed in her ghost-written autobiography that she set Abel’s poem to music. To this day you can find online references to Strange Fruit that attribute its words to Abel Meeropol and music to Billie Holiday. Growing up in the Meeropol household I witnessed Abel’s frustration at his inability to correct this misperception.

But Abel was even more troubled by the song’s eclipse. It was widely recognized in the 1940’s, but in the great red scare of the 1950’s, it almost disappeared from the public arena. In fact, by the time Abel died in 1986 the song had faded into relative obscurity. This was one of Abel’s biggest regrets.

But the strange fruit allusion - lynched bodies hanging from trees – was one of genius. It had gotten under our culture’s skin, and as time went on, it seeped out of its pores.

The song’s rebirth was slow at first, recorded out of the country or at the edges of acceptability. The Jamaican group UB40 taped it in 1980. Sting performed it on an album celebrating Amnesty International’s 25th anniversary in 1986, and the punk group, Siouxsie and the Banshees, followed suit in 1987. Cassandra Wilson introduced Strange Fruit to a new generation in her widely acclaimed debut album in 1995. In 2000, Time Magazine named it the “song of the century” and Daivd Margolick’s book, Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, sold well. That was followed by Joel Katz’s film documentary about the song, in 2002.

David Margolick wrote that although Abel wrote Strange Fruit, he was best known for adopting my brother and me. I don’t know if that was ever the case, but it certainly has not been so for the last decade. Nowadays there are more online references to Abel Meeropol as the author of Strange Fruit, who “by the way,” also adopted the son’s of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, than to any other member of our family.

2013 has seen the Strange Fruit concept, explode. Kanye West’s sampling of Nina Simone’s version in his Yeezus CD made it an internet sensation. Almost every week I hear about new recordings, concert performances, musicals, dances and even art exhibits inspired by the song. The November 20th episode of the TV series Criminal Minds, which ironically features heroic FBI agents, was entitled “Strange Fruit.” It has even been used as a verb. To “strange fruit” someone, is to do what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin.

Close to 80 years after Abel wrote those 97 potent words (that’s right, the entire song contains less than 100 words), the pot is in full boil. I am so thankful for Abel’s brilliant creation because Strange Fruit’s growing power gives me hope. The pen just could be mightier than the sword after all.

Selected Works

Memoir
"Bravery is rare. Tyranny is commonplace. Both define the life of Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his heart-wrenching, honest memoir, Meeropol recounts the emotional terrors of his childhood, the kindness of Abel and Anne Meeropol-who adopted him and his older brother after their parents' execution-his struggle to vindicate his parents, and his own political activism, culminating in the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he now directs."
Publisher's Weekly
"one of those rare books everyone should read"
–Joyce Carol Oates

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