Last fall the RFC was a sponsor of the first-ever Abel Meeropol Social Justice Writing Award presented by Straw Dog Writers Guild to poet Patricia Smith. The Guild was co-founded by my mother, Ellen Meeropol (a member of the RFC’s Advisory Board). My father, Robert Meeropol, spoke at the event about his adoptive father, Abel. The following essay was adapted from my dad’s speech. – Jenn Meeropol
Guest blog by RFC Founder Robert Meeropol
My father Abel Meeropol was born in The Bronx in 1903 and grew up there. He was the son of Jewish immigrants, who just before his birth fled the anti-Semitic pogroms of what is now Western Ukraine. He told me that as a child he loved animals and abhorred violence. He had a dog named Sporty. He used the dog and his wits to avoid fights. He’d tell the other kid that he’d fight, but would first have to take his dog home. Then he’d leave, and never return.
Abel attended DeWitt Clinton High School. He wrote for its newspaper, its literary magazine, and even wrote the school anthem. He continued writing at New York’s City College, becoming the Editor in Chief of its literary magazine. He completed a Masters Degree in English Literature at Harvard in 1926, but had insufficient funds to enter their PhD program.
Abel came from a left-wing, labor-oriented family. In the late 1920’s he worked as the Artistic Director at Camp Unity, a Communist-run Adult Summer Resort. There he met Anne Shaffer, whom he married in 1929. Both became teachers; Abel taught English at DeWitt Clinton and he continued to write, while Anne also acted and sang.
DeWitt Clinton had many impressive students. Abel remembered one student, whom he described as bug-eyed and undersized, whose writing particularly impressed him. He recalled in the 1970’s how impressed he was with 14-year-old James Baldwin’s description of the houses in his neighborhood with “their winter coats of white.”
While teaching, Abel continued to write poems. In the 1930’s he saw a gruesome photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana and expressed his revulsion with a new poem, “Bitter Fruit,” which first appeared in the Teachers’ Union publication, The New York Teacher, in early 1937. Abel changed the title to “Strange Fruit” and set the poem to music in November of 1938. Anne Meeropol sang and played it on her nylon string guitar at Teachers’ Union events at the end of that year and in early 1939.
Later that year Abel played his new song for Billie Holiday at Cafe Society in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where she was performing. Cafe Society was the only integrated night club in the city. Dubbed “the right place for the wrong people,” it spoofed the airs of the rich and famous.
Billie agreed to perform the song as her last number of the evening. All service was stopped while she sang so that there would be silence. When she finished, the stage lights were extinguished for dramatic effect. According to reports, the audience was so stunned at the end of her first performance that no one made a sound. Then one person started clapping and that became a sustained ovation.
The song caused a sensation. “Strange Fruit” was the composition my father was most proud of, but one that he never lived with easily. Within a year of Billie’s first performance, 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 commissioned him to write the song.
Abel left teaching to avoid being fired for his politics and went to Hollywood to write full time. In 1944 Abel wrote his other famous song, “The House I Live In.” Abel wrote the lyrics and his friend Earl Robinson wrote the music. In 1945, Frank Sinatra performed it in a short film, which won an Academy Award in 1946. Abel and Anne attended a screening of the film at a local theater. When Abel realized his anti-segregation verse had been cut from the film he was furious. He started yelling in the theater “Shit, shit, they ruined my song!” He was physically ejected. Abel came back to New York City one step ahead of the Hollywood blacklist to write for television.
In the great red scare of the 1950’s, “Strange Fruit” almost disappeared from the public arena. But the strange fruit image - lynched bodies hanging from trees – was one of genius. It had gotten under our culture’s skin, and as time passed, it seeped out of its pores.
The song’s rebirth was slow at first, recorded out of the country. Sting performed it on an album celebrating Amnesty International’s 25th anniversary in 1986, and the punk group, Siouxsie and the Banshees, followed suit the next year. 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 David Margolick’s book, Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, sold well. That was followed in 2002 by Joel Katz’s documentary film about the song. Interest in “Strange Fruit” has exploded in the last five years. It has been covered by dozens of artists from Kanye West to Andra Day.
Abel died in 1986, but today “Strange Fruit” is everywhere. Over 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. The song’s growing power gives me hope. The pen just could be mightier than the sword after all.
In 1953, after the execution of my birth parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Abel and Anne adopted my brother Michael and me. This act showed that the man who wrote “Strange Fruit” not only fought lynching with words, but also fought against it with his heart by adopting the sons of a couple he believed had been lynched by our government.
My brother and I had been traumatized by the arrest, trial and execution of our parents. We’d been shunned by relatives, placed in a shelter, shuffled around among friends and even thrown out of the New Jersey public school system.
But we thrived under Abel and Anne’s shelter, stability and love.
Abel was not only a writer, he was a talented cartoonist, story teller and sound effects artist. He created a series of characters for us who engaged in outrageously silly adventures whose sound effects drove my brother and me to hysterical laughter.
In 1969, Abel and Anne collected some of Abel’s poetry and self-published a chapbook. Entitled The Eye of the Storm, it is the only collection of his work in existence. There are only a couple hundred copies of this original edition left. It shows both sides of Abel - the serious and the absurdly funny, and his brilliance at combining the two.
Here’s one of my favorite poems by Abel entitled “Preference”:
Some would like bombs
to go hippity hoppity,
and spare Private Property.
Abel was both one of the funniest and angriest people I’ve known. He once said “I wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetrate it.” And yet what he enjoyed most was making people laugh.
My father would also have loved the work of Patricia Smith, who has been selected to receive the first Abel Meeropol Social Justice Writing Award.
For additional information about Abel Meeropol, see "Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan): Political Commentator and Social Conscience," article by Nancy Kovaleff Baker in American Music 20/1 (2002), pp. 25–79 (if you have access to JSTOR, you can access the article here) or the Abel Meeropol collection at Boston University's Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center here.
Great Story Jenn, My folks had both old 78 records Strange Fruit and Sinatra's The House I live in. You are fortunate to have folks like Abel to guide you towards a better life.
Love and Peace, Jim
Thank you Robert and Jenn for perpetuating this important legacy. It is important to remember and honor our cultural heroes. Paul Robeson is another.
I would like to comment. How can I do it and get it sent.
Jen - please tell your father that his cousin Bobbi Woolis still has her parents copy of The Eye of the Storm. Sadly, too many of his poems still resonate today. As a child I visited Ann and Able, and Mike and Robbie in their NY City apartment. To this day I remember with much love Ann singing "Hush little Baby" to us, and Able making all kinds of funny sounds. They were brave people and are missed greatly.
Thanks, Bobbi, I passed on the message to my Dad. All my best, Jenn