A Few Fine Pop Songs
Immersed in History

By Harold Frost

HistoryAccess.com, 2010

This is Part Two of a Three-Part Article

“Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol,
Sung by Billie Holiday (1939)

“Strange Fruit” is a masterful attack on lynching. It was an progenitor of the American Civil Rights Movement, says journalist and historian David Margolick. “Whether they protested in Selma or took part in the March on Washington,” writes Margolick, “many (activists) say that it was hearing ‘Strange Fruit’ that triggered the process.” Here is the recording on YouTube; here are the lyrics:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck.
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

According to Tuskegee University, 3,833 people were lynched in America between 1889 and 1940. Ninety percent of the victims were black; 80 percent of the lynchings occurred in the South. The killings were carried out “for a host of alleged offenses,” writes Margolick, “not just murder, theft, and rape, but for insulting a white person, boasting, swearing, or buying a car. In some instances, there was no infraction at all; it was just time to remind ‘uppity’ blacks to stay in their place.” At times the killings sank into an abyss that suggests the deepest reaches of human depravity. (See, for example, the events in Paris, Texas, in February, 1893.)

The federal government did not fight the terror, declining to enact anti-lynching legislation, saying that individual states should prosecute the crime. “But the states refused,” notes journalist and activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

Abel Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” in the 1930s under the pen-name Lewis Allan. He was a white Jewish schoolteacher in New York City, a Communist activist and a part-time poet and songwriter. Among his other songs are “The House I Live In,” an ode to tolerance sung by Frank Sinatra during the Second World War, and “Beloved Comrade,” written in 1936 for the leftist Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. In 1953 Meeropol and his wife Anne became the adoptive parents of Michael and Robert Rosenberg, the sons of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

“I wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ because I hate lynching,” said Meeropol in 1971, “and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it.”

As Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit,” the number of lynchings was showing a significant decline, according to official statistics. However, writes Margolick, there were “signs that many….(lynchings took place in the late ’30s) but were hushed up, and that they were increasingly brutal and sadistic.” And, needless to say, a single lynching is too many in a nation ruled by law.

At a Manhattan nightclub in late 1938 or early ’39 Meeropol played his composition for the black jazz star Billie Holiday, the great Lady Day, who agreed to record it and soon began including it in her performance repertoire.

David Margolick describes Holiday’s artistry:

She is grim and purposeful, yet still with a lovely lightness to her. The overt editorializing is minimal; there is no weepiness, nor histrionics. Her elocution is superb, with but a hint of a Southern accent; her tone is languorous but unflinching, raw yet smooth, youthful yet worldly. The prevailing sentiment is not grief or defeat but contempt and confidence, detectable as she spits out the references to Southern gallantry and the sweetly scented magnolias. (“When Billie Holiday sings the phrase ‘pastoral scene of the gallant South,’ civilization has said its last word about the realpolitik of racial discrimination in all its forms and degrees,” the British jazz critic Benny Green has written. “The resigned bitterness and contempt with which Billie throws out the phrase leaves nothing to be said.”) But the intensity mounts until she reaches the word “crop,” which dangles for a time back and forth on a strangely unresolved note like the dead man on the branch.

Journalist Heywood Hale Broun writes, “It is hard to describe this expressive emotional quality, but there is a word for it and that word is blues.”

Drummer Max Roach says, “When she recorded it, it was more than revolutionary. She made a statement we all felt as black folks. No one was speaking out. She became one of the fighters, this beautiful lady who could sing and make you feel things. She became the voice of black people, and they loved this woman.”

The 1929 song “Black and Blue” recorded by Louis Armstrong (and cut a year later by Ethel Waters) is sometimes cited as the first black protest song aimed at whites, but “Strange Fruit,” says the record producer Ahmet Ertegun, deserves pride of place – it was “the first time that anyone had so explicitly and poetically transmitted the message of black people….(it was) the beginning of the civil rights movement.” The record was not a major hit, but many of its fans were students and intellectuals who found the work galvanizing.

The song became Holiday’s signature number. At some point, she began claiming she had contributed to the writing of it, a fabrication that has found its way into various books and websites, and which appears by way of suggestion in the 1972 biopic about Holiday, “Lady Sings the Blues.” To be sure, she contributed immensely to its greatness. Holiday died in 1959 at age 44.

Additional notes:

In 1999, Time magazine named “Strange Fruit” the “Best Song of the Century.”

Lillian Smith (1897-1966), a white Georgian who wrote vigorously against racism and lynching long before white people took much noticeable interest in civil rights for blacks, published a novel about the South titled “Strange Fruit” in 1944, partly inspired by the song.

A 1963 song by Bob Dylan, “The Death of Emmett Till,” can be seen as a descendant of “Strange Fruit.” It’s based on the true story of a 14-year-old black youth named Emmett Till, kidnapped and murdered by whites in Mississippi in 1955.

In the 1960s, Nina Simone regularly sang “Strange Fruit”; she wrote her own protest song, “Mississippi Goddam,” releasing it in 1964.

In his TV documentary “Jazz,” first broadcast on PBS on January 22, 2001, filmmaker Ken Burns devotes a segment to “Strange Fruit,” combining the music with photographs to stunning effect. These are the three most terrifying minutes in the history of American television.


“Abraham, Martin & John” by Dick Holler, Sung by Dion (1968), and the Tom Clay Version (1971)

Soon after the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, some anonymous soul made a list of odd similarities between the lives and deaths of JFK and Abraham Lincoln. For example:

Lincoln won the presidency in 1860; Kennedy in 1960.

Lincoln’s first (and only) election to Congress came in 1846; JFK first won his House seat in 1946.

The names “Lincoln” and “Kennedy” both contain seven letters.

Both men lost children while in the White House.

Both men were shot on a Friday while in the company of their wives.

Both men were shot in the back of the head.

Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and was captured in a theater; Booth shot Lincoln in a theater and was caught in a warehouse. (Actually, Booth was captured in a barn.)

Booth and Oswald were both killed before going on trial.

Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln; Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy. (Actually, Lincoln did not have a secretary so named.)

Both men were succeeded in the White House by men named Johnson. Andrew Johnson was born in 1808; Lyndon Johnson in 1908.

Kennedy and Lincoln both worked for the rights of black people.

Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater. Kennedy was killed while sitting in the backseat of….a Lincoln (made by Ford Motor Co.).

And so on – a bunch of mildly interesting coincidences. The subtext is that John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln belong together in history, are of equal stature. This was a common feeling in America from late 1963 until the mid 1970s. Even the fine historian Samuel Eliot Morison succumbed to it – the last couple pages of the 1965 edition of his “Oxford History of the American People” include an amazingly over-ripe encomium to JFK.

Kennedy had significant potential, and certainly wished to become great, but, as a serious student of history, he would have been the first to scoff at the notion that his accomplishments as of November, 1963, remotely matched those of the man who guided the nation through the Civil War. But historical precision was not the point of the comparisons. The point was to exalt Kennedy, and thus ourselves, and to appeal to the sentimentality of people visiting museums and curio shops who could be persuaded to spend $1.95 for a piece of parchment-like paper inscribed with the parallels. (See here for a short history of the assassination of JFK. See here for a profile of Robert Kennedy.)

In 1968 an American songwriter named Richard (Dick) Holler carried forth the historical linkage by writing a powerful song titled “Abraham, Martin and John” (YouTube has it here). The piece unites John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln.

Anybody here
Seen my old friend Abraham?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people
But it seem the good they die young.
You know I just looked around
And he’s gone.

Anybody here
Seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people
But it seem the good they die young.
I just looked around
And he’s gone.

Anybody here
Seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people
But it seem the good they die young.
I just looked around
And he’s gone.

Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?
Didn’t they try to find some good
For you and me?
And we’ll be free
Someday soon – it’s gonna be one day….

Anybody here
Seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
I thought I saw him walking up
Over the hill
With Abraham and Martin and John.

Dick Holler played his song for his friend Phil Gernhard, who sensed a hit. Gernhard was a law student in Florida working part-time in the recording industry, writing songs and producing records. A couple of years earlier he and Holler co-wrote a novelty number that reached number two on the Billboard chart – “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” by the Royal Guardsmen, describing the airborne exploits of the “Peanuts” beagle during the First World War.

Gernhard told Holler that his new song was very moving. And, he said, it was historically important: “What you’ve written there is the history of the civil rights movement.”

Well, no. The man in the White House at that moment, Lyndon B. Johnson, accomplished more for the civil rights of American blacks than any elected official of the 20th century. But no one in 1968 was going to buy a song called “Abraham, Martin & Lyndon.” Furthermore, the roots of the civil rights movement can be found as much in citizen activism as in top-down decisions.

In any case, Gernhard decided to record Holler’s song. He searched for the right singer. He wanted someone laid-back. He wanted the tune to sneak up on listeners – he didn’t want to hit people over the head with sentiment, or pump for tears too blatantly. The Royal Guardsmen did a demo but Gernhard wasn’t happy with it.

As it happened, Gernhard’s friend Dion was on the comeback trail. Dion (last name DiMucci) had been a star in the late ’50s and early ’60s, recording “A Teenager in Love” with the Belmonts, and, as a solo act, “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer.” The British Invasion of 1964-’65 (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc.) blew him out of the water. He got involved with some bad people and made some bad lifestyle choices; by 1968 he was trying to get clean and get back to making music.

Dion and Phil Gernhard got together one day in ’68 at Dion’s house in Florida. The singer auditioned a few folkish-type numbers, songs by Leonard Cohen, Nilsson, and others. “He had a very kind of mumbly style,” recalled Gernhard in an interview with this author in 2000, “and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this guy’s voice is perfect for Holler’s song because he won’t telegraph it!’”

Gernhard brought out Holler’s sheet music and asked the singer to work on the song and see what he thought. Dion soon had a response: “I hate this song, I don’t want to cut it, I DON’T LIKE IT.”

Gernhard refused to take no for an answer. He weaved his persuasive charms on the reluctant artist; Dion’s wife also endorsed the song; and in the late summer of 1968 the singer flew to New York to record the number. He still didn’t like the thing but he’d sing it. On the day of the session, Gernhard was in the producer’s chair, working with arranger John Abbott. Dion walked into the studio, sang the song once, beautifully, and departed.

Once was enough. Gernhard and Abbott pulled the piece together (a bit heavy on the heavenly harp, but with a cool bass line). Some sources say that Dion contributed a guitar part. The record was released in September, 1968, and raced up the pop chart, peaking at number four in November. Listening to it, some people felt chills run up and down their spines. High school teachers played it in classrooms, got teary-eyed, and were amazed at how quiet and thoughtful their students suddenly became. In that difficult autumn of 1968, as a traumatic year drew to a close, the recording was, for many people, a lovely elegy, capturing a feeling of loss in the air. The great producer Phil Spector called the song one of the best of the year.

Dion, once again a star, was invited to Southern California to sing his hit on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS, the hippest TV show of the day, a grab-bag of political comedy, social irreverence, and good music. (The Beatles put their stamp of approval on the show by giving it first crack at the “Hey Jude” film, another powerful autumn elegy.) Dion sang his number with Phil Gernhard watching from the wings. Afterward, Dion seemed upset, says Gernhard – “but he wouldn’t say what was wrong.”

Gernhard and Dion grabbed some dinner and headed back to the hotel. Finally, Dion spoke up. “He will never, ever acknowledge this,” said Gernhard in the 2000 interview, “but at the hotel he suddenly turns to me and he says, ‘I didn’t know it was about those guys.’”

Dion didn’t realize the song was about the Kennedys and King and Lincoln. “Somehow that night he found out,” Gernhard said. “Now, that’s pretty wild.”

“Abraham, Martin & John” had legs. Moms Mabley, a veteran comedienne of the Chitlin’ Circuit, released a cover in the summer of 1969 and had modest chart success. Several other performers also released versions – Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson. Whitney Houston sang it in the 1990s.

In 1971, a Los Angeles disc jockey named Tom Clay worked the song into a fascinating pastiche called “What the World Needs Now is Love/Abraham, Martin & John.” This record became a major U.S. hit in August, 1971, and for some people, especially susceptible teenagers, was the most memorable Top 40 song of the summer. The complex arrangement goes like this:

Musical introduction: a piano and horn arrangement of “What the World Needs Now is Love.” (This song will play in the background during much of the record.)

Man’s voice (gently): “What is ‘segregation’?”

Adorable voice of very young girl: “I don’t know what ‘segeration’ is.”

Man: “Ah, what is ‘bigotry’?”

Girl: “I don’t know what ‘bigery’ is.”

Man: “What does ah….‘hatred’ mean?”

Girl (shy, abashed): “I don’t know what it is.”

Man: “Ah, what is, ah, ‘prejudice’?”

Girl (perky; finally she’s got one): “Um….I think it’s when somebody’s sick.”

Sound effects: guns firing and a drill sergeant’s barked cadences. In the background, female voices sing lines from “What the World Needs Now is Love.” This segues smoothly into “Abraham, Martin and John”:

Singers: “Anybody here seen my old friend John? Can you tell me where he’s gone?”

Radio reporter: “We’re at the Trade Mart. The motorcade is coming by here. I can see many many motorcycles coming by now. Police motorcycles. Just heard a call on the radio for all units along Industrial to pick up the motorcade. Something has happened here. We understand there has been a shooting. The presidential car coming up now. (Sirens.) We know it’s the presidential car, I can see Mrs. Kennedy’s pink suit. There’s a Secret Service man spread-eagled over the top of the car. We understand Governor and Mrs. Connally are in the car with President and Mrs. Kennedy. We can’t see who has been hit, if anybody has been hit, but apparently something is wrong here, something is terribly wrong. I’m in behind the motorcade and trying to follow them – it looks as though they’re going to Parkland Hospital.” (Editor’s Note: This radio report is not authentic; it was created in the studio.)

Broadcaster: “We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin. Dallas, Texas. The flash, apparently official: President John F. Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.”

Singers: “Anybody here seen my old friend Martin? Can you tell me where he’s gone? He’s freed a lot of people, but it seems the good they die young.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Crowd cheers.) And I don’t mind….like anybody, I would like to live….”

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy: “No one can be certain who next will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed.”

Singers: “Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby? Can you tell me where he’s gone?”

Robert F. Kennedy, speaking at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, June 5, 1968: “Mayor Yorty has just sent me a message that we’ve been here too long already. So ah, my thanks to all of you, and now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.” (Crowd cheers.)

Radio reporter (these words were recorded at the scene by Andrew West of radio station KRKD): “Senator Kennedy has been…Senator Kennedy has been shot. Is that possible. Oh my God. Senator Kennedy has been shot. Rafer Johnson has ahold of a man….who apparently….has fired the shot. (Crowd in chaos.) Get the gun. Get the gun. Get the gun. Stay away from the gun. His hand is frozen. Take ahold of his thumb! And break it if you have to! Get his thumb! All right. That’s it, Rafer, get it. Get the gun Rafer. Hold him! Hold him! We don’t want another Oswald!”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, speaking at the funeral of his brother, June 10, 1968: “Like it or not we live in times of danger and uncertainty. That is the way he lived, and that is what he leaves us. My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering (voice breaking) and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him, and who take him to his rest today (voice breaks) pray that what he was to us, and what he wished for others, will someday come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched, and who sought to touch him: ‘Some men see things as they are and say “why”; I dream things that never were, and say, “why not.”’”

Singers (with emphasis): “What the world needs now is love sweet love, no not just for some, but for everyone.”

Man’s voice: “What is ‘segregation’?”

Girl: “I don’t know what ‘segeration’ is.”

Male voice: “Ah, what is ‘bigotry’?”

Girl: “I don’t know what ‘bigery’ is.”

Man: “What does ah….‘hatred’ mean?”

Girl: “I don’t know what it is.”

Man: “Ah, what is ah, ‘prejudice’?”

Girl (perky): “Um….I think it’s when somebody’s sick.”

Tom Clay created this piece while working part-time as a D.J. at radio station KGBS in Los Angeles. The singers are the Blackberries – Oma Drake, Jessie Smith, and Clydie King. Clay aired the production during one of his shows, apparently giving no particular thought to releasing it as a record, or at least, not trying very hard to do so. But record mogul Berry Gordy heard it and decided to issue it, and Clay had a hit. His career as a recording artist was short-lived, basically starting and ending in 1971. He also didn’t get, or didn’t want, a permanent job at KGBS. He found work over the years doing voice-overs and giving speaking lessons, and died in 1995, in his middle 60s, from cancer.


“Roads to Moscow” by Al Stewart (1974)

“Pop musicians,” says singer-songwriter Al Stewart, “in general, are not interested in one of the most interesting things – history. I myself love history.”

Stewart is best known in the U.S. for two hit singles that have little or nothing to do with history – “Year of the Cat” (1977) and “Time Passages” (1978). However, some of Stewart’s best album cuts involve historical figures, including “Old Admirals,” “Warren Harding,” and “The Last Day of June 1934.” Stewart’s most powerful history piece may be “Roads to Moscow” about the titanic battle between Germany and Russia from 1941 to 1945 – the “war of the century,” in the words of one study. Here’s the song and here’s a description of the album that it’s on.

(Speaking of history songs, here’s a paean to President James K. Polk by They Might Be Giants, first released on record in 1990; the video shows one of the few moments in history when small children are dancing to information about the 11th President of the United States. And here’s a cut from Johnny Cash’s history concept album “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian” [1964]. See also Cash’s “America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song” [1972].)

Al Stewart, born in Scotland and raised in England, broke into show business in the early 1960s as a folk singer, shifting during the decade to rock ’n’ roll. He decided that history was natural terrain for lyrical explorations – he enjoyed the subject, knew how rich it is, and saw that it was ignored by other pop writers. In 1972 while living in London he felt stirred by the extraordinary novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; this book inspired “Roads to Moscow.”

Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) served in the Red Army during the Second World War as an artilleryman; he performed bravely and was promoted to captain. Nonetheless, in 1945 he was arrested by agents of Soviet counter-intelligence. The charge: writing a “disrespectful” letter about Stalin to a fellow officer. Solzhenitsyn spent the next 12 years in the Siberian prison system, the Gulag Archipelago, the vast network of ice-encrusted camps from which many people never emerged – “the other great holocaust,” writes scholar Stephen F. Cohen.

Stalin, paranoid soul that he was, incarcerated many Red Army veterans of the Second World War, including soldiers who had been captured and imprisoned by the Germans. Such men, the dictator feared, might have been converted to spies by the Nazis. This is the accusation leveled at a man named Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, the main character of “One Day,” and it’s the background to the strange and compelling final stanzas of “Roads to Moscow.”

Understanding the history behind “Roads” enhances enjoyment of it, but the piece is so compelling that people with no special knowledge of World War II have listened with pleasure. Stewart takes satisfaction from this. He’s not interested in the role of teacher: “It’s a song,” he notes, “not a textbook.” Most of his albums contain little in the way of explanatory liner notes. Still, his music gets people interested in history. A reviewer at Amazon.com writes, “Al Stewart’s lyrics got me more interested in learning about history than even my most inspirational teachers in high school and college.” (Another notable history song, “Battle of New Orleans,” owes its genesis to the desire of a teacher to interest his students in the past. See here for details on the recording, a major hit in 1959.)

Stewart lives today in California, performing regularly and writing songs. He sums up his career: “It’s been an interesting combination of two things that I love. On the one hand, I’m really interested in history. But at the same time I wanted to get some of that buzz that performers get when they’re on stage, that pure animal excitement of playing a loud guitar in front of a lot of people. I’ve gotten some of each.” A website devoted to his work is www.AlStewart.com; the site has links to additional Stewart sites.

The narrator of “Roads to Moscow” is a Russian soldier. The song covers several years, beginning in June, 1941, with the German invasion of Russia.

They crossed over the border the hour before dawn.
Moving in lines through the day.
Most of our planes were destroyed on the ground
where they lay.

Waiting for orders we held in the wood.
Word from the front never came.
By evening the sound of the gunfire was miles away.

Ah, softly we move through the shadows,
slip away through the trees.
Crossing their lines in the mists in the fields
on our hands and our knees.
And all that I ever was able to see:
The fire in the air glowing red silhouetting
the smoke on the breeze.

All summer they drove us back through the Ukraine;
Smolyensk and Viyasma soon fell.
By autumn we stood with our backs to the town of Orel.

Closer and closer to Moscow they come
Riding the wind like a bell.
General Guderian stands at the crest of the hill.

Winter brought with her the rains, oceans of mud
filled the roads!
Gluing the tracks of their tanks to the ground while the sky filled with snow!
And all that I ever was able to see:
The fire in the air glowing red silhouetting
the snow on the breeze.

Choral voices:
Ahhhh! Ahhhh! Ahhhh!

In the footsteps of Napoleon the shadow figures stagger through the winter.
Falling back before the gates of Moscow
standing in the wings like an avenger.
And far away behind their lines the partisans are
stirring in the forest,
Coming unexpectedly upon their outposts,
growing like a promise.
You’ll never know, you’ll never know which way to turn, which way to look, you’ll never see us.
As we’re stealing through the blackness of the night
You’ll never know, you’ll never hear us!

And the evening sings in a voice of amber,
the dawn is surely coming.
The morning road leads to Stalingrad,
and the sky is softly humming.
Two broken Tigers on fire in the night
Flicker their souls to the wind.
We wait in the lines for the final approach to begin.
It’s been almost four years that I’ve carried a gun;
At home it’ll almost be spring.
The flames of the Tigers are lighting the road to Berlin.

Ah – quickly we move through the ruins
that bow to the ground.
The old men and children they send out to face us, they can’t slow us down.
And all that I ever was able to see:
The eyes of the city are opening now, it’s the end of the dream.

Choral voices:
Ahhhh! Ahhhh! Ahhhh!

I’m coming home, I’m coming home!
Now you can taste it in the wind, the war is over.
And I listen to the clicking of the train wheels
as we roll across the border.
And now they ask me of the time that I was caught Behind their lines and taken prisoner.
“They only held me for a day, a lucky break,” I say, And they turn and listen closer.
I’ll never know, I’ll never know
Why I was taken from the line and all the others
To board a special train and journey deep into the Heart of holy Russia.

And it’s cold and damp in the transit camp
And the air is still and sullen.
And the pale sun of October whispers
the snow will soon be coming.
And I wonder when I’ll be home again
and the morning answers, “Never.”
And the evening sighs and the steely Russian skies
go on forever.