Southern trees bear strange fruit.
There's blood on the leaves,
There's blood at the roots.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze;
There's strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree.
The scenic view of the quiet south;
Those bulging eyes, the twisted mouth.
The scent of magnolia comes as sweet and fresh.
Suddenly: the stench of black burning flesh.
Now here my friends,
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck.
A tear for the rain to gather;
The roaring wind to suck.
For the sun to rise,
And those trees to drop:
And I hear there's a strange and bitter crop.
Billie Holiday was not the first artist to sing this song but after she performed it at New York’s Café Society in 1939 it became a potent political instrument for change. Its political significance has never faded and it was banned in South Africa during the apartheid years. Originally a poem called Bitter Fruit, it was written by Jewish school teacher Abel Meeropol under the pseudonym Lewis Allen.
August 1996, so two years before the release of The Church With One Bell, John told The Independent:
I first heard Strange Fruit in 1964 in the company of Hamish Imlach, who was busy with my musical education at the time. We were also busy getting stoned. I'd never heard of Billie Holiday or the song, so it had considerable impact on me, especially as it was the first protest song by a black woman I'd heard.
It's beautiful but, you might say, a tad sad, and something that is musically way beyond my compass. For such a great song, it has an amazingly unmemorable tune - quite tricky, really. Billie's voice is indescribable - very feminine but in your face. This is not one of her smoky bar performances. She is, however, my favourite female singer ever.