“The Lord God made trees spring from the ground, all trees pleasant to look at and good for food; and in the middle of the garden he set the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” - Genesis 2: 9 (New English Bible, 1970)
"Did you hear of the spree they had up Bulawayo way, hanging those three niggers for spies? I wasn't there myself, but a fellow who was told me they made the niggers jump down from the tree and hang themselves; one fellow wouldn't bally jump, till they gave him a charge of buckshot in the back: and then he caught hold of a branch with his hands and they had to shoot 'em loose. He didn't like hanging. I don't know if it's true, of course; I wasn't there myself, but a fellow who was told me. Another fellow who was at Bulawayo, but who wasn't there when they were hung, said they fired at them just after they jumped, to kill 'em. I—" - from Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland by Olive Schreiner (1897)
“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” - from “Strange Fruit” by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol)
“We all live at the base of the Hanging Tree waiting for death?” - from The Hanging Tree by David Lambkin (Viking, 1995). A comment on the etching “The Hanging Tree” from the series “The Miseries of War” by Jacques Callot (1592 – 1635)
Tree of Life or Tree of Death?
How did the “Tree of Life” become the “hanging tree”? There can be no doubt that it has. Many thousands of bodies have hung from trees, twisting in the breeze, crawling with flies and maggots, spreading a hideous miasma of death around what should be “pleasant to look at and good for food.”
One reason has been religious intolerance: “As a Bohemian noblewoman, Polyxena Lobkovic, perceptively observed from the vantage point of Prague: 'Things are now swiftly coming to the pass where either the papists will settle their score with the Protestants, or the Protestants with the papists.'” (Europe, history of. (2012). Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Deluxe Edition. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.)
In the name of the Teacher who in time became known as the “Prince of Peace” unspeakable horrors were visited on people who believed differently during the so-called Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648). These horrors were graphically documented by the artist Jacques Callot in a series of prints entitled “The Miseries of War.”
One of these prints called “The Hanging Tree” eerily prefigures the lynching of mostly black men in the southern states of the United States (the term comes from Charles Lynch (1736–96), a Virginia planter and justice of the peace) by mobs who would hang people accused of some crime, real or imagined, from trees. These hangings often occurred in a kind of carnival atmosphere with men, women and children jeering at those being hanged. The hangings were often accompanied by mutilation of the victims.
Racial intolerance and hatred thus is another reason for the perversion of the tree of life into the tree of death.
In the period between 1882 and 1951 some 4730 people were lynched in the US, 1293 of them white and 3437 black. The perpetrators were seldom prosecuted although their identities were often known to law enforcement authorities.
Such lynchings were often justified by the perpetrators as being in the promotion of purity or morality. As one leader of the mob hanging Allen Brooks in Dallas TX on 3 March 1910 was heard to say: "You did the work of men today and your deeds will resound in every state, village, and hamlet where purity and innocence are cherished and bestiality and lechery condemned." (http://www.withoutsanctuary.org/main.html)
Abel Meeropol, a teacher in New York – coincidently at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx among whose alumni were James Baldwin, Richard Rodgers, Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Richard Avedon – saw a 1930 photograph by Lawrence Beitler of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. The photo haunted him for days and inspired a poem initially called “Bitter Fruit” which was first published in the union journal The New York Teacher in 1937.
Being something of an amateur composer as well as poet (he also wrote, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, "The House I Live In" and "Apples, Peaches and Cherries" among many others), Meeropol also wrote music for his poem. It was sung as an anti-racism protest song by his wife Anne and Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden.
How “Strange Fruit” became “Lady Day's” song
"...the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism." - Leonard Feather
"She really was happy only when she sang. The rest of the time she was a sort of living lyric to the song `Strange Fruit,' hanging, not on a poplar tree, but on the limbs of life itself." - jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason
"When you listen to her, it's almost like an audio tape of her autobiography," - Tony Bennett
In 1939 Billie Holiday was singing at the Café Society, the first integrated night club in New York. The musical director of her gig, Robert Gordon, reportedly heard the song sung at Madison Square Gardens and took it to Holiday, who was nervous about singing it in a club setting.
Barney Josephson, founder of Café Society, set up some strict rules for the song's performance. There would be no service during the song, which would end the gig, and a single spotlight would be on Holiday's face. During a longish introduction Holiday would stand in the spotlight in an attitude of prayer. Josephson also insisted that there would be no encore.
The band at the Café Society, which also backed Holiday when she recorded the song for Milt Gabler's Commodore label in 1939, was led by trumpeter Frankie Newton (1906 – 1954) with Tab Smith (1909 – 1971) on alto sax, Kenneth Hollon and Stanley Payne on tenors, Sonny White (1917 – 1971) on piano, Jimmy McLinn (1908 – 1983) on guitar, Johnny Williams (1908 - ?) on bass and Eddie Dougherty (1915 - ?) on drums.
Holiday recorded the song again for Norman Granz's “Jazz at the Philharmonic” in 1945. On this recording she is accompanied by Milt Raskin (1916 – 1977) on piano. She introduces this recording by saying it is a song “written specially for me.” If that was not literally true, she certainly made the song her own.
Bitter crop or sweet life?
“Jazz is not simply music. Jazz is about civil rights, human dignity and dialogue among cultures. Jazz emphasises the importance of creativity and freedom of expression.” - Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General
“The psychological harm inflicted by the era of terror lynching extends to the millions of white men, women, and children who instigated, attended, celebrated, and internalized these horrific spectacles of collective violence. Participation in collective violence leaves perpetrators with their own dangerous and persistent damage, including harmful defense mechanisms such as 'diminish[ed] empathy for victims' that can lead to intensified violent behaviors that target victims outside the original group. Lynching was a civic duty of white Southern men that brought them praise. Southern white children were taught to embrace traumatic violence and the racist narratives underlying it.” - from the Equal Justice Initiative report Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror (2015)
The ugly reality of lynching contrasts with the beauty of trees felt by most people who experience the wonderful presence of life represented by them:
“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.”
No doubt Joyce Kilmer's poem “Trees” is full of overblown sentiment and yet it strikes a chord with many people because it captures something of the wonder felt by sensitive people seeing a tree:
“A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;”
For all its sentimentality and strange anthropomorphism:
“A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;”
the poem is a celebration of a wonder of creation. Trees are, in their amazing variety, essential to all life, even life that plays out where there are no trees.
“Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.”
From the great arboreal canopies of the equatorial rain forests to the sparse vegetation of the South African Karoo trees offer the promise of life, of shelter, of food.
If “only God can make a tree” it still is up to us humans to ensure that the tree is a tree of life and not of death by working constantly for tolerance and justice, for the overcoming of prejudice and the hatred that comes from it. We need trees to live but not trees that bear that “strange and bitter crop.”