Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Web of "Strange Fruit" Connections


"Strange Fruit" Connections.
Billie Holiday's The Centennial Collection (Sony/Columbia Legacy, 2015). Jazz poster (yahoo, flickr). Abel Meeropol, who wrote Strange Fruit, and his adopted sons Michael and Richard (upper right) and the boys parents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (lower right), executed in 1953 (wikipedia article/Getty image). NAACP Anti-Lynching campaign photos: a flag in NYC and a parade in support of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in the US Congress.  
"Did you remember that Abel Meeropol, who wrote the lyrics to "Strange Fruit," adopted the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after their execution for treason?"

My friend Alice asked this simple but profound question after reading my blog on Billy Holiday's 100th birthday and the iconic protest song "Strange Fruit." The Rosenbergs' sons were Robert and Michael. They took Meeropol's name in part to avoid the sensationalism associated with the Rosenbergs' trial and execution, and also because Abel and Anne Meeropol were loving parents to these sons (Elizabeth Blair, "The Story Behind Strange Fruit," NPR www.wbur.org/npr.org).

Michael Meeropol, Alice reminded me, was a graduate student in Madison when we were there.  I vaguely remembered something about that, talking about the Rosenbergs with other graduate students, maybe an encounter.  I had to dig deep, but some memory is there. Those Madison, Wisconsin, days remain as intellectually challenging and astonishing as ever!

Michael got his PhD in Economics at UW, then taught at a college in western Massachusetts.  Richard majored in Anthropology at the University of Michigan and then went to law school and practiced law. Both sons continued their parents' activism and compassionate efforts in social justice reform. Richard founded The Rosenberg Fund for Children, which provides support for children of targeted liberals and young people who are targeted activist.  The nonprofit is doing good work to this day (http://www.rfc.org).  They also wrote about their parents and their own experiences in "We are your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg" (1985) and in other books. Michael's daughter Ivy has produced a documentary film, "Heir to an Execution: A Granddaughter's Story," which premiered at Sundance in 2014. The legacy lives on through the generations.

"That's why the link between Abel Meeropol, the Rosenbergs, and Billie Holiday is so powerful," Alice added.

Alice is brilliant, well-read, the best public high school English teacher ever, right up there with Abel Meeropol himself, and she got that right. It's a powerful link. Alice recommended the Meeropol sons' autobiographies and E,L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel (1971), based on the story of the Rosenberg case as seen through the eyes of a (fictionalized) son. The wikipedia article on the Rosenbergs, which I think is excellent, noted other literary references. For example, the main character in Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, is "morbidly interested" in the Rosenberg case. The novel begins: "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York." I read the book many years ago, but didn't remember this at all. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_and_Ethel_Rosenberg).

With these books on my "to read" list, and now some others, and after a little research to satisfy my curiosity, I see it.  The powerful link. The 30-years-long Anti-Lynching Campaign of the NAACP.  Its impact on ordinary people in a time of rampant racism.  The caring people who became Socialists or members of the Communist party, mostly to work for social justice in America. The involvement of many Jewish immigrants and their children in these struggles, particularly in New York, especially in the Civil Rights movement. The NYC jazz scene and the social activists who were part of it.  The relationship between culture and politics and change  And then the rise of the hysterical anti-Communism of the Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn era.

Roy Cohn, the virulent anti-communist? Yes, he was a lawyer in New York and he was on the U.S. government's prosecution team that hammered the Rosenbergs and sought their execution.  The same Roy Cohn who went on to join Joe McCarthy in destroying hundreds of other lives as well in their overzealous quest to ferret out Communists in our midst. It's interesting to recall that Ethel Rosenberg is a major supporting character in Tony Kushner's acclaimed play "Angels in America" (1993), in which her ghost haunts a dying Roy Cohn. Very clever, brilliant. My theater friends will know this.

How did the Rosenbergs' young sons, ages 6 and 10 in 1953 when their parents were executed, meet the Meeropols? That happened at a holiday party given by none other than W.E.B. Dubois. DuBois was the brilliant scholar and pioneering reformer who helped pave the way for the modern Civil Rights Movement.  He was a founder of the NAACP and edited the Crisis magazine until the mid-1930s. The Meeropols were strong social justice reformers. These circles overlapped.  Abel graduated from the Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in a 1921 class that included James Baldwin, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Burt Lancaster, Richard Avedon, Ralph Lauren. Can you imagine the chemisty and creativity of this circle of  young students?

How did Abel come to write '"Strange Fruit"?  Abel taught high school in the Bronx where he had grown up, the American-born child of Jewish Russian immigrants, and he also wrote poetry, both professions highly valued and respected in those days.  He was a social reformer, a fighter against the virulent racism of the time, along with his wife Anne. They both played the guitar. They knew lots of jazz musicians, loved the music, played it, valued their many friendships.

Abel Meeropol wrote the lyrics of "Strange Fruit," and then the music, after seeing a photo, in 1937, of a lynching.  It was a photo I had seen in the Library of Congress collection (I cannot bring myself to post these photos): a gruesome picture of the lynching of Thomas Shipps and Abram Smith in August 1930. A disturbing photo.  It haunted Abel Meeropol for days. It inspired his song.

How did the song get to Billie Holiday? Abel played it around various clubs, at union meetings, at a labor meeting in Madison Square Garden, and for a New York club owner, who eventually gave it to Billie Holiday. When she sang it, the world heard.  Many other singers and musicians also recorded it. Time magazine, in 1999, called it the "song of the century."   Marcus Miller, the famed jazz clarinetist, said he was surprised to learn that the song was written "by a white Jewish guy from the Bronx."   Miller went on: "It took extraordinary courage for Meeropol to write and for Holiday to sing."

The juxtaposition and inter-connection of these stories create an almost magical circle in the 20th century chapter of American history. They bring back Chief Seneca's saying that "All things are connected."  More than that, this web of connections reminds us that ordinary people often do extraordinary things.  That the son of immigrants, a school teacher, can rise to the status of compassionate hero.  That a song can stir the imagination and promote social change. That a singer who rose from poverty and a difficult childhood can become its voice. That the sons of persecuted parents can survive such trauma and continue the legacy of social change in positive ways. That the anti-lynching campaign finally stirred Americans to protest, write songs, march in the streets, change the laws. That jazz, America's gift to the world, came from the souls of Black folks, grew out of the African-American experience, and can move us to respond, to think, to speak out against injustice and inequality.  What a great American story! 
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