School busThe story below is about a man named Abel Meeropol who was my English teacher (in my senior year) at Dewitt Clinton High School. He was known to be a music composer and playwright, even back in those days, and he was rumored to be an active communist and that turned out to be true. The most amazing fact is that he and his wife adopted the 8 and 10-year-old sons of the infamous Rosenbergs. Ethel and Julius were electrocuted for giving our atom bomb secrets to the Russians. I was randomly changing channels on the TV last night when I stumbled on a documentary produced and narrated by Joel Katz, in which the adopted sons were being interviewed. After the program finished, I did a little research and came up with the following:

“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol (under the pseudonym Lewis Allen), a New York City schoolteacher of Russian Jewish descent. Meeropol and his wife, Anne (who first sang it publicly), were deeply involved in union politics and social activism. Meerapol first articulated his impassioned response to Southern lynchings in a poem, then set it to music and arranged a meeting with Holiday through Café Society owner Barney Josephson. Holiday’s version was a sensation. The single reached number 16 on the pop charts without radio airplay, and became so associated with Holiday that when her autobiography suggested Meeropol had written the lyrics for her, and that she and collaborator Sonny White had composed the music, it set off a controversy that persists today. Though little-known now, Meeropol went on to write hundreds of songs, plays and verses. He even spent a few years in Hollywood, where his song “The House I Live In,” a deceptively sweet vision of America living up to its egalitarian ideals, became the subject of a 1945, Oscar-winning short film starring Frank Sinatra. Katz’s interest in “Strange Fruit” was piqued by a letter from Meeropol’s adopted sons to The New York Times Book Review about the issue of authorship; that they’re the natural children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is only one of many intriguing facts Katz explores. His biggest misstep is including a long sequence in which students at Dewitt Clinton High School (where Meeropol once taught) offer valid but reductive interpretations of “Strange Fruit”; you can imagine him thinking the footage is proof of the song’s enduring resonance, but it’s simplistic and, frankly, dull. Michael Meeropol provides a far more eloquent statement of the song’s enduring impact: “Until the last racist is dead, ‘Strange Fruit’ is relevant.” — Maitland McDonagh

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