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Documentary shows how a little-known
Jewish songwriter and an African American
icon created a song that changed America.
John Tanasychuk, Detroit Free Press, January 8th, 1999
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On The Tube
n Joel Katz's intriguing new docu-
mentary about the anti-lynching
ballad "Strange Fruit," an African-
American poet says she always
assumed the songwriter was black.
Katz shared the same misconception
before making his film, also titled
Strange Fruit, in the late 1990s. After
all, the haunting 1938 tune was first
performed by jazz diva Billie Holiday
and soon became the anthem of the
A pioneering infusion of social
protest into pop music, the song con-
jured such gruesome images that record
companies and radio stations promptly
shunned it. The poetic but grotesque
lyrics include a reference
to the smell of magnolias
mingling with the scent
of burning flesh.
While the song's
author,_Lewis Allan, was
listed in anthologies of
black composers, he
remained an enigmatic
figure for Katz and oth-
ers until a fascinating
letter to the editor
appeared in the New
York Times Book Review
Katz's film, which at times unfolds like
a thriller, merges interviews with the
Meeropols and black scholars with pho-
tographs of lynching victims and footage
of 1930s union strikes. One centerpiece
is a gaunt Holiday performing "Strange
Fruit" on the BBC in 1959, not long
before her death at age 44.
The song has since been recorded by
artists as diverse as Tori Amos and
Sting and is now featured in the David
Margolick book Strange Fruit: The
Biography of a Song (Ecco Press; 2001),
as well as in a nationally touring
exhibit of lynching photography.
Meanwhile, Katz's documentary —
funded in part by the National
Foundation for Jewish Culture — is
appearing at Jewish film festivals (it
comes to the JCC Lenore-Marwil
Joel Katz, producer/
in 1995. The letter,
director of "Strange Fruit"
adoptive son of Abel
written by Robert and
aimed to clear up ques-
Jewish Film Festival on May 6) and
tions of authorship raised by a review
debuts on PBS stations nationwide 10
of a Holiday biography. It also
p.m. Tuesday, April 8 (Detroit Public
revealed a bombshell about Lewis
Television-Channel 56, however, will
Allan: He was actually a Bronx Jewish
air it midnight Sunday, April 13).
schoolteacher and union activist
"This is Strange Fruit's moment,"
named Abel Meeropol.
the writer-director, 44.
Meeropol and his wife had adopted
was drawn to the subject
Robert and Michael after their birth
of his childhood experience
parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg,
with the black community. His liberal
were executed on spying charges in
Jewish father, who had marched for
1953, the letter revealed.
open housing on Long Island, accept-
"It was a classic case of truth is
ed a teaching job at all-black Howard
stranger than fiction," Katz said by
telephone from his office at New Jersey University in Washington, D.C., in
the 1960s. But his idealism soured for
_City University, where he is a media
time when he felt what he perceived
arts professor. "This letter was only
be reverse discrimination during the
three or four paragraphs long, but it
Black Power movement, his son said.
read like a riveting little film script."