"Strange Fruit" began as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, about the lynching of two black men. He published under the pen name Lewis Allan. Meeropol and his wife adopted Robert and Michael, sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage and executed by the United States.
Meeropol wrote "Strange Fruit" to express his horror at lynchings after seeing Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem in 1936 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine. Though Meeropol/Allan had often asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set Strange Fruit to music himself. The song gained a certain success as a protest song in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.
Barney Josephson, the founder of Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, New York's first integrated nightclub, heard the song and introduced it to Billie Holiday. Holiday performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939. She said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation. Holiday later said that because the imagery in "Strange Fruit" reminded her of her father, she persisted in singing it. The song became a regular part of Holiday's live performances.
Holiday approached her recording label, Columbia, about recording the song. Columbia, fearing a backlash by record retailers in the South, as well as negative reaction from affiliates of Columbia's co-owned radio network, CBS, refused to record the song. Even her great producer at Columbia, John Hammond, refused. In frustration she turned to her friend Milt Gabler (uncle of comedian Billy Crystal) whose Commodore label produced alternative jazz. Holiday sang the song for him a cappella which so moved Gabler that he wept. In 1939 Gabler worked out a special arrangement with Vocalian Records to record and distribute the song and Columbia allowed Holiday a one-session release from her contract in order to record it.
She recorded two major sessions at Commodore, one in 1939 and one in 1944. "Strange Fruit" was highly regarded. In time it became Holiday's biggest selling record. Though the song became a staple of her live performances, Holiday's accompanist Bobby Tucker recalled that Holiday would break down every time after she sang it.