Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood on the roots,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Here’s a strange and bitter crop.
“Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol
Lithographs by Joseph Norman
Organized by the Morris Museum of Art, Strange Fruit: Lithographs by Joseph Norman, an exhibition of thirteen black and white lithographs, is currently on display at the Morris Museum of Art and remains on display to the public though Sunday, September 16, 2012.
In 1984, Joseph Norman produced the first works in a series of metaphorical images that he called Strange Fruit. Dark and brooding, the series was inspired by the song of the same title, which was most famously performed by the great jazz vocalist Billie Holiday.
"Strange Fruit,” a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a high-school teacher from the Bronx, was first published in The New York Teacher in 1936. Inspired by Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana, it records Meeropol’s horror of this inhuman act. His morbid imagery recalls the dread reality of lynching, a vicious injustice most often exacted against African Americans without due process of law. Though Meeropol asked others to set his poem to music, he finally composed the music himself. It gained a level of success as a protest song performed in and around New York by Meeropol, his wife, and singer Laura Duncan.
Barney Josephson, founder of Café Society in Greenwich Village, New York’s first integrated nightclub, heard the song performed at Madison Square Garden and took it to Billie Holiday, who introduced it at Café Society in 1939. It became a staple of her repertoire, even though she said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation.
Holiday approached Columbia Records, her label, about recording it, but the company declined, concerned about negative reaction from retailers in the South, as well as from affiliates of its co-owned CBS radio network. She turned to her friend Milt Gabler, whose Commodore label produced alternative jazz records. Columbia released Holiday from her contract in order to record “Strange Fruit” for Commodore. It was very well received, selling more than a million copies. Over time, it became Holiday’s biggest-selling record.
Since then, “Strange Fruit” has been covered by many artists, and it has inspired creative works in many media, including this series of striking lithographs by Joseph Norman. It is listed as one of the Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2002, the Library of Congress added the original Holiday recording to the National Recording Registry.
A professor in the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art since 2001, Joseph Norman taught previously at the Rhode School of Design, Rhode Island College, and Salve Regina College. His work has been featured in more than eighty solo and group exhibitions over the past twenty-five years, and it is included in the permanent collections of more than fifty museums, colleges, universities, and corporations, including those of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D. C., as well as private collections too numerous to cite here.
Thursday, July 19, 6:00 p.m. Exhibition Opening Reception and Lecture: Strange Fruit and The Morris at Twenty. Artist Joseph Norman discusses his current exhibition of lithographs drawn from the museum’s permanent collection. Reception follows. FREE.
[Image caption: Joseph Norman, Untitled #13, from the portfolio Strange Fruit, 2001. Lithograph. Morris Museum of Art. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. William Tslaras.]