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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

VIsiting the Abel Meeropol Archive

Abel Meeropol, under the pen name of Lewis Allan, was the composer of the song "Strange Fruit." I'm producing an animation about the amazing story of the song's creation and its linkage to Billie Holliday, so it was a natural to pay a visit to the Howard Gottlieb Archival Center at Boston University, where his papers are stored. 

An internet search will easily get you biographical details of Meeropol's life, but in this post, my aim is to give you a sense of how these documents brought me closer to the person.

Read and see more.

Meeropol was a creative man. He wrote music, lyrics, poetry, and he festooned much of his personal correspondence with drawings. He had a long marriage and a warm family life, he and his wife adopting the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, left orphaned by the execution of their parents. He became energized by politics as a young man and one gets the sense of a person who tried to maintain a vision of humanism amidst the rough-and-tumble of political activism.

Meeropol was constantly on the hustle to find gigs and to leverage his successes, soliciting support from the likes of Kurt Weill and Thomas Mann to support his Guggenheim application.

Aside from Strange Fruit, it was co-writing "The House I Live In," performed by Frank Sinatra, that brought him his highest level of fame. Even then, he was irate that they cut out his verse saying "my neighbors white and black." The usual Hollywood cowardice.

He expended a lot of energy pushing back against the myth that Billie Holliday had written Strange Fruit, as propagated in her biography "Lady Sings the Blues". That song, recorded by Holliday in 1939, sold many copies-at least hundreds of thousands. And yet, Meeropol received a letter written on May 21, 1941, from Edward B. Marks, his publisher, regretting that he was due less than $2.00 for royalties(on sheet music) and stating this: "Laura Duncan keeps singing the song and people keep saying flattering things about it, but they just don't go out and buy it." Make of that what you will. 

Here is another letter from Marks, slightly less interesting, but completely representative of the kinds of communications that passed between Marks and Meeropol:
Another interesting letter came from John Hammond, Billie Holliday's producer at Columbia Records. It was Hammond who would not let her record "Strange Fruit" for Columbia and the song was recorded by Milt Gabler's Commodore Records. Gabler was one of the cohort associated, as was Meeropol, with New York's ironically titled Cafe Society. Was Hammond influenced to consider Meeropol's songs because of the success of "Strange Fruit?" We don't know, but in any case, he seems to be allied with Meeropol in getting his work recorded by Holliday. He says Meeropol's song "I Got A Right" is "very swell and I would like to see more of your recent work."

Overall, Meeropol's papers give us a picture of a man who operated in a uniquely mid-twentieth century space, juggling high and "people's" art, family, finance and leftist politics for most of his life. I believe it's a life worthy to be chronicled in detail. My own challenge is to give dimension to the character of Abel Meeropol as he will appear in my animation about the creation of "Strange Fruit."

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