Book Bag

  • Poet Patricia Smith. Image courtesy of Ellen Meeropol

  • Abel and Anne Meeropol. Image courtesy of Ellen Meeropol

Friday, November 10, 2017

It began as a poem, a grim reflection on the brutal lynchings of African Americans in the South and Midwest in the 1930s. A few years later, with a slight change in the title, it was set to music — and in the nearly 80 years since Billie Holiday made the first recording of it, it has become one of the most noteworthy songs in modern U.S. history. Time magazine named it the song of the century in 1999.

“Strange Fruit” was the creation of Abel Meeropol, a Jewish poet, playwright and musician (and schoolteacher) living in the Bronx, N.Y. He and his wife, Anne, later adopted the young sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the U.S. couple whose execution in 1953 for allegedly giving atomic secrets to the Soviet Union drew worldwide attention.

Now, to honor Meeropol (1903-1986), and to celebrate his history of using the arts to promote positive social change, the Valley writers’ collective, the Straw Dogs Writing Guild, will present the first Abel Meeropol Social Justice Writing Award. The $1,000 honorarium will be given to New York poet Patricia Smith on Sunday at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke.

This is a story Ellen Meeropol knows intimately. The Easthampton novelist is married to Robert Meeropol, the younger of the two Rosenberg sons. Her husband is the founder of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, the Easthampton nonprofit group that aids children of progressive political activists jailed or otherwise targeted by the government.

Ellen Meeropol, who is also the board president of Straw Dog Writers, recalls her father-in-law as a talented artist — he wrote the words to the theme song for the Academy Award-winning short film “The House I Live In” from 1945 — whose work explored themes of racial and economic injustice and war and peace. 

“What’s interesting is that we still have royalties for ‘Strange Fruit’ coming in, and in the last two or three years, there’s been a noticeable increase,” she said. “So we started talking about how we might best use them — how we might honor Abel’s memory.”

In fact, a number of musicians, such as Annie Lennox, have recorded new versions of the song in the last few years. Its slow, quiet rhythm and minor-chord structure echo the starkness of the lyrics. The opening stanza sets the tone:

“Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Ellen Meeropol and several other Straw Dog Writers decided to award the additional royalties to a writer whose work also embodied themes of social justice. The group opted to select someone outside the Valley so as not to have to choose from numerous local deserving candidates, Meeropol said.

Having previously met Patricia Smith at her MFA program and at a writers’ workshop, Meeropol suggested her name — and her colleagues agreed. “She’s a marvelous poet, and she’s a real supporter of progressive issues,” she said.

The author of eight volumes of poetry, Smith is a Guggenheim Fellow, a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize and a National Book Award finalist for her 2008 collection, “Blood Dazzler,” a series of poems about how New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Meeropol said Sunday’s event at Gateway City Arts, which begins at 3:30 p.m., will include a reading by Smith, a slide show about Abel and Anne Meeropol and their sons, and some other features.

She’s not certain the Abel Meeropol Writing Award will become an annual or even periodic event — “We’ll have to see what the finances are,” she said — but she hopes Sunday’s event will be just one of a regular series of events in the Valley about social justice and the arts.

A follow-up roundtable discussion hosted by the Straw Dog Guild, at the Northampton Center for the Arts on Dec. 9, will continue examining how writers can weigh in on the current political climate, she noted: “There’s lots to talk about.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Sunday’s free event with Patricia Smith at Gateway City Arts is sold out, but you can join a wait list by visiting strawdogwriters.org/abel-meeropol-award.