Friday, October 19, 2018

What a long, strange trip it's been

Abel Meerepol wrote the anti-lynching poem, Strange Fruit, in 1936.
Strange Fruit
by Lewis Allen (Abel Meerepol's nom de plume)

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
It is a remarkable extended metaphor in that it so viscerally juxtaposes positive images (Southern trees, breeze, gallant, pastoral scene, magnolia) with wrenching images (crows to pluck, blood, black body swinging, bulging eyes, twisted mouth). You are both seduced and repelled at the same time. Once read, you don't ever really want to read it again except as a reminder of inconceivably evil times.

Strange Fruit was made famous by Billie Holliday.

Double click to enlarge.

There is an interesting backstory to Meerepol. He was a high school teacher when he wrote the poem and a member of the American Communist Party. He eventually left the party but in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried, convicted and executed as Soviet spies who provided the Soviet Union top-secret American information about radar, sonar, and jet propulsion engines and were also accused of transmitting nuclear weapon designs. They left behind two young sons.

From an NPR piece.
At the time, the Rosenberg sons, Robert and Michael, were 6 and 10, respectively. News photographs of the boys show them dressed in suits visiting their parents in prison.

"They're these little boys and they're wearing these caps, and they look so young and so vulnerable. It's really a very poignant image," says Margolick.

Robert Meeropol says that in the months following his parents' execution, it was unclear who would take care of him and his brother. It was the height of McCarthyism. Even family members were fearful of being in any way associated with the Rosenbergs or Communism.

Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.

"One of the most remarkable things was how quickly we adapted," Robert says. "First of all, Abel, what I remember about him as a 6-year-old was that he was a real jokester. He liked to tell silly jokes and play word games, and he would put on these comedy shows that would leave me rolling."

There is something else about Abel Meeropol that seems to connect the man who wrote "Strange Fruit" to the man who created a loving family out of a national scandal. "He was incredibly softhearted," Robert says.

For example, there was an old Japanese maple tree in their backyard, which sent out many new seedlings every year.

"I was the official lawnmower," Robert says, "and I was going to mow over them, and he said, 'Oh, no, you can't kill the seedlings!' I said, 'What are you going to do with them, Dad? There are dozens of them.'

"Well, he dug them up and put them in coffee cans and lined them up along the side of the house. And there were hundreds of them. But he couldn't bring himself to just kill them. It was just something he couldn't do."
Strange Fruit was not Meerepol's only poem which became a musical hit. In 1954 Peggy Lee released his Apples, Peaches, and Cherries - a song as life-affirming as Strange Fruit was evil incarnate.

Double click to enlarge.

Apples, Peaches, and Cherries
by Lewis Allen (Abel Meerepol's nom de plume)

There once was a peddler passing by
His cart with fruit was laden high
And as he drove along he cried
Across the village green

Crying apples, peaches and cherries (Scooby-dooby-scoo-zoo)
Apples (apples), peaches (peaches) and cherries

His daughter sat beside him there
She was young and she was fair
All glowing with a beauty rare
A maid of sweet sixteen

A young lad beckoned from the door
He bought some fruit and then bought more
His longing eyes were begging for
The lovely maid to stay

He sought and found her at the mart
He wooed and won the maiden's heart
And now ten children ride the cart
Across the village green

Crying apples, peaches and cherries (Scooby-dooby-scoo-boo)
Apples (apples), peaches (peaches) and cherries

Now if there is a moral here
Such fruitfulness should make it clear
So shut the window when you hear
A peddler passing by

Crying apples, peaches and cherries (Scooby-dooby-scoo-boo)
Apples (apples), peaches (peaches) and cherries
Apples (apples)
And peaches (asparagus)
And apples (Brussels sprouts)
And peaches (string beans)
And cherries (and broccoli)
And cherries (and zucchini)
No! cherries (and cherries)
And cherries (Scooby-dooby-scoo-boo)
Scooby-dooby-scoo-doo, and (Scooby-dooby-scoo-doo)
Hah-hah-hah, cherries
Here is a man passionately committed to civil rights, a poet who crafted an iconic poem of civil rights before the civil rights era, a man so compassionate he adopted the children of two executed Soviet spies at the height of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, and yet a man who also naively dabbled in the raw evil of communism.

The twists and turns don't stop there. Through my childhood, in school, the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial was held up as an example of a miscarriage of justice, the Rosenberg's railroaded into a false conviction, innocent of any crime, simply because they were Jewish and/or Communist. The Rosenberg sons Meerepol adopted believed this to their core. From Wikipedia:
For decades, the Rosenbergs' sons Michael and Robert Meeropol and many other defenders maintained that Julius and Ethel were innocent of spying on their country and victims of Cold War paranoia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, much information concerning them was declassified, including a trove of decoded Soviet cables, code-named VENONA, which detailed Julius's role as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets and Ethel's role as an accessory. Their sons' current position is that Julius was legally guilty of the conspiracy charge, though not of atomic spying, while Ethel was only generally aware of his activities. The children say that their father did not deserve the death penalty and that their mother was wrongly convicted. They continue to campaign for Ethel to be posthumously and legally exonerated.

In 2014, five historians who had published works based on the Rosenberg case wrote that Soviet documents show that Ethel Rosenberg hid money and espionage paraphernalia for Julius, served as an intermediary for communications with his Soviet intelligence contacts, provided her personal evaluation of individuals Julius considered recruiting, and was present at meetings with his sources.
What a strange mélange of heroism, beautiful art, horrifying art, naive infatuation with evil communism, misplaced filial conviction of a miscarriage of justice against parents who were indeed traitors and Soviet spies who in turn contributed to the deaths and tragedies of the Cold War.

Reminds me of the Grateful Dead song Truckin' - What a long, strange trip it's been.

Double click to enlarge.

by the Grateful Dead

Truckin' got my chips cashed in. Keep truckin', like the do-dah man
Together, more or less in line, just keep truckin' on.

Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street.
Chicago, New York, Detroit and it's all on the same street.
Your typical city involved in a typical daydream
Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings.

Dallas, got a soft machine; Houston, too close to New Orleans,
New York's got the ways and means; but just won't let you be, oh no.

Most of the cats that you meet on the streets speak of true love,
Most of the time they're sittin' and cryin' at home.
One of these days they know they better get goin'
Out of the door and down on the streets all alone.

Truckin', like the do-dah man. Once told me "You've got to play your hand"
Sometimes your cards ain't worth a dime, if you don't lay'em down,

Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me,
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it's been.

What in the world ever became of sweet Jane?
She lost her sparkle, you know she isn't the same
Livin' on reds, vitamin C, and cocaine,
All a friend can say is "Ain't it a shame?"

Truckin', up to Buffalo. Been thinkin', you got to mellow slow
Takes time, you pick a place to go, and just keep truckin' on.

Sittin' and starin' out of the hotel window.
Got a tip they're gonna kick the door in again
I'd like to get some sleep before I travel,
But if you got a warrant, I guess you're gonna come in.

Busted, down on Bourbon Street, set up, like a bowlin' pin.
Knocked down, it get's to wearin' thin. They just won't let you be, oh no.

You're sick of hangin' around and you'd like to travel,
Get tired of travelin' and you want to settle down.
I guess they can't revoke your soul for tryin',
Get out of the door and light out and look all around.

Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me,
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it's been.

Truckin', I'm a goin' home. Whoa whoa baby, back where I belong,
Back home, sit down and patch my bones, and get back truckin' on.

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