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Appearances in the early 19th century, and before, tie some figurative uses of the phrase 'strange fruit' to religion and politics, and then later to US racism, particularly southern racism.

For example, this early use from an 1838 edition of The clockmaker, or, The sayings and doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville ties the sense to both politics (democracy) and religion:

Arter a considerable of a pause, she said, This must be a religious country, said she, ain't it? for religion is the "highest fact in man's right, and the root of all democracy." If religion is the root of democracy, said I, it bears some strange fruit sometimes, as the man said of the pine tree the five gamblers were Lynched up to Vixburg.

Even earlier, in 1567, at a time when religion and politics were not as distinct as they now are, this use ties the sense to religious politics:

The which preaching although it were a litle checked by edictes and proclamations, yet not being remoued [removed] by force, caused as well moe [more] preachers to gather about that and other cities of Flanders and Brabant, as also moe hearers to come unto their sermo[n]s, in so much that within one month, manie thousandes were found to resort unto this new preaching, whereof some strange fruit must nedes growe in tyme, sithens [since] that wilde maner of preaching hath not be wont to be used, where the whole people of the Countrie is christened, unlesse it be in the time of warre.

From English Recusant Literature, 1558 – 1640, Vol. 282, A Treatise of the Images of Christ by Nicholas Sander

I'm interested in how the figurative sense of the phrase developed from those political-religious roots into the common contemporary sense, wherein the phrase symbolizes racism, and particularly southern US racism. That development was established in widespread use by the 1939 recording of "Strange Fruit", the Billy Holiday rendition of a song written by Abel Meeropol. The lyrics are reproduced at '"Strange Fruit": the story of a song':

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.

I hypothesize that transitional uses of 'strange fruit' in the 1800s and early 1900s might link southern evangelical sects, the Reconstruction, the Southern Babtist Convention, and the symbolic development of the phrase. Do transitional uses provide that link? Is there an 'Old World' (European religion and politics) influence on the development?

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    The strange fruit in Billy Holiday's song refers to a black person, a victim of the KKK (presumably) or lynch mob, whose body hung lifelessly from a branch. – Mari-Lou A Nov 28 '17 at 9:14
  • If you want a history, it would probably help to pick a particular usage. Otherwise, we'd have to go back to the first human who noticed a bird's nest in a fruit tree. – Oldbag Dec 5 '17 at 20:25
  • @Oldbag, naw, I don't want a general history...unless you want to provide one as background when you answer the question. – JEL Dec 5 '17 at 23:44
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+100

While by no means the result of an exhaustive investigation, my hunch so far is that the second citation in the question from 1567 is a more general application of the figurative sense "an unexpected, abnormal, or problematic outgrowth." Searching through 19th century figurative uses of the phrase yields varying connotations and senses that all seem like variants of this figurative sense, but which vary starkly in tone.

The link to religious texts might be partly explained by the many roles fruit plays in Christian literature, conveniently outlined on this website.

Seventh, fruits are used pedagogically in proverbs such as “He who tends to a fig tree will enjoy its fruit” in Proverbs 27:18 and “Parents eat sour grapes and their children’s teeth are blunted” in Ezekiel 18:2.

Eighth, and perhaps most obvious, fruits appear as objects in narratives, such as in Numbers 13:23, where the spies of Moses examine the grapes, pomegranates and figs of the land, and in Genesis 3, where Eve eats the forbidden fruit and is cast from Eden.

One thing is clear, at some point the phrase "strange fruit" became adapted as a dark metaphor for lynching. This is the meaning in the poem "Bitter Fruit" adapted by Billie Holliday into the song "Strange Fruit," and it is the meaning in the first citation in the question:

If religion is the root of democracy, said I, it bears some strange fruit sometimes, as the man said of the pine tree the five gamblers were Lynched up to Vixburg.

These dates span the figurative meaning related to lynching across a century already. And there are enough other uses referring to lynching to confirm a pattern, such as this dark snippet from an Indiana newspaper.

The crew of the northbound train arriving here after nine in the evening, last night as the train was passing through the woods between Peters' Switch and Jonesville, saw a crowd of men running with a rope around the neck of a man, dragging him as they went. Though the climate of that region has been known to make trees bear strange fruit heretofore, for the sake of law and humanity, it is hoped there was not a lynching in those lonely woods last night.

However, stepping through the figurative uses I was able to find in the 19th century in newspapers seems to suggest to me that the term was applied with varying connotations and figurative designs. The term appears in various Christmas carols, apparently referring to ornamentation on Christmas trees.

"Sunday School Song" -- By W. Dressler

Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!

For the Saviour come to-day;

Ev'ry care and grief and sorrow

From our joyful hearts, away!

See the tree with lights all gleaming

'Mong the branches fresh and green!

Ah! with what strange fruit 'tis laden,

All we wish can there be soon.

Dear baby hearts in Christmas land,

We want to be near

And join in your cheer

When the tree with its strange fruit bends

And you wait for what Santa sends--

Who has the key of Christmas land?

Another article from around this time uses the term with a dose of levity, referring to baseball fans lingering in trees to get a free view of a ball game.

It might be well, while the subject of base ball is under discussion, to call the attention of the police to contain unpleasant possibilities. The trees in the vicinity of the park bear strange fruit. As many as fifteen young men frequently see the game from one of them and they are all more or less overburdened.

Sometimes strange fruit refers to something beautiful in its uniqueness.

But there will be a pleasant thought even then [in winter]. Last summer--say in June--when the shade was deepest, no stars were shining there, and hardly could the moonlight pass through the thatch of leaves, and let a silver shaft through upon the green sward. Next winter, to him who stands within that desolate wood, and looks upward, heaven will seem to bear strange fruit of stars--such as ripens not in the garden of Hesperus. Stars will bud upon the branches; he will look through winter up to heaven; but the grove will be desolate no more.

This connotation stands in stark contrast to the lynching metaphor. Other times, the term seems to refer to something unwanted or out of place in a pejorative way but without wading into subjects as dark as lynching.

When that Territory comes to be admitted as a State, it will have power to make its own laws with regard to marriage; and unquestionably, the vast majority of the population being Mormon, they will legalize the practice of poligamy. We shall thus exhibit an instance of Western Orientalism, which will attract the attention of the world.. This will be strange fruit, to be borne by the tree planted on Plymouth rock, by the Puritan Pilgrims. So strange a political and social phenomenon will bear witness to the wonderful elasticity of our system of Government, albeit, it may not be very flattering to our national pride.

The King of Naples, crownless, throneless, kingdomless, lives royally in Rome, looks after his children and enjoys the personal friendship of the pope. A daughter has been born to him. The Pope has consented to baptize the little princess. It is a good thing, so far as the Pope's friendship goes, to be a Bourbon or to belong to the ancien regime. Rome is now the asylum of the dethroned monarchs. How many are there who can tell? But they are all in Rome. It is manifest that the Pope is a fast friend; but it is not less manifest that he is a slow scholar. In him Thomas and Peter are strangely intermingled. Napoleon for twenty years has preserved the Pope in house and home; but Napoleon cannot get from the Pope even the first favor. Napoleon waits for the Pope to come to Paris and crown him. the Prince Imperial was baptized by the hands of a subordinate. This Pontifical "Bourbon and water" business is suggestive, and it will not be wonderful if it yet produces strange fruit.

A use from 1867 means essentially "we could have expected this."

It was not a strange fruit that was dropping from this tree.

Finally, this use from 1862 seems to mean simply "unexpected consequences" or "unusual results."

His Royal Highness will return to England before the opening of the Great Exhibition. Mr. Gladstone's latest measure has borne strange fruit. The first is the repeal of the paper duty, which was to do so much for the small papers, has been the bankruptcy of the proprieters of the Penny Newsman.

Conclusion

So in these clippings we have a number of senses of the term "strange fruit."

  • Christmas ornaments
  • Stars on a winter night
  • Lynching victims
  • Negative unexpected consequences
  • Neutral(?) unexpected consequences

My search was limited in date range but it yielded a broad range of senses that all draw from the literal notion of something "strange" growing out of something else. Going back to my assertion in the top paragraph, I suspect based on the wide variety in senses of the term that the sense in the second source cited, from 1567, fits more into the directly applied figurative use of the phrase than the specific recurring meaning referring to lynching, which is the context in the other two sources cited. Reading a wider swath of the 1567 text, it also appears to be part of an extended metaphor. For this reason, I'm inclined to believe that most uses of this term were independently coined or at least non-idiomatic, with the exception of the rising meaning related to lynching and racism, a sense that stands out for its vivid grotesquerie and surprising temporal range of appearance.

I hope this answer contributes on some level to dissecting this interesting question, though I also look forward to seeing what others might find.

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My impression is that "strange fruit" was a neutral metaphor applied to anything that might be considered an unexpected result. One of the examples in the original question cleverly extends a "root" metaphor to the "strange fruit" borne by the plant grown from the root.

Billie Holliday's song, written by Abel Meeropol in 1937, uses "strange fruit" as a reference to lynched people literally hanging from trees and to the strange social conditions that were the "fruit" of past history and policies.

The specific association between racism and southern culture may have become even more firmly established with the publication in 1944 of Lillian Smith's novel of a doomed, inter-racial relationship, entitled "Strange Fruit."

In a brief perusal of archives, I could find no particular trend in situations in which the expression was used before that time.

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