Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939. She said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation but, because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing the piece, making it a regular part of her live performances. Holiday would close with it; the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday's face; and there would be no encore. During the musical introduction, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer.


Holiday approached her recording label, Columbia, about the song, but the company feared reaction by record retailers in the South, as well as negative reaction from affiliates of its co-owned radio network, CBS. When Holiday's producer John Hammond also refused to record it, she turned to her friend Milt Gabler, whose Commodore label produced alternative jazz. Holiday sang "Strange Fruit" for him a cappella, and moved him to tears. Columbia allowed Holiday a one-session release from her contract in order to record it.



Nina Simone was a 1960's singer, jazz musician and civil rights activist. A civil rights message was standard in Nina's recording repertoire and  her live performances. She was militant in her approach for black power and freedom. Nina performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings, such as at the Selma Montgomery marches. She covered Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit on her 1965 album, Pastel Blues. She is also famous for the protest song, Mississippi Goddamn, about racism.  A great singer, Nina honored Martin Luther King in her performances.