There's two instances in which I think of this song. One is when I make the mistake of turning on the television and hearing about some dogforsaken "controversial" pap-pablum manufactured and vat-grown teenybopper sensation or someone getting all scandalized by some small pecadillo.
And the other is when, as a Southern man, I hear some ignorant sumbitch bleatin' on about reverse racism or why do the "coloured"s have to complain so much. You wait you long enough and you'll hear it. Hell, go to any church and you'll see the white folks on one side of the church and the black folks the other, they'll interact in the service and then the whitefolks can't get to their damn cars fast enough away from the other folks. 20goddamn10, and we're still carrying this stuff on.
Because you see, when Lady Day, god bless her too-soon departed soul, got up in front of New York's only integrated cafe in 1939 and belted that out, (and remember, the prevailing image of the South at the time was the delightfully pastoral "Gone With The Wind" and its happy slaves, toiling in the fields, sticking close by their massas when the war comes, knowin' an all how to "bringin' babies"), it was like a needle screeching on a record. And when she started singing about that pastoral scene, with bloody tree roots and human beings hanging from nooses on trees, needless to say, she had a pair. She may have been born a woman and died a woman, but she had a bigger set than any of them today.
She walked into an integrated cafe, with its cosmopolitan intellectual set breakin' its wrist patting itself on the back at how liberal it was hobnobbing with the "coloureds", and quietly lifted her skirts and pissed on the biggest box office film of its day and for decades afterwards (well, until Star Wars showed up).
Oh, they told her not to sing that again. Club owners, record companies, they didn't like that. Too ugly a song. Too controversial. People met her and her accompanist after the show. She and he were beaten. Some days she gave as good as she got - some feller from Georgia once made a pornographic drawing on his bar napkin, and, flashing it to her, offered to show her some "Strange Fruit" - and to the credit of the club, after she broke a chair over his head the bouncers took him outside and roughed him up. (It would have been akin to someone making light remarks about Schindler's List, these days.) A white woman followed her into the powder room and screamingly assaulted her, in the grip of post traumatic stress disorder at having been made to see a lynching as a child.
It, like the other powerful song Gloomy Sunday that she became most famous for, simultaneously elevated her to legend and ate her inside. Almost as sure as the heroin and alcohol, the rough upbringing and her years in the whorehouse, that song chewed her insides. Her own (then young) son asked her how a root could have blood (referencing a line from the song) and she screamed at him that it would involve a white man cutting his balls off and shoving them down his throat before stringing him in a tree.
Not only was it a song sung by a black woman about deeply divisive race relations in a time when there were still laws against integration and blacks had separate washrooms, drinking fountains, and seats on the bus, it was a song written by a Communist sympathizing Jew. So when McCarthyism and the Red Scare went full sway the twin forces of anti-Semitism and anti-Communist hysteria bore down on her, as well.
As noted here, she cried when she sang it. It contributed, most surely, to her rapid decline and early death. It made her scream at her own kin and break chairs over the heads of patrons. But it was one of the very first instances where the media talked about the evils of slavery and the injustices against the black man not from an intellectual or moral stance but a very very real, raw and ugly one. It cost her club dates, it cost her sales, people walked out of her concerts when she performed that song.
As a woman, and as a person of colour she was expected, if fortunate enough to entertain the white people, to enter the establishment from the rear and to sing nice, cute ditties and perhaps show a little skin. She was sure as hell not expected to hold up a mirror to a jazz-listening public and quietly REMIND them that the people they were listening to and co-opting were being treated LIKE SHIT.
She didn't get recognition in her life for this song from the people it helped - the NAACP didn't approve of entertainers, nor did the black churches - so there was no chance of her getting humanitarian accolades for such a work of art. But though it cost her so dearly, that song ignited passions in people who would later work hard, both black and white, to remedy and redress the wrongs, to put an end to the hatred against blacks and the societal attitudes that encouraged it.
It has since gone on to be considered by many to be one of the most influential songs of the 20th century. Q magazine, Time magazine, others have included it in lists of phenomenal achievements of our time.
So the next time one of these long-haired, tattooed and painted up ghouls wipes his ass on the American flag and thinks he's oh-so-controversial, or everyone gets worked up in a tizzy that some vile papparazzi was able to take a shot of some empty headed starlet's naked twitchet, it just makes me laugh. And likewise, when one of my lesser educated white friends asks why he can't use the word "nigger", I simply reach for my record player.
In honor of Martin Luther King day, 2010. God rest your soul, Doctor.