Innocent Words Blues Series: Remembering Billie Holiday: April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959


My first experience of Billie Holiday was when I took a Jazz Appreciation class in college. Holiday was one of the “greats” we discussed in class. (I figured I should be listening to some “greats” along with my steady early-college diet of Peter Gabriel.)

The college bookstore sold low price cassettes for a few dollars apiece. I remember purchasing ‘Jazz Goes to College’, by Dave Brubeck, and a “best of” compilation of Billie Holiday’s music.

At that time, jazz seemed like “grown up” music to me. In spirit, I was most drawn to rock & roll. (I was into rebellion and catharsis. Maybe Peter Gabriel was “grown up” rock & roll, but he had the catharsis thing down.)

During my first few years of college, I made a valiant effort to grow up. But I was not grown up enough for jazz. I listened to my Billie Holiday cassette and knew she was a great artist, and not just because the professor of my Jazz Appreciation class said so. I could hear her greatness for myself. But I was not ready for her.

It was Jeff Buckley who brought me back to Billie Holiday. When I heard Buckley’s version of “Strange Fruit,” it re-kindled my interest in Holiday. “Strange Fruit” is, of course, one of Holiday’s signature songs. Metaphorically, the song describes a lynching. Holiday’s record label, Columbia Records, refused to let her record a version of “Strange Fruit.” She had to get a one-session release from her contract with Columbia in order to record the song. It was recorded using Frankie Newton’s band from Cafe Society; Cafe Society is where Holiday first performed “Strange Fruit” in 1939. The song was recorded for and distributed by Vocalion Records.

So there is “Strange Fruit.” Holiday also sang songs about love. She sang about the joy of love (“What a Little Moonlight Can Do”); the frustration of love (“All of Me”); the pain of love (“Solitude”). Even when she is singing about the pain of love, there is joy in her voice.

A year or so ago, I worked weekends during the holidays as an assistant cook at a local cafe to earn a little extra cash.

My shift started at 5 a.m. At work, I would help the head cook prep for breakfast. As soon as we opened the cafe doors and started serving customers, we usually played a music channel devoted exclusively to vocal jazz. The jazz played over the loudspeakers for the customers in the cafe, but the restaurant had an open kitchen, so I could hear the music while I was working. During this time, I heard a large selection of Billie Holiday’s music.

I had taken the job in the cafe for the extra cash, and to see if I could still handle the physical demands of working in a kitchen. The musical experience was an unexpected bonus. For the first time, I felt like I “got” Billie Holiday. At the very least, I was finally enjoying her with my whole heart. The conscious-joy-in-the-middle-of-pain thing that Holiday does in her singing was working for me. She made my cafe shifts 100-percent better.

Anyone who writes about Holiday usually takes time to note she had well-documented problems with drugs, alcohol, and abusive men.

I loathe the cultural fascination with the troubles and vices of great artists. However, it does bother me, personally, that so many talented people often have such terrible struggles with the darker side of life. I don’t like to talk about this stuff. I will avoid writing about an artist because I don’t like to talk about this stuff. I will admit, I often feel betrayed when an artist I love or admire dies of an overdose, commits suicide, or simply destroys him or herself to the extent that it is impossible for that person to practice and share their art.

But, lately, I’ve been questioning my sense of betrayal. Why do I feel betrayed? What does an artist who moves me, owe me?

I’m coming to believe the answer is that an artist who moves me owes me absolutely nothing. An artist does not owe me a journey to the end of her life with an “A” in “Never-Went-To-Rehab”, nor does an artist owe me his victory over depression. If an artist owes me anything, it is simply to give his or her best to art, whatever that art may be: music, storytelling, sculpting, acting, the medium does not matter. The devotion to making the best art possible is what matters.

Do I care about the lives of artists I love? Do I hope the best for them? Of course I do. Will it hurt the next time an artist I love and admire dies of a drug overdose? Yes. It will. It will hurt.

When Holiday died in the hospital at the age of 44, she had heart and liver disease. Drugs, legal and illegal, had taken their toll on her body. It is true that there is pain and sadness in Holiday’s story; it cannot be ignored. But I do not believe her story is a tragedy. If she had not given her gift for singing to the world, that would have been the tragedy. If the world had never known her as “Lady Day,” if her recordings did not exist, if she were not listened to, even now, over and over again: that would be tragic. But she did give her gift to the world, and people still love her, and her music.

Making great art has never been sympatico with getting straight “A’s” in life. Art is messy. Art is life giving and art is life itself. Anyone who makes art and gives great joy to others as Billie Holiday did, during her brief but colorful life, is a winner in my book. Always.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *