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(Credit: William P. Gottlieb)

A true American icon: Tragedy and triumph in the life of Billie Holiday

When Billie Holiday was in hospital dying of cirrhosis, the police came to her bedside and began trying to arrest her for possession of heroin. By this stage, she was arguably the most important artist in American history. They wouldn’t have bothered if she wasn’t. In some sad way, this scene serves as a pastiche of the triumphs and tragedies of her short life.

Upon her death, the writer and civil rights hero James Baldwin wrote: “Billie was produced and destroyed by the same society. It had not the faintest intention of producing her and it did not intend to destroy; but it has managed to do both with the same bland lack of concern.” 

There was never a safety net for Holiday at any point in her life and her sad demise is a reflection of this, but her hard-fought gift brings to mind another Baldwin sentiment: that a musician is dealing with “a roar rising from the void and imposing order over it,” and when they triumph over this, their triumph is ours. Holiday undoubtedly changed the world for the better with her triumph, but the tragedy is that it was a world that so often showed her nothing but indifference at best. 

She was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia. Her father abandoned her to pursue a career as a jazz guitarist and her mother would frequently do the same, leaving her to be passed around relatives for care. Little is documented from this point of her life in her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, and it seems to be a dower implication is of a childhood largely forgotten. 

When she was just nine years old, she was facing a juvenile court for truancy. The result was a nine-month stint at a Catholic reform school. When she was just eleven years old, on Christmas Eve, her mother returned home to find Holiday fighting off a neighbour who was trying to rape her. He was arrested, but once again, Holiday, as a child, was held in protective custody for two months following the harrowing incident. Soon after her release, aged twelve, she was working in a brothel attending to the upkeep. 

In an ironic twist of fate, it was while working at the brothel that she first heard the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith and experienced the exultant boon of music that both insulated her from the cruelties of reality, while simultaneously making sense of them. For the first time, a notion of escapism both spiritually and physically had seized her and when her mother left her for New York in 1928, the fourteen-year-old Holiday set off to join her less than a year later. 

It is not without its cruel ironies that when the legendary producer John Hammond (who also discovered Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and revived Robert Johnson among many others) saw her quite by chance when she replaced Monette Moore at the last minute on a jazz night bill, he remarked that she had a sense of lyric well beyond her young years. It seems in retrospect that you’d be hard pushed to say Holiday was ever afforded the chance to be young in the first place.

Hammond soon signed her for Brunswick and therein she propagated a unique style of vocal that remains as influential today as it ever has been. Even punk figures like Shame’s Charlie Steen recently told us: “Lady Day is a light forever shining, something humanity should never forget.” Her style was illuminating, emotion dictated melody as opposed to the other way around and with it, she gave sense to the Jack Kerouac quote, “The only truth is music.” 

While her impassioned performances – as though she was trying to entreaty something from the ether – gave weight to the Hoagy Carmichael proclamation about the stir of artistry: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.”

Billie Holiday with her dog, Mister. (Credit: Alamy)

She became a phenom of the music world with this style, but her true triumph was not in fame, the adulation of audiences or even the salvation she found in music, but with the song ‘Strange Fruit’ that she bravely found and set rattling towards the rafters for meaningful change. 

Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ remains one of the most powerful and revolutionary songs in music history. The song was based on a poem by a Jewish schoolteacher in the Bronx named Abel Meeropol who was a secret communist and wrote the poem for a magazine relating to photos that he saw of a lynching whereby people were hanging from the tree’s like ‘strange fruit’.

Although in many ways, modern pop music was born from the protest songs of plantation workers, it was necessary for the lyrics to be subtly subversive to the point that the true message of the seemingly happy-go-lucky working chants was an almost cryptic subtext.

1939 was not a million miles away from those days making Holliday’s statement all the bolder. ‘Strange Fruit’ would be a harrowing and haunting song even if the message was symbolic, but the abhorrent truth behind the ‘fruit’ adds an unbearable context. By elucidating the inhuman situation in the south, Holliday helped to spawn the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and, to be frank, very few songs have been as meaningful as that since, fortunately, almost as a result, not quite as many have had to be. 

Following this record, she played a residency at the Café Society and left the premises a star. Her fame that followed scored her hit records, movie roles, and due prestige. But sadly, this fame and fortune often meant solitude, her closest companion seemingly her excellently named dog Mister Downbeat. With money, fame and very little support, she succumbed to heroin addiction. 

In 1947 she was arrested for possession of narcotics, and as she recalled: “[The trial] was called the United States of America versus Billie Holliday. And that’s just the way it felt.” She was guilty, but the trial was a pig circus, even her own lawyer wouldn’t represent her. “In plain English, that meant no one in the world was interested in looking out for me,” she said.

In the years that followed she struggled with addictions and abusive relationships but always sustained a level of performative brilliance that would lead the jazz critic Nat Hentoff to remark regarding her famed 1956 Carnegie Hall comeback show, “Billie was on top, undeniably the best and most honest jazz singer alive.”

However, the greatest jazz singer alive was failed, swindled and abused at all turns, dying in hospital with 70 cents in her bank account. But this failing seemed like the sort of nebulous tragic current that she waded through her whole life and, in the end, unbound by circumstance seemingly couldn’t care less about in a defiant state of deliverance with her triumph as a crutch, as the poet Frank O’Hara wrote in the final stanza of The Day Lady Died:

“…and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and   
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue   
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and   
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.”

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