Billie Holiday

Lady Sings the Blues

“Give me a song I can feel, and it's never work.”

“If you find a tune” Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) wrote confidently of her singing craft, “and it’s got something to do with you, you don’t have to evolve anything. You just feel it, and when you sing it other people can feel something too.”

Stephen Fry once said that he could never consider himself an artist for he is too apologetic, lacks that uncanny toughness and could never be void of desire for people’s affections.1 An artist, while occasionally fragile, is in his most defining moments when completely connected to his art.

Holiday is Fry’s true artist. Anyone who has heard her sing would argue that her connection to emotions in song is what makes her the greatest female Jazz singer of all time.

Photograph of Billie Holiday in 1947 by Michael Ochs. Featured in Billie Holiday's "Lady Sings the Blues" in the Examined Life Library.
Billie Holiday, 1947. Photograph by Michael Ochs.

Born impoverished to a teenage mother, Holiday grew up fast.2 When Holiday was ten she was raped by a neighbor.

Suddenly, when I was catching my breath, I heard more hollering and shouting. The next thing I knew, my mother and a policeman broke the door down. I’ll never forget that night. Even if you’re a whore you don’t want to be raped. A bitch can turn twenty-five hundred tricks a day and she still don’t want nobody to rape her. It’s the worst thing that can happen to a woman. And here it was happening to me when I was ten.

Holiday’s rapist went to prison for five years while Holiday, bruised and bloody, was “treated like I had killed someone.” The Court sent her to a Catholic reform school where as punishment she was locked in a room with a corpse.

Her mom was finally able to extradite her daughter and arranged a cleaning job for her. But the work did not last:

She didn’t know what the hell to do with me. She knew I’d never make it as a maid. I had finished the fifth grade in school in Baltimore and I hadn’t been back. If I did go back, they might ask where the hell I had been. There was no place for me to go to school anyway, unless I had a place to live. Mom had a little money saved, and she finally said she’d take me to Harlem and board me out.

Holiday’s mom, who was only in her mid-twenties, unknowingly boarded Holiday at a brothel where the young girl cleaned and became a call girl.

Holiday remembered it was the only space she could socially interact with white people.

In the early thirties when Mom and I started trying to kick and scratch out a living in Harlem, the world we lived in was still one that white people made. But it had become a world they damn near never saw.

Sure, some of them patronized the after-hours joints; they came to the Cotton Club – a place Negroes never saw inside unless they played music or did the shakes or shimmies. But these were just side shows specially set up for white folks to come and pay their money for kicks. These places weren’t for real. The life we lived was. But it was all backstage, and damn few white folks ever got to see it. When they did, they might as well have dropped in from another planet. Everything about it seemed to be news to them. It was rugged. Sometimes I wonder how we survived.

At this point in Lady Sings the Blues, our naturally narrative selves will be looking for an ‘arrival’. “Some shape of beauty moves away the pall/From our dark spirits” promised Keats and indeed, we think… this can’t continue, can it?

But the pall is never pulled. Even once Holiday (and the rest of the music community) discover her voice, even then… there is no arrival. She constantly striving. Your heart drips in sadness.

Sure I can sing, what good is that? I had been singing all my life, but I enjoyed it too much to think I could make any real money at it… I sang. When I finished everybody in the joint was crying in their beer.

Holiday was discovered, casually but nevertheless, then rushed onstage in a new career. But even financial successes, deep friendships, and sold out shows could not begin to compensate for the extremely low wages, constant bigotry, oppression and, as James Baldwin so eloquently wrote in his essays on the consciousness required to induce social harmony, a complete disconnect between reality and imagination.

You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation. Take 52nd Street in the late thirties and early forties. It was supposed to be a big deal. ‘Swing Street,’ they called it. Joint after joint was jumping. It was this ‘new’ kind of music. They could get away with calling it new because millions of squares hadn’t taken a trip to 131st Street. If they had they could have dug swing for twenty years. By the time the ofays got around to copping ‘swing’ a new-style music was already breaking out all over uptown. Ten years later that became the newest thing when the white boys downtown figured out how to cop it.

Anyway, white musicians were ‘swinging’ from one end of 52nd Street to the other, but there wasn’t a black face in sight on the street except Teddy Wilson and me. Teddy played intermission piano at the Famous Door and I sang. There was no cotton to be picked between Leon and Eddie’s and the East River, but man, it was a plantation any way you looked at it. And we had to not only look at it, we lived in it. We were not allowed to mingle any kind of way. The minute we were finished with our intermission stint we had to scoot out back to the alley or go out and sit in the street.

The confidence of Holiday’s voice, her clarity of her memory and the conviction on some of the most complicated human issues: drug addiction, race and prejudice, poverty, and deep alienation from society, are astounding.

That she can also sing, and puts these complexities into song, is an unthinkable grace from some eternal beauty.

Young kids always ask me what my style is derived from and how it evolved and all that. What can I tell them? If you find a tune and it’s got something to do with you, you don’t have to evolve anything. You just feel it, and when you sing it other people can feel something too. With me, it’s got nothing to do with working or arranging or rehearsing. Give me a song I can feel, and it’s never work. There are a few songs I feel so much I can’t stand to sing them, but that’s something else again.

Holiday is an artist. She exemplifies Anna Deavere Smith’s definition of “presence” (someone who holds her space and welcomes others to it.)

Holiday is also a slap in the face to readers who will think – much like her white audience did – your life can’t be real, can it? “They had no idea” she says brutally, and it stings.

It was meant to.

Joan Mitchell's "Bluets" featured in Lydia Davis' "Essays" in the Examined Life Library.
“Les Bluets”, 1973 by Joan Mitchell. “The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost.” writes Rebecca Solnit. Lost… Photograph from Centre Pompidou.

French philosopher Simone Weil, a contemporary of Holiday, stated that the need to be rooted was one of the deepest needs of the soul. The disconnect Holiday writes about – living in a world created by white people but then being punished by the same people – is the source of so much of her pain and suffering.

Weil also believed – equally emphatically – that we cannot be blind to suffering (both within/without our being). We must acknowledge our walls constructed against one another. And we must meet this truth with compassion.

Compassion for this unparalleled artist and how she was made.

I’ve been told that nobody sings the word ‘hunger’ like I do. Or the word ‘love.’ Maybe I remember what those words are all about. Maybe I’m proud enough to want to remember Baltimore and Welfare Island, the Catholic institution and the Jefferson Market Court, the sheriff in front of our place in Harlem and the towns from coast to coast where I got my lumps and my scars, Philly and Alderson, Hollywood and San Francisco – every damn bit of it.

All the Cadillacs and minks in the world – and I’ve had a few – can’t make it up or make me forget it. And I’ve learned in all those places from all those people is wrapped in those two words. You’ve got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave.

Everything I am and everything I want out of life goes smack back to that.

Read Lady Sings the Blues on its own. And then again. If then you detach your torn self from the pages, listen to her music.

If you retain something yet, venture over to Erich Fromm on human disconnection, Margaret Atwood on how we stand within and apart from our art; Ta-Nehisi Coates on the “consciousness” imperative for redemption, and Maya Angelou’s life-changing advice on self-forgiveness.