Our Lady of Sorrows

Willfully unaware of the facts of her professional life, listeners persist in thinking that Billie Holiday felt their pain.

Illustration by Teri Sanders



FEW people alive today, even among her most ardent fans, have heard Billie Holiday other than on recordings or seen her other than in photographs and random film clips. Holiday was eighteen years old and a worldly former prostitute when she recorded "Your Mother's Son-in-Law" with Benny Goodman in 1933; she died from the cumulative effects of heroin and alcohol in 1959, a ravaged forty-four. Yet with the obvious exception of Frank Sinatra, who was born in the same year as Holiday but outlived her by almost four decades, no other recording artist from the first half of the twentieth century seems more real to us -- more like our contemporary.
Jazz aficionados have always enjoyed nothing more than debating the relative merits of different performers. But when conversation turns to Billie Holiday, the only way to start a fight is to state a preference for early, middle, or late -- her jaunty recordings of the 1930s, her diva-like ballads of the 1940s, or her work from the 1950s, when she had almost nothing left but compensated for her husk of a voice with the intimacy of her phrasing (closer to speech than song). That Holiday was the greatest woman jazz singer ever is accepted as incontestable fact, no matter how fond you or the person you're talking to might be of Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, or Sarah Vaughan.

But Holiday has never appealed exclusively to jazz listeners, nor has her appeal ever depended solely on her vocal artistry. As was true in 1939, when she first sang the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit," to an audience consisting mostly of bohemian artists and left-wing intellectuals at Café Society (a Greenwich Village nightclub whose owner, Barney Josephson, and regular patrons were as committed to racial integration as they were to the finest in jazz and cabaret), many people today are unable to listen to Holiday without projecting into whatever lyric she happens to be singing their sense of her as a martyr to an uncaring world and to her own bad judgment.

Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, was black, the child of an unwed mother. Rumored to be bisexual, she was drawn to abusive men; on her recordings of the song "My Man" the lines "He beats me too / What can I do?" are disturbing less for the sentiment than for the near-ecstasy with which she delivers them. Raised as a Catholic, Holiday, according to at least one biography, may have seen her inability to conceive when she was married as divine retribution for having aborted a teenage pregnancy by sitting in a bathtub full of hot water and mustard. She was a substance abuser whose name recognition made her an easy target for publicity-hunting police departments; during her final hospitalization she was arrested for illegal possession of heroin, fingerprinted, and photographed for mug shots on her deathbed. As a convicted user, she was prohibited by law from performing in New York City nightclubs for the last twelve years of her life.

Singing should have been her salvation, and perhaps it was. But there is a widespread belief that she was discriminated against even as an artist, especially toward the beginning of her career, when, according to a dubious bit of folklore, white performers fed off Tin Pan Alley's choice cuts and black performers were forced to make do with the musical equivalent of intestines and jowls. Although famous, Holiday never achieved the mass popularity of some white big-band singers, possibly because the liberties she took with melody and rhythm required of listeners a sharper ear than most of them had. Or was it, as she may have thought, simply because she was black?

Holiday was, I think, a victim of both injustice and her own vices -- a week's worth of Oprah, with the requisite confessional streak. She may have sung that what she did was nobody's business (on a fiercely independent number she borrowed from her girlhood idol Bessie Smith), but she made it everybody's business with the publication of her "frank," if not always factual, autobiography, (1956), actually written by the journalist William Dufty. A prior knowledge of Holiday's hard knocks darkens some listeners' perception of even her earliest recordings, which were ebullient more often than not. The singer nicknamed "Lady Day" or just "Lady" has become an all-purpose Our Lady of Sorrows -- embraced by many of her black listeners (and by many women and gay men) not just as a favorite performer but as a kind of patron saint. She touches such fans where they hurt, soothing their rage even while delivering a reminder of past humiliations and the potential for more. Especially since the 1972 Diana Ross movie, loosely based on Holiday's loose-to-begin-with autobiography (and perversely enjoyable as a color-conscious variation on an old Lana Turner or Susan Hayward tearjerker), part of Holiday's allure has come from her intuitive swing and the interpretive depth she acquired with maturity -- qualities matched by no other woman singer, and among male singers only by Louis Armstrong (in headlong swing) and Frank Sinatra (in depth of interpretation).

EVEN leaving aside the morass of race and sex, Holiday is a giant subject for a biographer. A friend of mine, a fellow music critic, gave up on the idea of writing a book about her when he realized that each photograph of her seemed to show an equally beautiful but otherwise entirely different woman -- a phenomenon not fully explained, he thought, by her mounting drug habit and evident fluctuations in weight. There are at least four full-length biographies of Holiday; the one that achieves the best balance of empathy and detachment is Donald Clarke's (1994), but still the reader comes away from it convinced that Holiday and her moods were finally unknowable.

Presented by

Francis Davis

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In