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.

In (2000), a slim volume expanded from a 1998 article in Vanity Fair, David Margolick approaches Holiday sideways, examining her relationship to a single song. The lyrics of Strange Fruit are from a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from New York, who, following the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953, adopted and raised as his own the Rosenbergs' two sons.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

In her autobiography Holiday recounted how she and the pianist Sonny White, working closely with Meeropol (who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Allan), came up with a melody for "Strange Fruit." Reference books, however, list Lewis Allan as the sole composer, and Margolick offers evidence to substantiate that Meeropol wrote the melody as well as the words. Margolick presents one person after another telling of having been chilled to the bone on first hearing Meeropol's disturbing imagery and Holiday's restrained, almost serene delivery, whether in performance or on recordings (the assembled witnesses include Tori Amos, Cassandra Wilson, and a member of the lesbian a cappella group Amasong, all of whom have recorded versions of "Strange Fruit"). Along with its readability, the book's virtue is in shoehorning so much useful anecdotal information -- about Holiday, Meeropol, Café Society, and the mixture of rapture and disdain with which "Strange Fruit" was originally greeted -- into a brief text.

Margolick shows how Holiday became identified with "Strange Fruit," and because he is a scrupulous reporter, he also questions to what extent and on what terms she identified with it. (He wisely dismisses persistent speculation that the poorly educated singer was only dimly aware of what the song's lyrics were about.) In Holiday's own book she told of once refusing to honor a request for "Strange Fruit" from a "bitch" who called it "that sexy song [about] the naked bodies swinging in the trees." Margolick repeats the story, but earlier offers this surprising observation from a black woman named Evelyn Cunningham, a former reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier: "The song did not disturb me because I never had the feeling that this was something [Holiday] was very, very serious about.... Many times in nightclubs when I heard her sing the song it was not a sadness I sensed as much as there was something else; it's got to do with sexuality." Cunningham saw couples moving closer and holding hands as they listened. Holiday usually performed "Strange Fruit" as her last song, rightly convinced that nothing could follow it. But the late Jimmy Rowles, once Holiday's accompanist, told of a night in a Los Angeles club when she opened with it, after a beating from her husband and a shouting match with a customer at the bar.

Illustration by Teri SandersAccording to Rowles, Holiday stormed offstage after that one number. If the story suggests that "Strange Fruit" ultimately became a way for her to release her anger, it also suggests that her anger could be unfocused, her racial indignation mixed up with resentment at her mistreatment by the men in her life, her persecution by the law, and the public's preference for blander female singers. Though I hear nothing sexual in her recordings of "Strange Fruit" (including the original, 1939 recording, which was reissued earlier this year on the CD ), I think I understand how Holiday herself and those couples Cunningham noticed might have. Once Holiday added "Strange Fruit" to her repertoire, Margolick tells us, "some of its sadness seemed to cling to her." And some of the carefree sexuality she projected on her earliest recordings may have rubbed off even on "Strange Fruit."

Though "Strange Fruit" was unofficially banned from radio, and the label to which Holiday was then under contract refused to let her record it for them (she wound up recording it for Commodore, an upstart jazz specialty label operating out of a New York record store), the song had unexpected commercial benefits: in addition to establishing her credentials as a "race woman" (her own term for a woman committed to the cause of racial equality), it transformed her in the public's perception from jazz singer to cabaret artist. As Margolick points out, however, "Strange Fruit" is unlike anything else she ever recorded. The only numbers even close to it, in terms of having lyrics that could be heard as pertinent to Holiday's being a black woman (neither of them remotely a "protest" song), are "God Bless the Child," about knowing what it's like to be poor and hungry, and "Don't Explain," about forgiving a cheating husband or lover to whom the singer is in sexual thrall. Holiday is officially credited with having written both songs in collaboration with Arthur Herzog Jr., though many believe that Herzog wrote them alone, using Holiday's anecdotes as a starting point and cutting her in on the credit as a reward for her recording them.

Except for coming up with a few impromptu blues lyrics at recording sessions, Holiday was certainly no songwriter. Yet we listen to her sing "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless the Child" and "Don't Explain" and imagine that the lyrics represent her innermost thoughts. And we think we hear her keeping an ironic distance from the fluffier numbers that first earned her a following, in the late 1930s -- improving them by virtually rewriting their melodies on the spot, and also implicitly offering a critique of the dreamy sentiments expressed by their lyrics, which were presumably of no relevance to someone with her knowledge of the seamier side of life.

IT'S easy to see how the idea got started that Holiday and other black recording artists were denied access to the best material of the late 1930s and early 1940s. From 1933 to 1942 Holiday, on her own or as a featured vocalist with all-star groups led by Teddy Wilson, recorded 153 numbers for Columbia, Brunswick, Vocalion, and Okeh (this material is chronologically assembled on the nine volumes of Columbia's series The Quintessential Billie Holiday). Although she had the honor of being the first nonoperatic singer to release a version of "Summertime" and was given a shot at "You Go to My Head," "Easy Living," and "These Foolish Things" when they were brand-new, nobody would remember many of the other songs she recorded as a young singer -- including "Me, Myself, and I," "Foolin' Myself," and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" -- if not for her alchemy. But did Holiday think of these songs as shabby goods? Did Wilson and her black sidemen? Did the record-buying public, including Holiday's black fans?

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests not. According to Teddy Wilson, before each of their recording sessions he and Holiday would go through the new songs submitted to their record company by music publishers, and she would pick out the ones she liked best. Often "they were pretty good songs," Wilson once said, by which he may have meant that many of them became hits.

In the 1930s Holiday was what would today be called a cover artist -- recording her own versions of current songs originated by other performers. The term seems not to have come into widespread use in the recording industry until the mid-1950s, when Pat Boone and other white teen idols began "covering" rhythm-and-blues hits by Fats Domino and Little Richard, in direct competition with them for a place on the charts and with a distinct advantage in being white. But the practice is as old as the record business itself. Black performers have covered whites and also one another. The aim of Holiday's first recording sessions with Wilson, in 1935, was to stock jukeboxes in black neighborhoods with cover versions of songs her label thought might soon become hits by white singers. In one sense almost everybody making pop records in those years was a cover artist: a song would be introduced by Fred Astaire or Alice Faye in a major motion picture, and other singers would see who could get a version into the stores first. Two or more performances of the same song, recorded within days of each other, might become best sellers simultaneously, sometimes appealing to slightly different markets. Most consumers didn't particularly care whose version was the original -- only which version they liked best.

In 1937 Holiday recorded "A Sailboat in the Moonlight," one of her most thrilling performances, with the tenor saxophonist Lester Young. This is often cited as the most obvious instance of her transforming the dross available to her into gold. But as Holiday entered the recording studio, Guy Lombardo's version of the song was already on its way to the charts, eventually to become No. 1; it wasn't necessarily a good song, but it was a hot property.

Among the famous composers and lyricists whose work Holiday recorded during the 1930s and early 1940s -- when, myth has it, she was limited to songs beneath the contempt of white performers -- were Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Harry Warren and Al Dubin, and Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields. The list of performers Holiday covered, or with whom she shared a hit song, includes many of the popular white singers of those decades, some of whom were featured with society orchestras and swing bands: Bob Eberle, Skinnay Ennis, Charles Chester, Bea Wain, Helen Ward, Helen Forrest, Edythe Wright, Jack Leonard (Frank Sinatra's predecessor with Tommy Dorsey), and Harriet Hilliard (Ozzie Nelson's wife and Ricky Nelson's mother). The performer she covered most frequently -- no fewer than nine times, beginning with "I Wished on the Moon," in 1936 -- was Bing Crosby, who had his pick of new songs, even though he didn't always choose well (does anyone remember "One, Two, Button Your Shoe," which he introduced in the 1936 movie Pennies From Heaven, and which Holiday covered that same year?). The runner-up was Fred Astaire, from whom she borrowed seven of the songs he introduced in The Gay Divorcee, Shall We Dance?, and A Damsel in Distress. So much for the notion that the best popular songs of the late 1930s and early 1940s were, symbolically, cordoned off behind a sign that read for whites only.

Not every song Holiday sang in that era had a pedigree; some of them, including "Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo," an early effort by Johnny Mercer, really were mutts. But it's wise to remember that many songs that strike us as nonsensical today were intended by their composers as "rhythm" songs; Holiday had fun with them, and so did her listeners. Did she find anything relevant to her own experience in the lyrics that movie stars like Astaire and Crosby sang to court their virginal leading ladies? Anyone reflexively answering no should be informed that the former Eleanora Fagan read romance magazines, longed for the day when she could record with strings, and adopted the name "Billie" from the silent-movie star Billie Dove.

Many 1930s leftists, disdainful of movies and popular music unless they delivered a forthright message along with entertainment, would have been appalled at such middle-class inclinations. In the view of many white intellectuals of the thirties, Holiday was a standard-bearer for the downtrodden who had more in common with the Scottsboro Boys or the kitchen help at Café Society than with white performers like Crosby and Mildred Bailey. I fear that this is the view of Holiday that has prevailed, even among some black intellectuals.

Holiday herself added to the confusion in Lady Sings the Blues, misleading readers (and possibly herself) about the early influences on her. She said she admired Bessie Smith for her big voice and Louis Armstrong for his feeling -- no argument there. But she omitted Ethel Waters, the great black star of vaudeville and Broadway, whose influence Holiday may have been reluctant to admit because of a long-standing animosity between them (Waters was territorial about her songs, and the younger Holiday had made the mistake of singing one of them right in front of her). Holiday and Lester Young are often called musical soulmates, because his tenor saxophone and her voice were similar in timbre. Soulmates they were, but Holiday's phrasing and relationship to the beat were more like Armstrong's than Young's.

From time to time early in her recording career, Holiday would revive an older song closely associated with another performer. She did her own versions of numbers first made popular by Waters ("Sugar," "Trav'lin' All Alone," and "Am I Blue?"), Armstrong ("All of Me"), and Bessie Smith ("St. Louis Blues"). But as if giving her audience a clue to her larger ambitions, she more often revisited songs first sung by and still closely associated with the most flamboyant white torch singers of the 1920s and early 1930s -- Ruth Etting ("Mean to Me," "More Than You Know,"and "I'll Never Be the Same"), Marion Harris ("The Man I Love"), Helen Morgan ("Why Was I Born?"), Libby Holman ("Body and Soul" and "Moanin' Low"), and Fanny Brice ("My Man"). At that point Holiday was arguably better suited to upbeat love songs with a hint of self-mockery -- among them Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields's "I Must Have That Man," whose clever lyrics ("I need that person much worse'n just bad! / I'm half alive and it's drivin' me mad") let her indulge her rhythmic playfulness and a boundless joie de vivre that we tend not to associate with her, though maybe we should. It was a few years later, almost eerily coinciding with her first recording of "Strange Fruit," that Holiday acquired the maturity a singer needs to make her listeners feel as though they're the ones carrying a torch. ( includes a haunting version of Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach's "Yesterdays," also from 1939, which seems to have been a turning point.)

What part heroin or brutal men or racial oppression played in Holiday's gaining greater depth we should be hesitant to speculate about. Not everybody who suffers becomes a great artist. Heroin bespeaks a death wish, but to the user it must also seem, if only at first, a life force -- a source of defiant pleasure, like risky sexual encounters or an adolescent's first cigarette or drink. This self-abandonment is the animating quality I hear in Billie Holiday's early recordings, when she was defying social convention and her threatened marginalization as a black woman -- and in her later recordings, when she was defying not only all of that but also the damage she had inflicted on herself. In fighting to become her own woman she also became her own victim, and nobody else's.

Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

Illustrations by Teri Sanders.

The Atlantic Monthly; November 2000; Our Lady of Sorrows - 00.11; Volume 286, No. 5; page 104-108.