As we round out our Black History Month celebrations, I will talk about a few more Black trailblazers that I find important and noteworthy.
Billie Holiday is one of them.
Born Eleanora Fagan Gough on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Holiday was raised in Baltimore, then moved on to New York, where she was discovered by producer John Hammond who launched her into what can be deemed a dramatic and storied music career for anyone, let alone a Black woman. Holiday’s life and music has been immortalized on vinyl and on screen, first by superstar Dianna Ross in the 1972 film, Lady Sings the Blues, and more recently in the 2021 Lee Daniels’ film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Some truth, much of it dramatized fiction, both movies chronicle Billie Holiday’s tortured past, her struggles, her pain and tragic demise at the age of 44. The movie Lady Sings the Blues dramatized her passing as a heroin overdose; but Holiday died in the hospital, not due to an overdose, but to the ravages that drugs and alcohol had done to her heart and her liver.
It was Holiday’s pain that made her music masterful. Her stylistic phrasing in songs like, “God Bless The Child,” her writing and interpretation of the music of her day, and her stand against the evils of lynching by her continued singing and recording of “Strange Fruit,” despite threats, and even imprisonment, make her not only a musical icon, but a civil rights one.
Yes, there is the heroin addiction. The arrests. The FBI setups and sting. Which resulted in the imprisonment. Holiday was also quite free with her sexuality, but then, so were many of the artists of her day. Part of my problem with our historical tellings is the historian’s need to enshrine every subject on a pedestal. I reviewed the Holiday Estate’s website, as well as Britannica.com and Biography.com entries, and the amount of gloss, omission, and fluff was evident in all three. Even Holiday’s supposed autobiography also named Lady Sings The Blues (and which the 1972 movie was based upon) is said to be historically inaccurate.
The reasons that certain people make history is because they are flawed and ordinary human beings who, in their time, accomplish extraordinary things. What was extraordinary about Holiday was her incredible voice, and her incredible drive to rise above her past and her pain. Despite the systemic racism of the early 20th Century, Holiday established herself as an incredible talent who toured with Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, and Artie Shaw. Holiday recorded with the greats like, Louie Armstrong, Charles Mingus, and Lester Young, who gave her the moniker, “Lady Day.”
Holiday achieved and maintained an incredible career, in spite of societal biases, and her own personal demons. She left us a rich legacy of music that has moved and empowered generations of musicians, jazz and blues afficionados, lovers, dreamers, and anyone looking for solace from their own pain.
While Lee Daniels’ movie is an interesting focus on the harassment and FBI targeting, the 2019 documentary Billie comes closest to giving us an accurate picture of the tortured woman, the incredible trailblazer, and the all-encompassing artist that Holiday was. With never before seen color footage, and recorded interviews from Count Basie, Charles Mingus, and many of the people who knew and loved her, it is a powerful addition to Holiday’s historical lexicon.
Join the conversation as a VIP Member