We will be wrapping up Black History Month festivities with a discussion about some other Black trailblazers I consider important and notable.
Billie Holiday, one of them.
Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan Gaugh on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After growing up in Baltimore, Holiday moved to New York. John Hammond, who discovered Holiday and launched her into an incredible, long-lasting music career that can’t be ignored by Black women. 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, 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. This is the movie Lady Sings The BluesHoliday was presented as dying from a heroin overdose. However, Holiday died in hospital not because of an overdose. Holiday had suffered the devastating effects that drugs and alcohol had on her heart and 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.
There is heroin addiction. These are the arrests. FBI setup and carried out the sting. The FBI set up and executed the sting. Holiday had no problem with her sexuality. However, that was the case for many other artists in 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 BluesIt is believed that the movie, which was made in 1972 on this basis, is historically incorrect.
Some people are extraordinary because of their imperfections and other ordinary humans who in their own time accomplish amazing things. Holiday’s remarkable voice and determination to transcend her past and pain were what was truly extraordinary. Holiday was a remarkable talent, despite the racism in the 20th century. She toured with Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Holiday recorded with the greats like, Louie Armstrong, Charles Mingus, and Lester Young, who gave her the moniker, “Lady Day.”
Holiday managed to have an extraordinary career, even with societal biases and her personal demons. Her music left a legacy that has inspired, empowered, and moved generations of blues and jazz afficionados as well as lovers and dreamers of the genre.
While Lee Daniels’ movie is an interesting focus on the harassment and FBI targeting, the 2019 documentary BillieThis documentary is closest to depicting Holiday as a tortured, brilliant trailblazer and all-round artist. 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.