Today in Music History: The passing of Billie Holiday

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On  July 17, 1959, the music world lost a legend. Singer and icon Billie Holiday passed away from cirrhosis of the liver. Reportedly the singer died while under arrest for heroin possession in a New York City hospital. Holiday’s substance abuse is no secret decades after her death. However, the dark facts of the singer’s life cannot diminish her influence on generations of performers and fans.

About Billie Holiday

Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia. Her childhood was full of difficulties, but she began singing in jazz clubs in Harlem, and by 1935 Holiday had her first recording contract. That first contract would lead to deals with notable companies such as Columbia and Decca.

Holiday was given the nickname “Lady Day” by Lester Young, a saxophonist known for working with Count Basie and other notables. Holiday’s unique style was crafted from the influence she took from jazz instrumentals. The result was a style that few can imitate. Although it is believed that Holiday’s approach to jazz vocal performance developed as it did because of her limited vocal range and lack of music education, the end result made those two aspects of little consequence.

Billie Holiday: Seminal style

While Holiday is known for a number of fantastic tunes, arguably the best use of her tone, sensibility and style is the anti-lynching anthem, “Strange Fruit” (1939).  The lyrics were written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, under his alias, Lewis Allan.

The song was released as Jim Crow laws continued to create horrific conditions for black Americans. The lyrics manage to capture the duplicity of the lynching scenes. The scent of magnolias mixes with that of “burning flesh.”

Holiday’s tone and phrasing turn the rhythm of the lyrics so that the barbed criticism is felt in each line. The last phrase “bitter crop” is the loudest in the piece and it ties into the title of the song. She also manages to disparage the scenes from the American South that ignored lynching.

“Strange Fruit,” partially because of its topic, and partially because of the singer who made it famous (Holiday) became popular from the time of its release and continues to be popular. Nina Simone, a legend in her own right, also recorded a famous version of “Strange Fruit.”

There is another song in Holiday’s catalog that rivals “Strange Fruit.” “God Bless the Child” is another song that once most audiences hear it sung by Holiday, they have a difficult time accepting other versions.

A song that champions independence, “God Bless the Child” takes its basis and part of the lyrics from a Bible verse about wealth and who gets it and who keeps it. The song reached No. 25 in 1941. The phrase “God bless the child” is reported to have been invented by Holiday. The recording was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1976.

Holiday had other hits. Among them “Trav’lin Light” (1942). The song reached No. 23 on Billboard and No.1 on r&b charts. According to blackthen.com, the section of Billboard dedicated to songs by black Americans was called the “Harlem Hit Parade” between 1942 and 1945.

A listen to Holiday is not complete without hearing “Summertime,” “Gloomy Sunday” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Thankfully, for the longtime fan and new listener, there are documentaries and recordings that capture Holiday’s style and essence.

A film lauded by many for its depiction of Holiday is “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972) and stars Diana Ross. That Holiday died at age 44, just months after the death of her friend, Lester Young, is tragic. That she allegedly predicted her demise after that of Young is both eerie and sad. But the legacy of her music is a wonder of American popular culture. Holiday’s influence can be heard in r&b and pop music, as well as jazz, which  proves her legendary status.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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