A Call for a Billie Holiday


I admit it - I am addicted. No, not to vicodin, percodin, heroin or cocaine, but to the sweet honeyed notes that flow from a certain female singer's mouth and shoot straight into my veins like a burning shot of smack. Billie Holiday is a national treasure, and not only because of her incredible talent, and a fascinating character, whose tragic life story has been told and retold ad naseum, and will not be repeated here, (several good sites are available on the web if you are interested); but because she almost single handedly invented the phenomenon of singer as individual - an American invention if there ever was one.
Billie Holiday It is nearly impossible to pinpoint the exact moment an art form is created, or what individual was responsible for the art form's appearance, but it is always a pleasure to try to do so. For example, nobody knows who the first Greek was who decided that the old Egyptian form of painting two-dimensional representational figures was old hat - and instead sculpted a three dimensional individual that rejoiced in it's humanity. Which medieval artist was first to take a stand against the church to capture the Madonna as a human female and risk the stake? Were there others who chanced the flames of the Inquisition before Palestrina and allowed human voices to create harmony - a tool of the devil (as opposed to the church-approved unison chants)? Chaucer gave us the Wyf of Bath - the first fully "human" character in western literature (some would argue Gilgamesh, but although his exploits reveal human nature - he clearly is a representational figure who exhibits human attributes much like the Greek gods and heroes did), but it took Shakespeare to give us a character who actually exhibits an inner life - a mind that ponders and argues and agrees with itself in much the way our modern minds do - that is of course Hamlet.
But because the past is so distant, and record keeping so primitive, it is often difficult to gauge responsibility and assign credit and blame where due. American history is a bit different - being recent and relatively well documented. We are able to track the origins of punk fairly clearly to their Detroit roots and Iggy and the Stooges (despite the Sex Pistols glory-hogging and England's whole-hearted embrace of the genre), and in the past - the origins of the blues can be somewhat retraced back down the Mississippi. Even the birth of jazz (another American original form) can be pinpointed pretty clearly to around 1895 when Buddy Bolden became the first (documented) musician to improvise his solos - thus adding the final ingredient to a musical form born of ragtime, the blues and Sousa marches. (Of course Buddy was later institutionalized - adding considerable fuel to the argument that all jazz musicians are crazy).
In the case of singers - throughout history the focus was always the song itself. Minstrels provided entertainment by repeating the exploits of heroes, lovers and buffoons. Singers of early popular music were interchangeable and their voices considered part of the orchestra. The invention of the blues changed all that and early blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith began singing songs that seemed to have come from their own lives and utilized their own distinct styles. Louis Armstrong exploded on the scene and sang like he played the trumpet with verve and emotional phrasing. Billie Holiday took these influences and made them her own - crossing over to white audiences by singing (often sub) standard white popular songs and ennobling them with the blues /jazz feel she borrowed from her forebears, while channeling the pain and suffering of her life into her own voice that rose above the limits of the songs themselves to achieve a personal catharsis which bleeds over into the audience themselves. Her technique combined purity of tone with sensitive and nuanced phrasing and harmonic experimentation with tonal colors. As co-writer of the beautiful and empathetic "God Bless the Child", she helped open the door for singers to write their own material. Ms. Brown to you to the end, she refused to compromise her artistic integrity by refusing to sing what she felt were degrading slave songs, and quit several bands over what she considered second hand treatment of her both as singer and a black woman.
Without the innovations of Billie Holiday it could be claimed there may have been no Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Janis, Joni, Bjork(?) or any of the numerous singers that followed who pushed the role of singer beyond that of mere mouthpiece for the song and added the singer's personality to the mix (to some perhaps a mixed blessing). As a true artist who represents America in all its conflicted glory (much like Edith Piaf for France) - I call for a national day or remembrance in Lady Day's honor - a Billie (Holiday) Holiday so to speak. As descendants of Puritans and Ben Franklin groupies - we are way behind the rest of the civilized world in allowing for days off, and not only would this help in that regard, but we would do honor to a person of color whose personal dignity, innovations and importance to our culture should be honored the right way.
By the way - there are at least 236 recordings by Billie Holiday listed on the web, and probably there are many more. Quite a few of these are repackages by the sycophantic slags (thank you Morrisey), and there is some variance in quality of the backing instrumentation; however, the shocking thing is how amazingly well her voice shines through throughout the years. Even in her later recordings - when age, smoke, drugs, and in general hard living had taken much of the purity of her youthful timbre, her spirit comes through unscathed - a monument to humanity in all it's rough glory.

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