Thank you, Billie Holiday

Updated: Dec 13, 2019


* photo credit circa 1947 from Wiki Billie Holiday attributed to William P. Gottlieb United States Library of Congress’s Music Division public domain since February 16, 2010.

It has been said that art is really just a composite of influences. Nowhere is that more obvious than looking at the influence that Billie Holiday has on my music.

Despite her powerfully moving creative force, her life was tragically terrible in many ways.

She grew up at the turn of the century, born in 1915 to a single teenage mother. Abandoned by her parents, Billie’s mom left her with distant relatives and took jobs in transportation on the railroad.

Billie ended up getting shuffled from house to house, and into state homes due to truancy and neglect. At age 11, reunited with her mother, Billie was raped by a neighbor, and was again placed into a state facility.

[Original song/video "Nobody's Child" about neglected children]

By 12 she was working in a brothel, and by 14 she became a prostitute working alongside her mother before being picked up again by the authorities, and sent to prison.

Billie’s father was a jazz musician, and in her early teens, Billie too began performing in the Harlem nightclubs. Eventually, her musical career had her singing in traveling big bands along with Count Basie and Artie Shaw.

She broke through color lines by performing in de-segregated acts in the South, and had more than a few nasty run-ins with racism and sexism.

Billie’s fiery spirit and quick tongue saw her through some of these times, but her tortured soul pulled her down the dark and destructive road of drugs and alcohol addition.

Her musical outlet was not enough to restrain her from the dark side, perhaps in an effort to drown her demons, early childhood neglect, abuse and exploitation, Billie became addicted to heroin, a habit she never fully kicked.

On one occasion, Billie accidentally shoved a hat pin into her head while adorning her signature gardenias, and didn’t even feel it until the blood ran into her eyes and ears. She later collapsed after the third curtain call.

It is said that Billie was placed under arrest on her death bed, wanted for possession of narcotics.

Having been tricked out of her royalties by early business relations, Billie died with $0.70 in her bank account and $750 cash in her pocket.

Is it any wonder Billie Holiday sang so uniquely with such soul?

She faced down hell – unwanted as a child, abandoned off and on from an early age, imprisoned, abused, violated, and exploited.

And yet, her glory was her spirit with its undying passion for music and for pleasing her audience.

Pummeled by circumstance, she turned to drugs to take the edge off, and then paid the price with her health, her reputation, and eventually her life. She died at age 44 from complications due to cirrhosis of the liver.

Now all these years later, a new artist can look to her, and to her influence before her Bessie Smith, and learn from those masters of the pain.

Illustration by Amanda Colleen Williams image of Bessie Smith

They may not have perfected the journey, but by their flaming example, one can at least discern the path.

I am grateful for these trailblazing women of color whose lives show the victory of humility and the perseverance of art.

Their legacy redeems them as we imperfect followers also hope to be redeemed, and to use our faults to pour lessons through our example to others.

Music is the great redeemer.

Thank you, Billie Holiday. You suffered greatly in life, but you are not forgotten.

* photo credit circa 1947 from Wiki Billie Holiday attributed to William P. Gottlieb United States Library of Congress’s Music Division public domain since February 16, 2010.

#influences #BillieHoliday #music #fostercare #jazz #CountBasie #ArtieShaw #racism #sexism #south #drugs #alcohol #addiction #royalty #soul #BessieSmith #art #blackhistorymonth #vulnerable

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