Friday, August 22, 2014

Leslie Gourse: Billie Holiday

The first time I heard a Billie Holiday vocal track out somewhere in a public space, I was instantly enthralled. It's been the same ever since. Can't remember whether it was a restaurant or what, but my ears swam toward her sound as fast as they could.

Lately I finished reading a nifty little biography on Holiday (1915-1959) that seemed a bit different. How so? The words are crisp and simple, yet the subject matter remains rich and complex. This works, the tension between delivery mode and content. The book? Leslie Gourse's Billie Holiday: The Tragedy and Triumph of Lady Day (Franklin Watts, 1995). I finally figured out that this particular book ("An Impact Biography") is deliberately written for a grade 7 to 9 reading level. But Gourse doesn't sugarcoat, and so we learn both of music and performance in detail, but also of paternal neglect, her hard-working, sometimes needy mother, mean relatives, societal racism, prostitution, a parade of men of all stripes, heroin, marijuana, police harassment (cruel and unnecessary in all cases), alcohol (nasty doses of gin stick to mind) and death at age 44. Not to despair, we also learn of good friends, supporters, admirers and fellow musicians, too -- and her music that endures.  
About Billie Holiday's vocal delivery, Gourse notes: "The power of her unique storytelling ability came from her feeling and . . . embellishment of the melodies . . . Most of all, her sound [is] earthy, musical and a little strange." (Billie Holiday: The Tragedy and Triumph of Lady Day, page 37).

In another deeply considered meditation on Billie Holiday, Angela Davis observes that:  "With the incomparable instrument of her voice, Holiday could completely divert a song from its composer's original and often sentimental and vapid intent. She was able to set in profound motion deeply disturbing disjunctions between overt statements and their aesthetic meanings. (Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Vintage Books, 1999, photo caption between pages 140 and 141).

A salute to Billie Holiday and the people who dig her.

Today's Rune: Partnership. 


Luma Rosa said...

Hi, Erik!
I like listening to Lady Day in the late evening and very softly :) I know some really sad episodes of his life. Some fairly embarrassing for the fans and those who took advantage of his talent. I do not know if it's true, but knew that the final chapters of his life were woefully worthy of a trajectory marked by poverty, police harassment and tragedy: Billie received under arrest while dying on his deathbed and at the time of the autopsy $ 750 doctors found that Billie had hidden under his clothes. It was all the money he had left, and they were 70 cents in your checking account.
A life that deserves the homage of any one who values ​​the difficult art of extracting beauty of adversity.

Tom Sarmo said...

Proof that books labeled "young adult" and "children's" are often the most informative and enlightening, and free from the posturing of many books for adults. Can't wait to read this--thanks! (Did you see the episode from Ken Burns' Jazz regarding Billie Holiday? Was wonderful!)

Charles Gramlich said...

Love that phrase about how your "ears swam toward her sound."

Erik Donald France said...

Many thanks for the comments, y'all ~! Luna, all true from what I've read. Tom, haven't seen any of the series yet. Charles, cheers, man ~!

jodi said...

Erik-I am on a biography reading kick and I'm adding this one to the list!