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.