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Home All About Jazz Jazz History Deep Song: The Suffering of Billie Holiday

Deep Song: The Suffering of Billie Holiday

While reading, listen to Billie Holidays “Deep Song”.

Human suffering has the ability to kindle the flames that forge art. Love that has been misguided, violated, abused and destroyed can lead to a multitude of things to sing about.  A broken heart can stir up more noise than a shuddering earthquake.

Certainly this can go the other way around as well.  Success, happiness, joy and love can inspire masterpieces from the heart and soul.  It can cause a cascade of brilliant music, images and dancing.

But this is not the way it was for Billie Holiday.  Her music demonstrates very few examples of joyful moments in her life. As a result, when she sings she unleashes all of it upon her audience.  The pain, the mistrust in the world, and her broken past seeps deep into the tone of her voice.  Her famous recording of “Deep Song” written by George Cory and Douglas Cross can perhaps be used as a portrait of her life’s struggles.  Of course, only in the actual music can we sense the power of these lyrics.

Lonely grief is hounding me
Like the lonely shadow hounding me
It’s always there just out of sight
Like a frightening dream on a lightning night

Lonely she was indeed.  She was originally named Eleanor Fagan at her birth in 1915 and her father left the home when she was a young girl.  Her mother, Sadie, was often not around and Billie would frequently be left in the care of abusive relatives.  When Billie began frequently skipping school around the age of nine, she was sent to a facility for troubled young African American girls as a result of her truancy.

She had a rough start as a girl.  Troubled by poverty and a broken home, the world must have started out for her as a cold place; a place that seemed unfair and unforgiving.  It may seem ironic that later her best friend, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, would nickname her “Lady Day” for her sophistication in grace and song.  There is a sense of gracefulness in her sound, perhaps evidence that music was where she found her retreat.

Lonely wind cries out my name
Sad as haunted music in the rain
It’s born of grief and born of woe
But I hear it call and I’ve got to go

Billie was raped when she was ten years old.  Not long after she was raped, she was sent back to that same institution for troubled girls before following her mother out to New York City.  In New York she began paying her way in the world through prostitution.  This is where she began listening to jazz.  She would listen to this exciting and developing music on the brothel’s phonograph, inspiring her to begin singing and start dreaming of living a different life.

“I’ve been through the mill of love; old love, new love, every love but true love. Love for Sale.” Read the lyrics of the hit Cole Porter tune Love For Sale.  This song of course refers to a prostitute and was a song that Billie recorded and sang so beautifully.

Many of history’s best jazz singers have performed this tune but none have sung it quite like Billie Holiday.  For example, Ella Fitzgerald, one of jazz’s most worshiped vocalists, recorded Love for Sale many times and did it masterfully.  Her voice sounds commanding, confident, coursing with a steady vibrato.  The way she performed this song can be interpreted as sounding uplifting.  But when Billie sings it, you get something different.  There is a sound of reflection, a sound of a heart scarred by years of violation. Love for Sale was Billie for Sale.  You can hear darkness when she sings this song.  She’s singing from experience, she’s singing with a heart wide open.

Billie began singing in Harlem nightclubs in the 1930’s.  It was then that she adopted her stage name “Billie Holiday” to replace her original name, Eleanor Fagan.  She conceived it by combining the name of popular film star Billie Dove and her father’s surname, Holiday.

She was strongly influenced by the likes of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.  These were some of her idols and were important to her development as a young singer.  It was at one of these Harlem nightclubs that John Hammond, producer and jazz promoter, discovered her.  Her career took off from there and she was soon performing and recording with Benny Goodman and pianist Teddy Wilson.

Where can I be headed for?
The blues crawl in my door
To lick my heart once more
Love lives in a lonely land
Where there’s no helping hand to understand

“Don’t threaten me with love, baby; let’s just go walking in the rain.”  Billie Holiday once said.  The truth was Billie Holiday was looking for love in the wrong places and she continually found herself in relationships that added to the smoldering wreckage of her life.

One of her boyfriends, trumpeter Joe Guy, was a heroin addict.  Billie was already heavily abusing alcohol and marijuana and this was beginning to take a toll on her health.  She followed Joe Guy’s example and began a lifestyle of heroin addiction, an addiction she would never kick.  Because of her heavy addiction to narcotics in 1947 she was convicted of possession and sent to jail for one year and one day.  This of course set back Billie’s career and when she finally was released a year later she faced more challenges.  She had lost her cabaret card due to her previous conviction and was unable to play in the local bars and clubs.  However she could still play in concert halls and continued doing that until she met her next boyfriend John Levy, a New York club owner.  He became her manager as well and added to the list yet another man that would choose to take advantage of Holiday.

“My man don’t love me, he treats me oh so mean.  My man he don’t love me, he treats me oh so mean.  He’s the lowest man, that I’ve ever seen.”  states the lyrics of her famous recording of “Fine and Mellow”.  Throughout Billie’s life, love escaped her at every chance.  Men used her for her fame; men used her for her body.  Her self-esteem undoubtedly began to collapse early on.  “The only reason they’re out there is to see me fall into the damn orchestra pit.” She once said when asked about her audience.

Billie’s sound demonstrates all of this.  Its not just the lyrics that she is singing that tells her story, it’s the romance she draws out of them.  The ache you can feel when she sings a chorus of the blues.  When she sings the blues, it really sounds like she is singing the blues.  There is no mimicking, there is no faking, it’s just pure soul.

But there was one man Billie could count on.  In the midst of the desert, she found an oasis in a man named Lester Young.  Lester Young, the renowned tenor player of his day and Billie’s best friend.  These two shared a special musical and spiritual connection that would continue on until their deaths.

“In this country kings or dukes don’t amount to nothing. The greatest man around then was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he was the President; so I started calling Lester the President. It got shortened to Prez.” She said in regards to Lester Young.  As Lester was giving her the title “Lady Day”, she called him “Prez” because she thought he was the President of the tenor saxophone.  Lester and Billie never had an affair, although he did live with her and her mother Sadie for a time.  They were like brother and sister and shared a deep love and appreciation for one another.

Not only were these two masterful musicians kindred spirits they were undoubtedly influenced by each other’s musicality and shared similar approaches to their instruments.  Lester’s sound was light and breathy; his lines based off of expression of the melody.  His tone was tender and sometimes dark.  His lines seemed to float through the time and he mournfully swooped some notes when he played.  That same breathy and dark sound was possessed by Billie Holiday.  She was also a master at singing the melody. “I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That’s all I know.”  She once said.

It was through Lester Young that she came to join Count Basie’s band in 1937. “I joined Count Basie’s band to make a little money and to see the world. For two years I didn’t see anything but the inside of a Blue Goose bus, and I never got to send home a quarter.”

Why does it bring this ache to me
It don’t matter why!
I only know misery has to be a part of me

It was the stresses of racial prejudice that caused Billie to quit the Count Basie band and strike out on to her solo career.  Racism was yet another one of Billie Holidays woes, an issue that would plague her entire life and continue to throw her deeper into her addictions.

It was through her lifelong struggle with racial prejudice that she was inspired to perform and record the iconic famous song “Strange Fruit”.  This song spoke out against the lynching of African Americans in the south.  This song was perhaps her darkest song and the emotion that is presented as she sings this song chills the blood.  It was banned by radio stations for quite a while, later aiding in the success and fame the song attained.

Ultimately it was Billie’s heavy drug and alcohol addiction that claimed her life on July 17, 1959.  She drank and drugged herself to death as she attempted to swallow the pain that afflicted her life.

Billie’s suffering is an important part of what made her sound the way she did.  If she had been born white into a rich home with loving parents things would have been different.  She would have sounded different, or maybe she wouldn’t have become a musician at all.  It is the things that we grow up with that help shape who we become as individuals.  Ultimately it is our choice to decide what we are to do with what we know about life.  In the end we get to decide how to express our story of life; what kind of passion we want to put into it.  Billie expressed her story; it was life changing and powerful.  No one could ever have done it quite like her.

Never hope to count on love
To be a partner of, that heaven above
Never hope to understand
Love is a barren land, A lonely land
A lonely land

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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