Her Haunted Heart

John Lahr

  • Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday
    Penguin, 179 pp, £9.99, November 2018, ISBN 978 0 241 35129 1

‘I’ve been told that nobody sings the word “hunger” like I do. Or the word “love”,’ Billie Holiday says in her memoir Lady Sings the Blues (written in 1956 with William Dufty and now reissued). Like Kafka’s hunger artist, Holiday let song make a spectacle of her deprivation. ‘I don’t need a friend/My heart is broken, it won’t ever mend/I ain’t much carin’/Just where I will end,’ she sang in ‘I Must Have That Man’, a song minted out of her calamitous life. She was always shooting towards tragedy,’ said the virtuoso clarinettist Artie Shaw, whose band she briefly sang for. ‘It was just a question of how and when.’

Billie Holiday with Louis Armstrong and Barney Bigard in 1947.
Billie Holiday with Louis Armstrong and Barney Bigard in 1947.

Singing stops stuttering. In Holiday’s case, it stopped loneliness by making art out of the indigestible griefs that finally claimed her. (She died in 1959, at the age of 44, from the consequences of drug addiction.) She’d emerged in the mid-1930s, starting out when she was 18, and quickly became America’s first fully fledged jazz singer, blazing her way to fame with a trail of songs, some of which she co-wrote: ‘Don’t Explain’, ‘Strange Fruit’, ‘Fine and Mellow’, ‘God Bless the Child Who’s Got His Own’. Blighted in almost every other way, she had the luck of talent. ‘I never heard her hit a bad note that was off by even a 16th of a tone,’ Artie Shaw said on another occasion. ‘She had a remarkable ear … and a remarkable sense of time.’ She was an uncanny rhythm machine. She imposed her moody metabolism on language in such a way that even the most banal Tin Pan Alley ditty was reimagined and refreshed. ‘Ooo – ooo – ooo,’ she crooned, putting teasing vigorish on the vowels. ‘What a lil’ moonlight can doo – ooo-ooo.’

‘Her voice is her story,’ the jazz critic Gary Giddins said of Holiday’s melancholy majesty. Wary and solitary in life (‘I don’t make friends easily’), on stage she was unabashed about opening her haunted heart. ‘Good morning heartache/Here we go again,’ she sang, in her come-hither legato phrasing, caressing the words as she swung them: Holiday’s singing was an exercise in intimacy. ‘If you find a tune and it’s got something to do with you, you don’t have to evolve anything,’ she said. ‘You just feel it, and when you sing it other people can feel something too.’ Her candour bore witness to the pain she found in pleasure, and the pleasure she found in pain.

‘White Americans know very little about pleasure because they are so afraid of pain,’ James Baldwin wrote, ‘but people dulled by pain can sing and dance till morning, and find no pleasure in it.’ Holiday’s bitter-sweetness – a cocktail of the rambunctious and the rueful – spoke to both sides of this conundrum. Although she was variously billed in the white music press as a ‘sepia songstress’, a ‘coloured canary’ and a ‘bronze bombshell’, her records were not released as ‘race records’: they went straight into the American mainstream. To the professionals as well as to the devoted paying customers, her sound was a revelation. ‘It was an altogether different style. I’d never heard anything like it,’ Count Basie said. In time he employed her. John Hammond, the pioneering record producer who ‘discovered’ Holiday, said: she ‘changed my musical tastes and my music life’; she ‘sang like an improvising jazz genius’.

‘I don’t think I’m singing. I feel like I’m playing a horn. I try to improvise like Les Young, like Louis Armstrong, or someone else I admire,’ Holiday writes. ‘What comes out is what I feel. I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That’s all I know.’ If you shut your eyes and conjure Holiday, the first thing that comes to mind is her raffish eloquence, at once bantering and brooding; then her totemic image gradually emerges in the mind’s eye: a tall, elegant, light-skinned woman with long black hair tied into a chignon, a gardenia pinned to the side of her head – a gardenia first worn to cover an actual head wound. Her free-wheeling and forlorn sound turned the mess of her life into a public show of equanimity and poise.

In Lady Sings the Blues – ‘her own hocus pocus’, according to the New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett – Holiday magics up the castle in her cloudy sky. ‘A big place of my own out in the country someplace where I could take care of stray dogs and orphan kids, kids that didn’t ask to be born; kids that didn’t ask to be black, blue or green or something in between. I’d only want to be sure of one thing – that nobody in the world wanted these kids … They’d have to be illegit, no mama, no papa.’

A feeling of having been orphaned was how Holiday experienced her family. ‘Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18, she was 16, and I was three.’ Her memoir begins with this much quoted sentence. Holiday’s parentage was in doubt. Her need to make a coherent story of her origins is more significant than the makeshift Baltimore household she emerged from. In fact, Holiday was not born in Baltimore, as her memoir insists, but Philadelphia. According to the birth certificate, her father was also not the sometime guitarist Clarence Holiday, whose surname she later bore, but a waiter called Frank DeViese. Born Elinore Harris, Holiday was unmoored from the very beginning. As a child, she was more or less abandoned by Clarence, who was on the road with various bands, and by her beloved mother, Sadie, who went north to New York to earn money, leaving her in Baltimore with her fault-finding, cruel cousin Ida, who handed out beatings like nuts at Christmas. (‘She was one of the worst black bitches God ever put on earth,’ Holiday writes.) The existential panic of her later years – ‘I was on my own. Nobody could help me’ – recapitulated the terror of disintegration that marked her awful abandoned youth. Holiday, who left school after the fifth grade, never really had a childhood: mostly, she had trouble. ‘If you expect nothing but trouble, maybe a few happy days will turn up. If you expect happy days, look out,’ she said, a lesson she learned in the family crucible.

Every barbarity was lavished on Holiday: racism, penury, rape (at ten), Catholic reform school; prostitution by the age of 12. At 13 – ‘I was a hip kitty’ – she decamped to New York to join her mother, who was working in a whorehouse. Holiday became a call girl: ‘the madam took five out of every twenty dollars for rent. This still left me more than I could make in a damn month as a maid. And I had someone doing my laundry.’ That was her first taste of regular pay; when the cathouse was busted and she gave her age as 21, she also got her first taste of prison – one hundred days. Her sassy, unrepentant waywardness was the residue of her streetwise disenchantment: ‘You’ve got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave.’

Holiday first aspired to be a dancer, not a singer. She flunked her first singing audition because she didn’t know what key she sang in. But she was soon working the clubs, singing for tips that the singers had to take off the tables, a negotiation she found demeaning. When one ‘millionaire’ customer handed her a $20 bill, ‘I figured if a millionaire could give me money that way, everybody could. So from then on I wouldn’t take money off tables.’ Thus, the moniker ‘Lady’ was coined, a bit of razzing from the other girl singers before it became a token of reverence in the music world.

If Holiday’s singing had ‘an aural affinity for the saxophone’ that ‘offered her stimulating and symbiotic introductions and accompaniment’, as Patricia Willard puts it in The Oxford Companion to Jazz, she also had symbiotic connection to her men, many of them junkies, who often exploited and manhandled her. (She married badly three times.) When her first philandering husband came home with lipstick on his collar and tried to cover his tracks, Holiday cut him off in mid-lie with words she later turned into song:

Hush now, don’t explain
Just say you’ll remain
I’m glad you’re back, don’t explain

Holiday’s fear of being abandoned, her longing to be contained and protected by a person she could trust, was her plaint in song as well as life. ‘Any old time you want me/I am yours for the asking,’ she sang. Her violent need often had violent repercussions. ‘I’d rather my man would hit me/Than follow him to jump up and quit me,’ she sang in ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do’, adding: ‘I swear, I won’t call no copper/If I’m beat up by my Papa.’ Underneath its masochistic passivity, Holiday’s longing for surrender also held a sadistic potential. In ‘Fine and Mellow’, for instance, she threatens her ‘oh so mean’ man – ‘Love is just like the faucet/It turns off and on …/Sometimes when you think it’s on baby/It has turned off and gone.’ In life, especially when high, Holiday was capable of taking fierce, foul-mouthed offence. As her memoir relates, when a dressmaker overcharged her, she shoved the woman’s head in the toilet and flushed it. And, in 1939, at the Café Society, displeased with her reception and wearing no underwear under her gown, she turned her back to the paying customers and mooned them.

‘Love will make you drink and gamble’, she sang: ‘Make you stay out all night long/Love will make you do things/That you know is wrong.’ One of those wrong things was drugs. Holiday was hooked early in her career; she tried but couldn’t kick her habit. In 1947 – ‘no one in the world was interested in looking after me at this point’ – she was arrested for possession and imprisoned for a year at the Federal Women’s Reformatory in Alderson, West Virginia. ‘I didn’t sing a note the whole time I was in Alderson,’ she writes. ‘The whole basis of my singing is feeling … In the whole time I was there I didn’t feel a thing.’ Because of her drug conviction, Holiday lost her New York City cabaret card; from then on, she was only allowed to perform in theatres or concert spaces. Ten days after getting out of jail, she gave a thrilling midnight comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. (‘The biggest thing that ever happened to me.’) Later, as she became increasingly erratic – the music press called her ‘Lady Yesterday’ – she would stage a series of comebacks. ‘I’m always making a comeback, but nobody ever tells me where I’ve been,’ she quipped.

Holiday was briefly cured of her addiction; when it returned, so did the hell of busts, bondsmen, bail and beatings. ‘With all the doctors, nurses and equipment,’ she says of her prison rehab, ‘they never get near your insides at what’s really eating you.’ Her game face announced that she wasn’t giving anything up except bubble gum and hard times. In private, however, she’d lost faith in her own goodness. ‘Dearest the shadows I live with are numberless,’ she sang in ‘Gloomy Sunday’, a fantasised suicide note which continued ‘My heart and I/Have decided to end it all.’ In her memoir she writes: ‘All dope can do is kill you – kill you the long slow way.’ Holiday may have lost her way; but she never lost her audience. ‘I’ve always been fortunate as far as the public is concerned. I could kill myself if it wasn’t for them.’

Lady Sings the Blues was written three years before Holiday died. Apart from the pitch and roll of her street talk, it has nothing to offer as a piece of writing; its value is in its witness to the grinding humiliation of the racism that tainted every moment of her louche life. ‘You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles,’ she writes, ‘but you can still be working on a plantation.’ At the Metropolitan Hospital, into which she managed to smuggle drugs even when she was on her deathbed, a police guard was removed from her room by court order only a few hours before she died. She was found with 15 fifty dollar bills strapped to her leg and seventy cents in her bank account.