Instructions for Living: Billie Holiday by Maya C. Gibson, PhD
Where should we focus our attention when we examine the life, career, and legacy of Billie Holiday, neé Eleanora Fagan? Her life, like many of us living today, was replete with contradiction: a beautiful/ruined voice, a tough/tender woman, and a drug-addled/defiant superstar. She was all of these things. And she was so much more than these things.
She was born on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, PA to Sadie Fagan. No father’s name appeared on the birth certificate, though she always claimed her father as Clarence Holiday, guitar man for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. She grew up in the rough-and-tumble city of Baltimore, MD. Like many black girls (even today) she was labeled fast and womanish, well before she was fully fledged. At age eleven she was raped. At age fifteen she was picked up for prostitution in Harlem and sent to Welfare Island. She loved the nightlife.
Her recorded performance career spans just a quarter century. Her repertoire includes over 400 tunes, mostly in the pop realm and centering on romantic love. Her heyday was the era of Swing. She toured briefly with the Count Basie and Artie Shaw Orchestras as their “girl” singer. In spite of this, she is perhaps best known for her definitive 1939 anti-lynching recording of “Strange Fruit” written by a Jewish school-teacher from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol. It is routinely cited as a song that foreshadows the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Many cite it as the greatest protest song ever recorded.
In the Forties, she became heavily addicted to opiates, namely heroin, and she spent the rest of her life trying to compensate for this addiction. In 1948 she was sentenced to one year and one day at a federal penitentiary in Alderson, West Virginia. She only served nine months but because of the sentence she was destined to lose her New York Cabaret Card. It meant that she could no longer perform in establishments selling alcohol. Loss of venue meant, essentially, the loss of livelihood.
She spent the next ten years battling addiction and constant police scrutiny, recording, and executing multiple “comebacks.” Her most famous happened almost immediately after her release from prison. She sold out Carnegie Hall.
In 1956, in an attempt to earn money she released her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues which she wrote with William Dufty. While the book has a “truthy” edge, it does take liberties with multiple life events, beginning on the very first sentence of its first page. The first two sentences of the book read thusly, “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.” In truth, her parents never married, mom was seventeen, dad (if Holiday) was fifteen. For this reason among others, critics routinely pan the book. Even Holiday disavowed it, claiming to have never read it, let alone to have written it.
Billie Holiday died on July 17, 1959 in NYC at the age of forty-four. She is widely understood to be the greatest jazz vocalist of the twentieth century. Why? It’s in the voice. When you listen you can hear its contradictions: hardness and softness, fury and sorrow. She was a master of the modern blues, which technically aren’t blues at all, but they gave those of us who listen carefully our instructions. By Maya C. Gibson, PhD
Welcome to the first annual fundraiser for Race Matters, Friends
6:00 pm -- Evening begins!
We’ve got an excellent evening planned. Please arrive by 6 pm with a dish to share for six (6). Vegetarian dishes are most welcome. Get a new RMF T-shirt ($20)!
Artist Sara McCahon will be on hand to discuss her painting on page 2 (top of the column -- picnic scene). She is a Master’s student at the University of Missouri, Springfield.
8:00 pm -9:00 pm -- Local musicians Meg Rivers (vocalist) and Claire Conners (pianist).
9:00-9:15 pm (Movie begins - outdoor theater)
Maya C. Gibson Assistant Professor, Musicology and Ethnomusicology, University of Missouri, will introduce the film” Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday.
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Music and lyrics by Lewis Allan, ©1940
Race Matters Friends (RMF) was founded following the acquittal of Saint Louis Police officer Darren Wilson in November of 2014. After the group read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, members began meeting with the Columbia Police Department and City Council to work toward the prevention of a “Ferguson” incident in Columbia. The group created the FaceBook page, Whites Undoing Racism in Columbia (WURC) to stimulate discussion and improve skills of white Columbians in discussing race and racism. RMF has spoken about racial justice at every City Council meeting since August, 2015, written many Letters to the Editor of local papers, and pursues issues of racial justice in public education, policing, and participates in ongoing study by members of the historical and current manifestations of systemic racism in Columbia and nationwide. RMF pursues the ongoing education of its’ members and the community of whites about the racial disparities in Columbia and the development of policies to address these issues. Artwork, historical research, study of current best practices for institutional change, and personal understanding of race and racism in one’s life are included in our work.
We are focussed on racial disparities in Columbia, MO. We collaborate with other local interest groups, (e.g. Faith Voices, CoMo for Progress, Minority Men’s Network, Worley Street Roundtable and the Health Disparities Task Force etc.
Race Matters, Friends is a 501(3)c You may donate either by using our Paypal account.
Or, by mailing a check made out to Race Matters, Friends and mailed to our treasurer, Lynn Maloney, at 204 Maplewood Drive, Columbia, MO 65203. For more information contact Lynn at (573) 424-6108
A percentage of proceeds from the sale of three (3) paintings donated by Jane Mudd and Sara McCahon will benefit Race, Matters, Friends.
“Do. The. Work.”
Race Matters, Friends Billie Holiday Salon: 15 July 2017 @ https://www.racemattersfriends.com/