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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Fells Point Firebrand: Why Every Song Billie Holiday Sang Was Radical

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

BHW 2: February 11, 2023


CONTENT WARNING: racial violence, drug use and addiction

 

In 1985, The City of Baltimore unveiled a bronze statue of Billie Holiday at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and W. Lafayette Avenue. This monument officially marked civic attachment to Holiday as a Baltimorean, memorializing her roots in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood during the early-twentieth century. The city commissioned Black sculptor James Earl Reid for the project. However, due to funding disputes and government concerns about the sensitive subject matter Reid sought to depict, the design did not take its full form until 2009. Holiday’s likeness remained the same as in the 1985 version, but the plain-looking pedestal on which she stood was replaced by an ornate base with descriptive sculptural panels and text. Reid described the delay as “clear evidence of censorship.” [1] Accordingly, the 2009 modifications turned a socially conservative statue depicting not much more than Holiday in a singing pose into a public historical statement about racism and racial violence. This is clearest from the base’s rear panel, with its graphic sculptural depiction of a Black person who has been lynched and hangs dead from a tree. Underneath this image is the title of Holiday’s most famous song, the anti-lynching protest song “Strange Fruit.” [2]


Most analyses of Holiday’s story focus on some combination of “Strange Fruit” and her run-ins with the law. It is true that “Strange Fruit” played a key role in advancing the nationwide movement of Black artists using music to condemn racial injustice. [3] Government worries about the song’s potential to stoke unrest added urgency to the drug-related criminal pursuit of Holiday by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). These efforts peaked in 1947 when she was arrested by federal agents and sentenced to “one year and one day” in West Virginia’s Federal Reformatory for Women. She later lamented this sentence in an interview with a U.S. border agent, stating that she “wanted to go away for a cure” but was incarcerated instead. [4] Popular culture has perpetuated her stigmatic criminalization, most recently in the 2021 film The United States vs. Billie Holiday. It devotes much of its attention to her antagonistic relationship with the FBN. [5] The use of “vs.” in the film’s title, as opposed to the technically correct “v.” used for court cases, is a nod to Holiday’s own description of the legal battle. She wrote in her autobiography, “It was called the United States of America versus Billie Holiday . . . and that’s just the way it felt.” [6] Film critics correctly note that the strongest part of the 2021 film is its portrayal of the subversiveness of “Strange Fruit.” This makes sense given the overall focus on this song in public memory, but it overlooks the radicalism Holiday brought to every song she sang. [7]


The most incisive critique of popular depictions of Holiday’s story comes from activist, academic, and author Angela Y. Davis. In her 1998 book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, Davis makes two key arguments regarding Holiday. First, her renditions of popular love songs all included fiery intersectional critiques of American society. [8] Second, her song “Strange Fruit” indelibly transformed her status from a highly talented musician into one of an enthusiastic purveyor of biting social commentary that raised social consciousness for historically marginalized groups. [9] While the latter argument has received plenty of public historical attention, the former has not. Davis’s critical approach to Holiday’s entire musical catalog encourages exploration of how whenever she took the stage, she exuded freedom and resistance to oppressive power relations.


Growing up in early-twentieth century Fells Point, Holiday lived amidst a vibrant musical community with high-profile Black representation. She was born in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915, but her mother took her home to Baltimore shortly thereafter. While she would later spend much time in New York City, her formation as a musician and person took place in Fells Point. As part of Baltimore’s large Black population, she learned what it meant to be a Black woman in America, and how she could use music to push against stereotypes and categorizations. This is where she learned what music was, what it could do, and what it could mean. Prior to Holiday, jazz artists were usually seen as instrumentalists first and foremost. She took the instrumental elements of jazz and combined them with the expressive vocals of the blues. This created a new combination of the two genres that was distinctly Billie Holiday. [10] She also had a remarkable ability to deliver social statements by tweaking vocal inflections and points of emphasis. For example, she delivered the final note of “Strange Fruit” as if it ended with a question mark, as an unfinished story requiring action for betterment. [11] Through these stylistic techniques, she subtly incorporated radical messages, encouraging audience feelings of empowerment and hope. A 1973 New York Jazz Museum commemorative pamphlet on Holiday captured this innovative spirit well. It quoted renowned jazz drummer Jo Jones as stating, “Billie introduced things. No innovator like her. Hasn’t been one before, since, and never will be. The innovations—they owe it all to Billie.” [12] But her innovations went far beyond music.


It was in Baltimore that Holiday found solace and relief from the violence and hardships she faced from a young age, in the process carving out a bold, fiercely individual identity. [13] Literary scholar Saidiya Hartman describes the self-asserting, independent Black women who lived in New York City and Philadelphia in this same era as living wayward, beautiful lives full of intertwined hurt and promise. [14] She encourages her readers to marvel at the radical hope of these women and the freedom that they carved out wherever they could. [15] Hartman also discusses how they lived adaptive sexual lives, seizing sexual freedom and applying it across lines of gender and race. While some biographers suggest Holiday was bisexual, no definitive evidence has been found proving she identified as such. [16] Regardless of the truth of the claim, sexuality provided another area for the exertion of individual freedom. [17] On-stage, under the lights, Holiday was free from social constraints and embodied the freedom Hartman describes. Through her performances, she made real a new image of a Black woman in America. She was one of the first Black Americans to perform with an all-white band. [18] She sang in the country’s most-famous venues, from Café Society to Carnegie Hall, in front of largely white audiences. She continued to perform “Strange Fruit” as what she called a “personal protest” despite the horrifying images she said it brought to her mind, in hopes it would bring similar potentially life-changing images to the minds of audience members. [19] She also spoke out about the racism she faced throughout her career, writing in her autobiography that, “You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation.” [20] This radical, outspoken Billie Holiday must receive more attention in public history and memory. It is also effectively the opposite of the Holiday portrayed in the first film about her life.


The 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues now stands as an embodiment of much of what is wrong with public memory of Billie Holiday. It portrays her as the villain in her own story, as “not woman enough” to share her musical gifts with the world without relying on the “crutch” of heroin use, as her future husband Louis McKay tells her halfway through the film. [21] As Davis writes of the film, it “tends to imply that her music is no more than an unconscious and passive product of the contingencies of her life,” rather than a domain of resistance and self-assertion. [22] Addiction is presented as a character flaw, Holiday’s music as inferior to her vices, and her life ultimately as in need of rescue. This culminates in a scene where McKay proposes to her in the medical center where she is receiving addiction treatment, swooping in at this moment of great vulnerability to promise to take care of her. [23] Once she leaves the treatment facility her band throws her a welcome home party. She tells them it is time for her to stay home, cook for her husband, and have children, completing the patriarchal narrative arc. [24] The film’s treatment of Holiday’s struggles with addiction is completely opposed to the crucial current efforts at the highest levels of the historical profession to embrace empathetic practice. [25] Holiday was ahead of her time in understanding unjust approaches to addiction, writing, “People on drugs are sick people. So now we end up with the government chasing sick people like they were criminals, telling doctors they can’t help them, prosecuting them.” [26] Hopefully, as American society works towards destigmatizing mental illness and treating it as the disease that it is, this approach will also be applied to people of the past.


The other main harmful aspect of the 1972 film is how its focus on Holiday’s alleged immorality, illegality, and lack of control distances viewers from her humanity. It renders her a helpless criminal, portrayed as in need of punitive institutionalization and state-coordinated reform. This is clear from the opening scene, in which she is arrested, fingerprinted, and put into a padded cell. She then slams herself against the walls of the cell before being forced into a straitjacket. [27] This is immediately followed by a flashback scene featuring Holiday being solicited for sex in a brothel at the age of fifteen, sexualizing her from a young age. [28] She reflected on these experiences in her autobiography, writing, “I was a woman when I was sixteen. I was big for my age, with big breasts, big bones, and a big fat healthy broad.” [29] This is a heartbreaking continuation of the long, traumatic history of the sexualization of young Black women. [30] Lady Sings the Blues adopts the title of her 1956 autobiography of the same name, in which she tells her own side of the story, without doing it any justice. The film has nothing positive to say about Billie Holiday, instead embracing the trope of the Black woman as a deviant social problem. It does not take her seriously as a human being, so we must.


To truly honor Holiday’s legacy, her narrative must be shifted away from her struggles with addiction and the criminal justice system. It is important to not let these aspects detract from her artistic genius, generational talent, and radicalism. On a societal level, public history and memory should focus on the hope she embodied for Black Americans, for women, and for Black American women. No scholar articulates this mission more wholeheartedly than the writer and academic Farah Jasmine Griffin, who writes in the preface to her book on Holiday:

I hope to suggest to other women, particularly unconventional, multidimensional black women, and especially young black women, that Holiday’s fate as we have come to know it was not a fait accompli. To be talented, black, sensual, and complex does not lead to addiction, a life of unhealthy relationships and an early, tragic death. [31]

To give Holiday’s story the justice it deserves, it must be seen as a tale of empowerment, struggle, bravery, and radical hope.


 

Cover image: William Gottlieb, "Portrait of Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, c. 1947," photograph, open access, https://www.loc.gov/item/gottlieb.04251/.


 

[1] Tim Smith, “New Base for Holiday Statue Restores the Past,” Baltimore Sun, July 17, 2009, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-2009-07-17-0907160099-story.html.

[2] Eli Pousson, “Billie Holiday Statue: Monument by James Early Reid on Pennsylvania Avenue,” Baltimore Heritage, April 29, 2021, https://explore.baltimoreheritage.org/items/show/643.

[3] Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 181.

[4] See Billie Holiday, “Statement of Mrs. Elanor Gough McKay, Also Known as Miss Billie Holiday,” in Billie Holiday: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2019): 83-84, Kindle edition; Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 10, 22-24, https://archive.org/details/chasingscreamfir0000hari.

[5] The United States vs. Billie Holiday, directed by Lee Daniels (Lee Daniels Entertainment, 2021), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8521718/.

[6] Billie Holiday and William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues: The Searing Autobiography of an American Musical Legend (New York: Penguin Books, [1956] 1984), 127, https://archive.org/details/ladysingsblues00holi_0.

[7] Bethonie Butler, “Tragedy was part of Billie Holiday’s life. It doesn’t have to define it.,” Washington Post, February 26, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2021/02/26/billie-holiday-film/; Lidija Haas, “The Trials of Billie Holiday,” New Republic, February 26, 2021, https://newrepublic.com/article/161156/trials-billie-holiday; James Oliver Horton, “Patriot Acts: Public History in Public Service,” The Journal of American History 92, no. 3 (December 2005): 802, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3659968.

[8] Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 163.

[9] Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 181-182.

[10] Jacqueline Birdsong-Johnson, “Lady Day: A Major American Musician and Recording Artist of the Twentieth Century,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 67, no. 4 (Autumn 2000): 551, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27774293.

[11] Janell Hobson, “Everybody’s Protest Song: Music as Social Protest in the Performances of Marian Anderson and Billie Holiday,” Signs 33, no. 2 (Winter 2008): 447, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/521057.

[12] Linda Kuehl, Ellie Schocket, and Dan Morgenstern, “Billie Holiday Remembered: Produced and Published by the New York Jazz Museum,” in The Billie Holiday Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary, ed. Leslie Gourse (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997), 182, https://archive.org/details/billieholidaycom00gour.

[13] Birdsong-Johnson, “Lady Day,” 551.

[14] Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2019), 16-17.

[15] Hartman, Wayward Lives, 59.

[16] See Robert O’Meally, Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1991), 91-92, https://archive.org/details/ladydaymanyfaces00omea; Stuart Nicholson, Billie Holiday (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995), 174, https://archive.org/details/billieholiday0000nich; Donald Clarke, Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon (Boston: De Capo Press, 2002), 428, https://archive.org/details/billieholidaywis0000clar.

[17] See Hartman, Wayward Lives, 83; Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 120.

[18] “Lady Day: Billie Holiday,” Smithsonian Music (Smithsonian Institution, n.d.), https://music.si.edu/spotlight/billie-holiday.

[19] Holiday and Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues, 84-85; Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 183-184.

[20] Holiday and Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues, 97.

[21] Lady Sings the Blues, directed by Sidney J. Furie (Paramount Pictures, 1972), 01:08:41-1:08-48, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068828/.

[22] Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 184.

[23] Lady Sings the Blues (1972), 01:43:57-01:44:22.

[24] Lady Sings the Blues (1972), 01:52:27-01:52:45.

[25] Jacqueline Jones, “We Are Only Human: Emotion, Empathy, and the Historian’s Craft,” Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, March 18, 2021, https://www.historians.org/research-and-publications/perspectives-on-history/april-2021/we-are-only-human-emotion-empathy-and-the-historians-craft;

[26] Holiday and Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues, 132.

[27] Lady Sings the Blues (1972), 00:00:24-00:04:05.

[28] Lady Sings the Blues (1972), 00:05:26-00:06:34.

[29] Holiday and Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues, 9.

[30] Wilma King, “‘Prematurely Knowing of Evil Things’: The Sexual Abuse of African American Girls and Young Women in Slavery and Freedom,” The Journal of African American History 99, no. 3 (Summer 2014): 186, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5323/jafriamerhist.99.3.0173.

[31] Farah Jasmine Griffin, If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery (New York: The Free Press, 2001), xiii, https://archive.org/details/ifyoucantbefreeb0000grif.


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