David Widgery

Billie and Bessie


Shortened version first published in The Wire, 1984.
Re-published in David Widgery, Preserving Disorder, Pluto Press, London 1989, pp. 76–87.
Downloaded with thanks from REDS – Die Roten.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A paid-up blues fanatic, I have never managed to understand the depth of my own obsession. This essay was an attempt to try. I think it was Dennis Potter’s brilliant TV series The Singing Detective which is about, in part, the allure of sentimentality in music, which finally explained it. The cynical ballad singer-cum-detective played by Michael Gambon, whose sexual self-repression is a kind of psoriasis, muses at one point, “There are songs to sing. There are feelings to feel. There are thoughts to think. That makes three things. And you can’t do three things at the same time. The singing is easy. Syrup in my mouth. The thinking comes with the tune. So that only leaves the feelings ... But you’re not going to catch me feeling the feelings.” Which was exactly what Holiday and Smith did. It was also an attempt on my part to write about the rise of black music in this American century and to recall my own shock of seeing segregation in the Deep South in the mid-1960s. And, hopelessly, to understand the power of women.

The blues is a feeling. For most of this century, music has been the only vehicle black America has been permitted to tell its story, to say what it feels and what it wants. From the harshest of slave systems has come the most moving art produced by modern America. And the source of the power of the blues singers has been their ability to empty out their experience of suffering and longing in the most direct and emotionally forceful idiom.

For what Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday have in common is not their victimhood – it would be sentimental so to suppose – but their understanding. They knew why America needed victims like themselves. They both could understand not only what it meant to be black when that was a considerable liability, but that it was white society which was deformed and lacking and not themselves.

They knew about capitalism, racism and sexism and sang aboutthem, obliquely, subtly, from within, in words that didn’t, mercifully, end with -ism.

The starting point for understanding the blues is the social system of slavery which, first in West Africa and then in Southern United States, created the tonal patterns and the rhythms which remain alive today. The blues have never lost the connection to the condition of being a slave. The chattel slave system began when Europeans used their ships and guns to bring tens of millions of West Africans to work as slaves on the sugar, rice and tobacco plantations of the Deep South of America. But after the discovery of milling methods which could pull the seeds from cotton, it proved possible to extend the types of cotton profitably grown and the trade spread into the coastal lowlands further across America. The Northern states bred slaves to send back to work in the South. Although these Northern states were more democratic in flavour, they too depended on the theft of land and slave labour. Slavery was therefore a national system which indirectly benefited the Northern merchants and created the capital for America’s initial industrial expansion. American slavery was one of the most repressive slave systems ever. The slave was utterly powerless. The only provider the slave knew was the master who was also the source of all punishment, privilege and wealth. Slaves could not assemble unless a white man was present. Blacks were systematically cut off from education; a white woman found guilty of teaching a slave to read in 1855 was sent to prison for five months.

Within slavery had existed a ghastly kind of sexual equality, in that both sexes were equally powerless. Because the white master was the only provider, he became collective father for the whole plantation and the slave father’s patriarchal authority as head of his own family was correspondingly weakened. Black women were raised to work outside the family, as field labourers, domestic servants and providers of child care for the white owners. And their reproductive work providing future workers was only too obvious on plantations whose declared purpose was slave breeding. Under the slave system, the black woman was legally the slave owner’s personal property, he had power to do with her sexually as he pleased. Even after the formal abolition of this property relation, the sexual authority persisted. It was usual for the father to relieve himself and for his sons to gain their sexual experience with their black domestic servants, the colour of whose face was considered sufficient invitation to seduction. Black women were painstakingly denied both the big and the little rights and privacies essential to their sexual dignity. There were white ladies and coloured women. On the doors of the toilets it read “Ladies”, “Gentlemen” and “Coloured”. Laws forbade intermarriage so that no permanent sexual relationship could ever be established with white men. Black women customers were not allowed to try on clothes lest their imagined smell, condensation of their imagined sexuality, might stain clothes whites might have near their white skin. The black woman was not allowed to be modest. Her man was barred from protecting her, she was forced to live without dignity. Then the white man proceeded to announce she was a slut and therefore sexually to assault her because that was only to treat her as she deserved. Having seen to it that neither black man nor woman had social power, they were attributed with an abnormally developed sexuality as a macabre consolation prize.

Specifically sexual sorts of terrorism, justified by general myths directed at all blacks, were used against both men and women. The Ku Klux Klan was formed to organise acts of terror against blacks who attempted to make use of the voting rights won in the Civil War. The midnight raids, murders in broad daylight, pack rapes and the lynchings were justified as protecting the virtue of white women who were said to be under constant threat from black men, roused but not satisfied by their lascivious women and too primitive to control their sexuality.

The right of young, or drunk or Niggerhungry whites to rape black women was forcibly re-asserted as simply the most extreme symbol of the political defeat of the Southern black people after Reconstruction. Not only did it remind the black woman of her state of sexual nothingness on the plantation, it rubbed her man’s face in his own powerlessness. To the whites it was morally legitimate to violate a black woman casually because they were all at the moral level of prostitutes. But the black man who defended her or attempted any sexual relation with a white woman was still more severely and publicly humiliated. The white Klansmen who seized blacks from the county jails they had fled to for protection, inefficiently strangled them with a rope over a tree, blew them into lumps with bullets and swigged Jim Crow bourbon from flasks, while white women soaked the dying body with kerosene and set a flame to it all, justified themselves in the name of Southern chivalry.

Nor were such rapes and lynchings rarities or isolated excesses. A total of over 10,000 lynchings are said to have occurred by 1920. The first mass black civil rights organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, was formed to combat it. It was black women who led the campaign against lynching, surviving firebombings of their homes and destruction of their printing presses. In doing so, they challenged head-on the myth not only of the rapist black man but of the loose, red-hot, sex-object black woman which buttressed it, answering wild prejudice with dossiers of painstaking evidence and lives of ostentatious propriety. Black life in the South was very far from high-kicking, high-living, heavy-drinking carnival portrayed by Hollywood dramas of jazz.

The musical traces of this time reflect that inner sadness: the heavy repeated chants of the convict labourers and the melancholy high- pitched near-howl, rasping mouth harp and harsh metallic fingering of country blues singers following work across plains, silent except for train whistle or the creak of wheels. The racy jolliness was confined to the official popular music of the day, the sheet music for the parlour piano, that symbol of respectability in the big houses, the waltzes, quadrilles, mazurkas, polkas and hymns recorded for the European settlers. For black music, which was to outlast all this jaunty rubbish, was not considered even worth recording until the 1920 Okeh recording of Marie Smith’s That Thing Called Love proved money could be made from it. Until then it did not even have the status of novelty value. “Every race has a flag but a coon,” said a music publisher; “Negroes just sing about what they eat and who they fuck,” thought a Republican senator; and Ralph Peer, business manager of Okeh records, admitted in 1936, “We had records by all foreign groups: German records, Swedish records, Polish records, but we were afraid to advertise Negro records, so I listed them as ‘Race Records’ and they are still known as that.” The New Orleans instrumental music called jazz, once recognised as commercial, was swiftly imitated for nationwide sales by an all-white band which had the nerve to call itself The Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

The classic blues were the first blues on record. They originated with women singing in the minstrel tradition as one of the acts in a touring variety show which, like the English music hall, might mix serious singing with freaks, jugglers and sword swallowers. But in the 1920s and early 1930s, under the impetus of the record industry, these women singers became performers in their own right, shaping a distinctive body of singing associated with the names of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, Clara Smith, Bertha “Chippie” Hill, Lucille Hegamin and Victoria Spivey. Miss Spivey, the Texas-born pianist and singer, was an especially prolific instrumental blues songwriter. Her Dopehead Blues is one of the first songs to deal with cocaine addiction, and TB Blues, recorded in 1927, is an open protest against racism. It was she who “discovered” Bob Dylan, strongly influenced his writing and issued his first recording on the Spivey label. She died in October 1976 in Brooklyn.

The classic blues was not and could not be imitated. It caught a unique moment in the history of the American black on the move from rural, Southern, mainly peasant and small farmer life into the factories and the big cities of the North. 1914 saw the start of the first mass exodus northwards hankering after factory work (like Mr Ford who could pay you US$5 whatever your colour), in search of Jobs, Homes and, most important, Dignity. It caught the South as it was unsealed but before it dispersed. It captured the blues as they were changing from a folk music directly linked to work to a performed art, but before it was smothered with the showbiz gloss applied for the benefit of a commercial audience. The women singers of the classic era had taken the spirit of the blues but shaped the form into organised performance which had elements of a church but which was quite pagan in its encouragement of sanctified self-expression. Not only did it express black women’s social power, it came at the time of the first wave of twentieth-century racial self-assertion, the black risings which followed the First World War, the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and the rise of Marcus Aurelius Garvey. And, despite the fear of the singers that it would lead to copying and the backstage signs “Recording harms your throat”, they are on record, in quantity.

Bessie Smith had begun in poverty as a child singer in dives and tent shows at the edge of a small cotton-gin town for a few pence. She had been taken up and taught by Ma Rainey, the queen of the classical blues, whose records reach back to a more open countrified sound. From that circuit, Bessie worked through minstrel shows, played the black theatres of the deep South towns and fronted orchestras in Cleveland and Chicago.

In towns like Memphis, she would give occasional concerts for white people only, complete with pearly smiles and rolling eyes. But singing to black audiences sometimes, as in the Avenue Theatre, Chicago, in May 1924, in the midst of near-uprisings, she could parallel the race pride which in the 1920s took the political form of Marcus Garvey’s Back To Africa movement. She sang to the lonesome city migrants the stately blues of their childhood. For though her songs don’t mention colour, her performance and repertoire radiated black pride.

As Bessie Smith’s records and radio appearances spread her fame, she took on something of the life of a black opera star, dressing at great expense, travelling with a circle of assistants and drinking in quantity and with insistent generosity. She was a queen on her own terms, black and a woman who made her own sexual life. In one of her finest songs, first recorded in 1926 when she was aged 28, she states her independence in an upright, stately but unanswerable voice.

I’m a young woman and ain’t done running round
Some people call me a hobo, some call me a bum
Nobody knows my name, nobody knows what I’ve done
I’m as good as any in your town
I ain’t no high yeller, I’m deep yeller brown
I ain’t going to marry, ain’t gonna settle down
I’m gonna drink good moonshine an’ run these browns down.

In the 1937 version, the song is slightly slower with a softer ring and more elegiac tone. But saying as proud as ever: “I am woman.” She takes bawdiness from the vaudeville and the old ribald dozens of the medicine show and turns it into something else, a sort of magnificent frankness, insistently physical, proud and defiant, though sung in a slightly funereal and very serious voice.

After a serious but not fatal car accident in 1934, she literally bled to death while segregated hospitals and so-called doctors shunted her from pillar to post in search of a ward lowly enough for the black body of one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century.

The classic blues had died as dramatically as Bessie. The depression had devastated the South; the only way blacks could escape was North aboard the single rail line which ran the 1,000 miles from the Delta to Chicago, the home of Sears Roebuck, the Chicago Defender, and maybe a job. But women could not easily ride freight or work in the steel mills or car plants, and although they arrived in the North in equal numbers, the move squeezed them out of work. They were forced back into traditional jobs as cooks, nurses and cleaners, or the familiar options as whore or mother of children you couldn’t afford to keep. In the same way, women singers seem to retreat into more conventional gospel or pop-romantic styles. Almost none found a footing in the raucous bar blues which developed with such ferocity in Chicago’s South Side ghetto or the piano boogie woogie that thundered out of the rent parties.

In a very short musical period, an almost complete sexual reverse had taken place. Chicago blues is bouncy, raw and male. It held the blues line in the cities and spread by radio to the country blacks. It’s an edgy, violent music where the electric guitar is more expressive than the voice, belted out in the cramped, tough bars of the overcrowded, workless slum belt of the South Side where police made captures almost at random and Sunday in the hospital was regularly followed by Monday in the court. All but the most remarkable of women were excluded.

In lots of ways the apparent vitality of R and B was, like the booze that accompanied it, a prop against the unbearable present. And the sexual blues became a male escape rather than a female celebration.

It was into this world Billie Holiday emerged from nowhere, eight years after Bessie Smith died in 1937. On the radio, the white well-made song and the creamy orchestras of Miller and Dorsey were easing the listening public through the Depression. It was a confusing time for a black woman. Bessie Smith could be strong but it was within clear limits, in a musical form which was established and when performance was face to face with a black audience. The record industry and music business was at an early and regionally organised stage. Billie Holiday faced the business and sexual pressures with more force and less protection. And while white society was now officially desegregating and would be civil to your face, it was a sham and the state of being a slave was still a close memory, even if you were wearing a silk gown. When Billie sings about lynching, it’s real, not a metaphor, and when she sings about sexual humiliation, it’s about her own life and the sexual cross-fire she was under every time she went on stage. Because of her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, much of which was censored at the time of publication, we know at least something about her own attitudes. It’s one of the most political books ever written by a musician, which insists on going beyond the cliches of jazz tragedy to the economics of the music business and the pressure of Jim Crow.

Though she came from a show family, her mother was a maid for a white woman. While pregnant, her mother scrubbed the floors in the maternity hospital to pay for Billie’s hospital delivery. Her grandmother had been a slave and an Irish slave owner’s mistress on a big plantation in Virginia, having 16 children by him. “She told me how it felt to be a slave, be owned body and soul by a white man who was the father of her children.” Billie remembers her first job was as a maid for a woman in Long Beach who would ignore her all day until about 15 minutes before her husband was due back. She remembers first being called “nigger” with an electric clarity. “Instead of telling me what she wanted me to do, she’d get all excited because her husband was waiting, start hollering at me and calling me ‘nigger’. I had never heard that word before. I didn’t know what it meant. But I could guess from the sound of her voice.” All her life, however successful she was as a singer, racism dogged her, whether it was the drunk at the bar who just had to shout “nigger” at her, the sheriff who came up on the bandstand to drawl “When’s darkie going to sing?” or the countless casual taunts and jeers. In 1944, in an integrated club in St. Louis, she was refused permission to leave by the front entrance of the building. After a naval officer had called her nigger on 52nd Street, she cried for some time, and when soon after a friend asked, “How are you?”, she replied, “Well, you know, I’m still a nigger.” Touring with Count Basie’s band in Detroit, she had to put on special dark grease because the theatre management thought she looked too white. And in the same city, when having a drink with Chuck Petersen, another drinker came up and said, “What the hell is going on? A man can’t bring his wife in a bar anymore without you tramp white men bringing a nigger woman in.” On tour, eating was difficult, sleeping harder and going to the lavatory impossible. With Artie Shaw’s first band, “It got to the point where I hardly ever ate, slept, or went to the bathroom without having a major NAACP-type production.” The band supported her and were prepared to go hungry too if Billie was refused service. Being seen with a white man was a special problem; if she’d been a prostitute and he had been paying there would have been no problem. It was because she wasn’t a whore that they disapproved of her. Nor were racial attitudes better in the North, just better hidden. At least in the South, Billie noted:

when they insult you they do it to your face, and you know it. A cracker just wants you to clean up his house or take care of his kids and get the hell out. The big deal hotels, agencies and networks in New York were giving me a fast shove behind my back. This makes life a constant drag. Not only for me but for the people I meet and like. You’re always under pressure. You can fight it but you can’t lick it. The only time I was free from this kind of pressure was when I was a call girl as a kid and I had white men as my customers. Nobody gave us any trouble. People can forgive any damn thing if they did it for money.

Race was always wound up with money. The New York club scene was still like being on a plantation for all the freedom it offered her. To be recognised as an artist and not just a singer was too much to ask. She was forced into a gruelling touring regime to sing before people she often didn’t care for to raise the money to pay her lawyers and cover expensive addiction cures which didn’t work. “If it had been left to the managements and promoters I could have shot myself long ago,’” she ruefully remarked.

Billie probably got involved with heroin through Joe Guy, and drugs became the third party in all the subsequent sexual encounters. The police used her as a bait, bust her at the end of a residency and got a kick out of her misfortune. There was no remorse. They even made it their business to arrest her on her death bed.

Nor was her sexual life easy. She had been seduced by her brother and then raped by her uncle when she was 12. When she and her mother reported the crime and asked the police for help, crying and bleeding, “they treated me as if I had murdered somebody and proceeded to snigger and give dirty looks ... no wonder I was scared to death of sex.” She acquired her name Lady because she didn’t like showing off her body.

Billie Holiday sang relatively few recognisable blues songs and much of her recordings are of straight pop or the svelte anti-blues crafted by lyricists like Hart, Gershwin and Porter. Her involvement in cabaret settings is sometimes denounced in the same way as Bessie Smith’s vaudeville connection, but for both it was about a way of connecting to a black audience. But she battled not to compromise artistically. “People don’t understand,” she said, “the kind of fight it takes to record what you want to record the way you want to record it. I’ve fought for as long as ten years to get to record a song I’ve loved or wanted to do.”

Almost all her songs are about being a woman and being in love. Most are about sexual love, about surrender, loss, need, the moments when feelings make a fool of brains, about coming out with your sexual hands up. She wrote only a few of her own songs but somehow could unwind more personal meaning from other people’s lyrics than many modern singers can extract from their own.

It was as if she needed the subjectivity of these songs to regain herself from the constant bruising battles against segregation, the music business and her men. There is almost revenge in the way she creeps up on the words of a song and tips them up. But it is in Strange Fruit, a classic of political lyricism, that the power of her own experience to rush through her voice is most easy to hear. The song was brought to her when she was playing at a club called Cafe Society, one of the happiest residencies of her career. The club was one of the first in New York to be genuinely racially mixed and the drink was cheap. Its slogan was, “the wrong place for the right people”. There were many socialists in the audience and Frankie Newton, the trumpeter, could be found lecturing his band on the Economics of Marcus Garvey and the Soviet Five-Year Plan. Billie didn’t like the discussions and, since the owner was obliged to run a strict anti-marijuana ruling, used to go out to smoke in the park in intervals.

One of the Cafe Society’s regulars, a schoolteacher called Lewis Allen, offered her a lyric about a lynching down South. She was at first suspicious but then took to it with a passion. “I worked like the devil on it because I was never sure I could put it across or I could get across to a nightclub audience what it meant to me.” The song awoke some of the raw political feelings that Billie often hid behind her elegance. It reminded her, she said, of how her father died and she felt it her duty to go on singing the song because of what she knew. “I have to keep on singing it, not only because people ask for it but because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South.” He had caught pneumonia in Dallas, Texas, on tour with the Don Redmond Band and had wandered delirious from hospital to hospital trying to get help from white-only hospitals who wouldn’t do as much as take his temperature. He eventually found a veterans’ hospital who admitted him to their segregated ward when he proved he had served in the Army. Just in time to die.

The song is simple but allowed the full dramatic power of her voice and its richness of texture to blend with the passion she always felt every time she sang the song. It was because it moved her that she could so move an audience, almost flay them with the last eight lines with their mounting of sound, until inside the last elongated, swirling few words you can hear the gallows rope twisting and the wind curling.

Singing live, Billie Holiday exercised a mysterious command over her audience; eyewitness after eyewitness recalls the thickness of the silence, and the live records bear witness to the closeness of their attention, breathing, gasping and laughing to her turns and twists of phrase and weaving of rhythms, then erupting with fierce clapping.

And in the singing of Strange Fruit, her voice remembers the state of being a slave still, not a chattel slave like her grandmother but a woman who is always owned by another; by men who started as lovers and stayed as businessmen, by managers who cared more for cash registers than music, by the dope that at first had given relief and euphoria but became just a habit. She lived in a formally desegregated but still racist America where black women had in some respects even less social power than they possessed earlier in the century. There was no longer the musical protection which absolute segregation had, ironically, given black music. Her place was in the market place. Even as a success, she was always made forcibly aware that celebrity was conditional, provisional, precarious.

She wanted something quite simple: the right to be honest. Her epitaph might be her comment in Lady Sings the Blues: “I plain decided one day I wasn’t going to do anything unless I meant it ... You have to be poor and black to know how many times you get knocked on the head just for trying to do something as simple as that.” Male critics have a habit of making remarks about Billie’s “difficult” character, her “unreasonable” need for reassurance, “inadequacy” and so on, which, though intended sympathetically, are an insult. Her life as a black woman started and finished in pain, she had to fight constantly for the right to be herself and express her feelings. Her difficulty was that she wasn’t dishonest about this, her unreasonableness was that she refused to conform, her inadequacy was simply the erosion of any one, however gifted, or brave, who takes on the social system alone. And although insecure about her lack of education and suspicious about politics, she felt instinctive solidarity with those who resisted the system. Jimmy Davis, the pianist and composer who wrote Lover Man for Billie and served a year in jail for fighting the racial segregation in the American army, recalls a performance which in some ways sums up her political feelings. “She came to Paris during the time of the war in Algeria when the Algerians were fighting for their freedom. She went to a clandestine meeting, to sing to encourage the fighters. This is something very strong.”

Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday are separated by twenty years, in different parts of America, with the music business in a different phase of its development. But the same collective history and the same personal experience soars behind their singing. Both women sufficiently commanded their art to take charge of the music and transform it. Both were proud to be race women, who did not need to flaunt their blackness but did not deny it either. Both insisted in every note they were women, not men’s playthings, committed to passion in their own right. Billie and Bessie were left very hollow and sad at the constant effort of keeping up that exterior alone, drained by constantly giving outwards, haunted by nameless inner insecurities which they unsuccessfully fended off with booze and men. On stage they were acknowledged as outstanding but that was still not enough to entitle them to ordinary rights off it. Just by being black they were non-conformists. By being women and proud of it, they were asking for trouble, and when they got it, deserved it.

It was not having been oppressed that made them great. But their greatness lay in their ability to press past a world which battered and denied their beings and turned those bruises and denials inside out. To deny and dwarf the hurts inflicted on them by opening themselves out so completely and profoundly in their singing. Out of that bitter experience came forth something unsurpassingly sweet.

Last updated on 3 May 2014