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International Socialism, September 1977


Penny Valentine

Billie’s Blues


From International Socialism (1st series), No.101, September 1977, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Billie’s Blues
John Chilton
Quartet £1.95

FROM the black slums of Harlem to New York’s elite Carnegie Hall, Billie Holiday’s life was a constant battle against racial prejudice, drink and drugs.

For over 20 years Holiday’s struggle to be recognised as the great jazz singer she was ran parallel to her personal victimisation. Although the musicians she worked with revered ‘Lady Day’s’ talents, ‘overlooking’ her tantrums and unreliability’, she was swindled by managers, beaten up and mis-used by lovers, hounded unmercifully by the narcotics squad (who made their final swoop against her as she lay dangerously ill in hospital).

After years of drinking, heroin addiction and struggle, an exhausted Billie Holiday died of a heart attack and liver ailment at the Metropolitan Hospital, New York on July 17, 1959.

Her bank account showed 70 cents credit. For a year nobody bothered to erect a gravestone on her burial plot.

Ironically her dogged refusal to compromise her unique style of singing finally paid off; and her desperate need for critical acclaim was assuaged ... posthumously.

Aside from her autobiography (on which Lady Sings The Blues was based) Chilton’s book is, extraordinarily, the first biography on Holiday. A music authority and himself a jazzman, Chilton does a solid workmanlike job. He focuses on her work as a musician from the small clubs to the big bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw; on tour round America and Europe; and on record.

His treatment of Holiday the woman is sympathetic but dispassionate, showing – through interviews with the people she worked with – that her constant lack of success was the thing that hit her hardest, making her more vulnerable to the drinking, drugs and men who drifted into her life; producing a personality with a rough edged self-protective quality that made those who did not know her well think she was simply tough and temperamental.

There is still, however, a book to be written about Holiday from a feminist perspective (as indeed there is on her contemporary – Bessie Smith) examining in more depth the area in which she worked, the society in which she moved, and the attitude of the world about her. Like Monroe and Joplin after her, Holiday suffered as much from her environment and the social climate of her time as from her need for recognition. Being a woman in what was, ostensibly, very much a ‘man’s world’ heightened her problems. Being a black woman who resisted pressure to compromise her music, to be ‘acceptable’, made them worse.

Billie Holiday was a poor black girl who rose with a supreme talent; who fought long and hard to have that talent recognised; whose frailty made her susceptible to criticism; and who took a lack of critical respect as yet another personal rejection – a problem that started with her father and went on throughout her life. As her career see-sawed her personal life became more and more destructive. In the end it was her pathos that showed through. When her health was deteriorating on her birthday in 1959 she threw a small party for her few friends: ‘This is the first birthday I’ve really celebrated in 15 years’, she said. She was to die three months later.

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