“With Billie" (Pantheon), Julia Blackburn’s new version of Billie Holiday’s oft-told, many-leveled, all-American, usually sensationalized story of racism, poverty, drugs, sex, sexism, and jazz repeatedly provokes the reader to reflect: “Sounds about right; that’s the way it probably was."
When Blackburn first heard a Holiday recording at the age of 14, it seemed to her that “just singing filled her with such a wild joy that she was aware of nothing else for as long as the song lasted." And she noticed that the singer “didn’t seem to care about the beat woven around her by the other musicians. She kept pulling it and stretching it until I thought she had lost it entirely. But just when it seemed too late, she was back again." Blackburn never loses that nutshell of delighted discovery.
In the 1970s, a writer named Linda Kuehl recorded interviews with more than 150 people who knew Holiday – family, friends, business associates, musicians, and miscellaneous felons and freeloaders who crossed her path. But Kuehl had serious trouble with the writing, and there were big problems with publishers; she committed suicide in 1979 by jumping out of a hotel room in Washington, DC, where she had gone to hear Count Basie - a sadly apt coda to the story she was trying to tell. Blackburn gained access to Kuehl’s archive in the 1990s.
There were shoeboxes full of tapes, and a long paper trail including police files, transcripts of court cases, royalty statements, shopping lists, hospital records, private letters, muddled transcripts, and fragments of unfinished chapters. Blackburn decided to let the interviewees tell their own stories, so that “it would not matter if the stories overlapped or didn’t fit together, or even if sometimes they seem to be talking about a completely different woman." In spite of some overzealous footnoting, her refreshingly non-judgmental book is as much a valuable social study as a very well-written biography.
Holiday’s experiences as a prostitute and a drug addict are neither hidden nor exploited. They are part of the raw material that produced one of the most expressive voices of the 20th century (she was born in 1915). Listening to her records over and over, they only get better. The sound and the attitude remain with you - “I’m like a plane without wings, a violin with no strings." Her interpretations of such songs as “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues," “Good Morning Heartache," “My Man," “God Bless The Child," ‘Trav’lin All Alone," “A Sailboat In The Moonlight," and “Gloomy Sunday" add deeper emotional resonance to them. Through a kind of existential alchemy, when she sings lyrics about how she’ll never smile again, that she’s going to lock her heart and throw away the key (“I’m tired of all those tricks you played on me"), it becomes one big tearful laugh at life. So, in this case more than usual, knowing about the life is essential to an appreciation of the genius.
There is Freddie Green the guitar player, Freddie Green the pimp, John Levy the bass player, and John Levy the pimp – four different men. There are a lot of pimps, drug dealers, and slimy managers in the story – Holiday married some of them. She had a strong streak of masochism. Her fellow musicians adored her, weaknesses and all. The Mozartian saxophonist Lester Young was her best friend, and musical alter-ego. She and the actress Tallulah Bankhead were friends, and maybe lovers. She was friendly with the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, who described her as “glittering, somber and solitary, although of course never alone, never. Stately, sinister and absolutely determined."
Holiday’s peers considered her an instrumentalist, one of the cats as it were, and their accompaniment became part of her sound. From 1935 to her death in 1959, her rosters featured musicians such as Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Claude Thornhill, Phil Woods, and J.J. Johnson. She was not the only singer to invent an instrument with her voice – Frank Sinatra also comes to mind – but she is arguably the archetype.
In 1939, Abel Meeropol, a young Jewish schoolteacher (he later changed his name to Lewis Allen) brought her his protest song “Strange Fruit." Reading the line, “Pastoral scene of the gallant South," she asked him: “What does ‘pastoral’ mean?" And she came to suspect that having a hit with a song containing such lines as “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze" was one reason why she was so relentlessly hounded by the Federal law-enforcement bureaus headed by Harry J. Anslinger and J. Edgar Hoover. She was busted one last time for trying to get high on her hospital death-bed.
Holiday’s friend and assistant Alice Vrbsky says that she learned a lot about honesty from her: “She’d be friendly with someone if she liked them, no matter who they were, and she wouldn’t be friendly with someone just because he was a big-shot." According to her ex-pianist Carl Drinkard, Holiday was “like a little girl needing guidance. She had a morbid fear of going to jail and she could not stand pain."