Billie Holiday was born on this day in 1915. After all these years, she is one of my very favorite singers. Here musical phrasing was entirely new and it continues to fascinate me. And I’m hardly alone. I love both Frank Sinatra and Madeleine Peyroux. But in a fundamental way, they are just ripoffs of Holiday.
But there is more to Holiday than the music. There is the outrage that her life was made by the government of the United States. After social conditions pushed Holiday into prostitution while still a young teen, she was imprisoned for it. And then, after she became famous as a singer, she was harassed by the police resulting in federal prison for a drug charge. And then, while dying in a hospital, the police searched her apartment and allegedly found drugs. Her hospital room was searched and she was placed under arrest. There was an officer guarding her like she was Dillinger.
It’s hard not to conclude that Holiday was treated like this because she was black. After all, all of her crimes were cultural. She wasn’t harming anyone else’s property or person. Meanwhile, while the government did a great deal to harm her, it did nothing at all to protect her. I can’t see a 14-year-old prostitute as anything but a victim. And as for her use of heroin, that wasn’t what killed her. Her excessive drinking caused her liver and heart disease. If the government had spent one-tenth the effort on helping her that it spent on oppressing her, she might have lived a good deal longer and better.
One could argue that she wouldn’t have been such a great singer if it hadn’t been for her hard life. That’s nonsense. First, it’s just a rationalization. Second, there is really no reason to think that being a child prostitute is any more likely to produce great art than having your heart obligatorily broken in high school. And most of the abuse came long after she had perfected her art. No, it’s just another example of how America does everything it can to destroy outsiders. We claim to value the individual in this country, but it is only true in is much as the individual decides to conform.
Now is the time when we enjoy a Billie Holiday song. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of good video of her online. But this version of “Travelin’ Light” is pretty good:
Happy birthday Billie Holiday!