Government Oppression and Billie Holiday

Billie HolidayBillie 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!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Government Oppression and Billie Holiday

  1. Growing up I listened to some Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, and I enjoyed those,and I didn’t enjoy that clip all that much. If those are a bad comparison, I would like to hear why. But, thank you for the post and the experience.

  2. @Lawrence – Not at all, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I got into Simone and much later still until I really got into Fitzgerald. But I think that Holiday has a determined fragility that no one else has. And as it is, I listen to more Dinah Washington than any of them.

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