Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own
For me, one of the great things about rock music is not just that I intrinsically love it but that it’s also been a doorway to other music. If I’d never listened to rock, I don’t know if I would have found my way to the blues. Likewise jazz.
Now that I think about it, my first real introduction to jazz wasn’t when a friend of mine made me listen to “My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane. It was when I heard the horn-driven band Blood Sweat and Tears play “God Bless the Child,” a song co-written by Billie Holiday.
Who’s he I wondered? Well, it turned out, he was a she. Born Eleanora Fagan (she got her stage name from actress Billie Dove and her probable father, Clarance Holiday), she is considered one of the greatest jazz singers ever. A recent BBC readers’ poll showed her as the seventh greatest jazz artist, the only woman ahead of her being Ella Fitzgerald.
“Lady Day’s” life was not a pretty one. Born in Philadelphia in 1915, she had a pretty lousy childhood with largely absentee parents. By age 11 she had dropped out of school, by age 12 she was running errands in a brothel, by age 14 she was a prostitute.
If there’s any good news in here at all, it’s that by this time she had started hearing the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. And before she was out of her teens, she had started singing jazz, mostly around Harlem.
She had by this time been discovered by legendary producer John Hammond who, amazingly, also later discovered Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughn! (Note to self – John Hammond post). He got her to do her first recordings. And while at that time she was performing with musicians such as Teddy Wilson and Count Basie, one of her signature songs, “Summertime,” is listed only as Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra.
“Summertime,” was written by George Gershwin for the musical opera Porgy and Bess. (According to the New York Times, it has been recorded over 25,000 times and is considered one of the greatest compositions ever).
No less a personage than the great Stephen Sondheim (I am a HUGE Broadway musical fan) said that it has “the best lyrics in musical theater.” Billie had a hit with it in 1936. (Janis Joplin’s later recording of it is another example of rock digging deep to find great music from the past).
Holiday eventually wound up singing with clarinetist Artie Shaw, resulting in her touring with a white bandleader. Predictably, this didn’t always go so well with her sometimes being called ‘nigger’ by an audience member. (I could have used the euphemism ‘The N word’ or referred to it as an ‘ethnic slur.’ But let’s put that ugly word right out there for what it is).
This, understandably, pissed her off mightily. But she held her own and Shaw always stood by her. In hotels, she sometimes had to use the service elevator and could not eat with the white musicians. (Let’s just say this was not the shining moment of race relations in the United States. I’ll get back to you as soon as we have one).
All of which may have made her more interested when she heard of a song called “Strange Fruit.” The “fruit” in this case referred to black men who had been lynched in the Southern United States. (Per Wikipedia, the song was initially written, interestingly enough, as a poem by a Jewish teacher named Abel Meeropol who later set it to music.) Hey, somebody gave a shit:
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
She continued recording. And while her professional life was in ascendancy, drug and alcohol problems continued to plague her. Triumphantly, especially for a black performer, she played Carnegie Hall in 1948 to great acclaim. She continued performing well into the 50’s, eventually succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver.
(Interestingly, I had always assumed she died broke but she was actually very well compensated. According to Wikipedia, “By 1947, Holiday was at her commercial peak, having made $250,000 in the three previous years.” That’s $2.5M in today’s dollars).
I will give the last word here to Frank Sinatra who in 1958 said, “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.”
To his lasting credit, Sinatra was always a champion of tolerance, even making a short film called The House I Live In. The lyrics for the title song were written by Meeropol (pseudonym Lewis Allan). This film was more about dealing with anti-Semitism than it was about integration.
According to Wikipedia, “Meeropol was enraged that the second verse of the song was not used in the film. When the film premiered, he protested against the deletion of the verse referring to “my neighbors white and black.”” So it goes.
I said I’d give the last word to Sinatra. But no, I’ll give the last word to Billie Holiday. Here’s a song Billie wrote, (in fact the flip side of “Strange Fruit”) “Fine and Mellow,” about the “lowest man I ever seen.” Try though I might, I could not find the definitive list of the musicians on this song. Sax is likely her friend Lester Young. (You can see and hear a longer “live” version of this song with a bunch of jazz greats here).