Monday, April 21, 2014

National Jazz Month: 'Billie Holiday Was No Victim'

I've paid my respects to National Poetry Month, once through Bayou Magazine on Twitter, and also here at my blog ("Song of Fatigued Blacksplaining Folk"). But I'm also a jazz and blues lover, so, I can't let Jazz Appreciation Month go by without comment. My musical focus: Billie Holiday.

I discovered the BBC documentary on the Billie Holiday Story on YouTube. According to it, the famous movie Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross, got the singer's story wrong. The film asserts that despite being raped at age 11, receiving poor legal advice that resulted in her being sent to prison, being in a physically abusive relationships, and losing her life to the ravages of alcohol and drug abuse, Holiday should not be remembered as tragic victim.

The singer did as she pleased, made a lot of money, and spent it all, says one of her acquaintances. Poet Maya Angelou appears and says that Holiday made the use of profanity an art, so much so adds another person that her constant use of "motherfucker" didn't sound offensive when Holiday said it.

Someone else says that the singer was bisexual, loving sex with both men and women. Later her affairs with Orson Welles, Tallulah Bankhead, and a white heiress are discussed briefly, as well as her facility with a razor as weapon, her apparent preference for abusive men, and her propensity to beat the hell out of others if she felt a beating was in order.

The video also talks about Holiday's racial consciousness, her political activism, and how she had to deal personally with white people doing things like putting out their cigarettes on her fur coat or calling her "nigger woman" and her having to enter hotels through the freight entrance. She recorded the classic song, "Strange Fruit," protesting the lynching of black people," and though she faced hostility for it, she continued to sing the song with conviction.

"Strange Fruit" was written by Abel Meeropol first as an anti-lynching poem. Later music was added.

Not surprisingly, Holiday's autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (the movie borrowed the name), written and published  in the 1950s, was censored. The publishers didn't like her frequent use of the word "bitch," and white Hollywood stars who'd been intimate with her denied knowing her, accused her of lying.

The documentary's an intriguing watch. For those who haven't seen it, I've posted it up top.

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