As seems to be infamous with many legends of the swing era, the life story of Billie Holiday isn’t clear cut and various versions of her life float about, so you really don’t get a list of facts that tell you who Billie Holiday was, rather you get stories, many of them contradictory, and it’s up to you to choose which stories to believe and create for yourself a picture of the woman, the singer, and the legend that we know as Billie Holiday.
For me, I’ve chose to believe Billie’s story, though many people have deemed her biography inaccurate, I’m willing to believe that the spirit of her life is contained within those pages and that they capture the essence of her character. What I gather from all the reading I have done is that while she was uneducated (leaving school after the fifth grade), she was not stupid and while she made some (admittedly) naive decisions throughout her life time, she was a courageous woman who experienced the darkest aspects of life and still found her voice.
I choose to believe the not-so-popular story that Billie was raped at age ten and was treated like a criminal rather than a victim. In many of the biographies I have read, a one-liner describes the “deviancy” in her youth, which lead to her being sentenced to Catholic boarding school. Some of them reference a sexual scandal, as it is known that Billie worked in a whore house when she was quite young. But Billie very clearly describes the experience in her biography, how she was industrious (my description not hers) from the time she was quite young running errands and scrubbing floors for many people in her neighborhood, including a madam, how she was lured into a situation and sexually assaulted, how she was treated like a criminal by the police and sentenced to boarding school. I’m not trying to paint Billie as a saint, but to look at Billie as a human being, as a young black woman living in Baltimore in the 1920-30s whose voice nearly went unheard and while her singing voice is still famous to this day, the voice of her story has been undermined, torn down, discredited, because of her underprivileged place.
To me one of the most powerful statements Billie made was her decision to sing live on stage, and then later record, the song “Strange Fruit.”
Originated as a poem that was later set to music; it was written by Abel Meerpool, a Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx, and is about the lynching of two black men. The powerful imagery still strikes a cord in today’s society, and I can only imagine how powerful the statement must have been during Billie’s life time. And yet, nothing that I’ve read on Billie talks about the courage and the straight-out gumption that it must have taken for her to sing that song. The fact is stated that she sang the song and this is what the song was about and then that’s it, end of story? Now, Ken Burn’s Jazz does give more value to the decision, describing the first time Billie sung the song on stage as one of those classic Hollywood moments —the stunned audience silent at the end of the song until one brave soul begins to clap hesitantly which gives the other audience members the courage to clap and shortly thereafter the entire audience erupted into applause. To me this speaks to the essence of Billie’s character, to her courage and the strength, to her amazing voice.
Billie Holiday was an amazing woman. She had an emotional breadth that set her apart from the singers of her time as it translated into her music and touched everyone who heard her. While this article doesn’t provide a lot of facts, I hope it provides a picture of the woman, and inspires you to do some research decide for yourself who Billie Holiday was and what her contribution to society means.