Known better by her stage name, Elinore ”Billie Holiday” Harris*, was an early influence to my musical palate. I remember that as a child, my dad would play some of her songs on our stereo, but I realize now that he might have preferred to play more Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, than Billie. But growing up (around high school), I would spend a lot of my anti-social days with her singing in to me. One of my favorites was her rendition of Rezső Seress’, Gloomy Sunday. At one point, and this shouldn’t bring about assumptions that I was grossly… gloomy in any way (because the song itself carries the burden of being nicknamed The Hungarian Suicide Song), but I was so obsessed with the song that I befriended a random person on the Internet, who had all the recordings of Gloomy Sunday that ever existed, including Björk’s and Sinead O’Connor’s, so that I was allowed to download the songs that were hosted on his private server.
Young adulthood is that time in one’s life when one struggles most with one’s identity, character and emotions –and it wasn’t too different for me. I was quietly troubled and would spend a lot of time at home, reading and amassing large quantities of music for an Internet radio show I’d do instead of, whatever many other teens my age were doing. In general, I magnetized towards the sadder songs, but there was also just something in the way she sings Gloomy Sunday that made it better than any other sad song. I’ve always loved how the tone of the song changed to one of hope in the end and because she made the first verses so devastating, the happy ending was all the more emphasized. Listening to her on repeat would help me rise above my own troubles.
With this affinity for Ms. Billie Holiday, and not knowing much else about her life, I couldn’t help but buy, With Billie by Julia Blackburn at the Page One book sale recently. I am in general, wary of biographies but I must admit that (and I know this is a weird thing to admit), the little quote/recommendation from The Economist at the back got to me. They’re trustworthy! And they used the word ‘variegated’! The purchase didn’t result in any regret, because once I started to read, I couldn’t put the book down. I had a vague idea what she must have gone through as a black woman from a low socio-economic background, but the book offers more insight, as well as more questions as to who she really was as a person.
The book’s format was interesting too. Each chapter was written with the point-of-view or perspective of a person who knew her closely, based on old interview transcripts done by Linda Kuehl (who was originally tasked to write a book about Billie but she took her own life before it was finished). The author, Julia Blackburn reiterates from the beginning, how she “never put words into [the interviewees'] mouths or added any detail that wasn’t actually there”. This helped you put her story in a clearer perspective.
Notorious for her drug use and for her abusive boyfriends, the book helps to remind that there is definitely something more to Billie Holiday than those bits of things that dramatized her life. Her sadness goes far deeper than Boy Blues and mere escapism. She was troubled but she was also a strong and capable woman. The drugs and abusive boyfriends painted her with the familiar desperation found in similar stories, of fame and abuse, but I imagine the forces she had to work against during her times, as a black woman with her history, and there’s a part of me that wants to believe she chose what she chose, as if to say yes to life and the obstacles that come with it, each and every time that she had to face the possibility of cruelty, torture, or death. And until her actual death in 1959, I believe it was her body, and not her spirit that gave in to the gloom.