Art Doc of the Week | The Many Faces of Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday, one of the greatest and most important singers of all time, regardless of genre, was born one hundred years ago, this year.  Everyone from Frank Sinatra to Diana Ross to Erykah Badu has sung her praises, and acknowledged their debt to her. (Ross, of course, was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Holiday in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues. Most Holiday scholars dismiss the film as gloomily revisionist claptrap.)

To celebrate the icon’s centennial, the great jazz singer Cassandra Wilson has given concerts devoted to her work (and, in unintentional homage, recently given some erratic performances that evoke the lore of Holiday’s tortured persona). José James released Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday to critical acclaim. And, perhaps most important of all the tributes, investigative reporter Johann Hari published his meticulously researched book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. In it he outlines the history and folly of the U.S. government’s war on drugs, going back decades, and notes how Billie Holiday – who landed on the government’s radar as a result of her anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” – was hounded and persecuted as punishment for her subversive, “un-American” act of protest.

Billie Holiday, 1958. Associated Press

Billie Holiday, 1958. Associated Press

In an interview with Democracy Now! conducted in February of this year, Hari says:

“In 1939, Billie Holiday stands on stage in a hotel, and she sings the song ‘Strange Fruit,’ which obviously your viewers will know is an anti-lynching song. Her goddaughter Lorraine Feather said to me, ‘You’ve got to understand how shocking this was, right?’ Billie Holiday wasn’t allowed to walk through the front door of that hotel; she had to go through the service elevator. To have an African-American woman standing up, at a time when most pop songs were like twee, you know, ‘P.S. I Love You,’ that kind of thing, singing against lynching in front of a white audience was regarded as really shocking. And that night, according to her biographer, Julia Blackburn, she’s told by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, ‘Stop singing this song.’

“Federal Bureau of Narcotics was run by a man called Harry Anslinger, who I think is the most influential person who no one’s ever heard of. Harry Anslinger takes over the Department of Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition is ending, and he wants to find a new purpose for it. You know, he’s got this huge bureaucracy he wants to run. And he’s really driven by two passions: an intense hatred of African Americans—I mean, this is a guy who was regarded as a crazy racist by the crazy racists in the 1930s; he used the N-word in official police reports so often that his senator said he should have to resign—and a really strong hatred of addicts. And Billie Holiday, to him, was like the symbol of everything that was going wrong in America. And so, he gives her this order.

She refuses. She basically says, ‘Screw you. I’m an American citizen. I’ll say what I want.’ She had grown up in segregated Baltimore, and she had promised herself she would never bow her head to any white man. And that’s when Harry Anslinger begins the process of stalking her, and eventually, I think, playing a role in her death, as was explained to me by her friends and by all the archival research.”

Director Mattew Sieg’s 1990 documentary The Many Faces of Billie Holiday, narrated by actress Ruby Dee voicing Holiday’s own words, is also the work of a thorough archivist.  Sieg interviews influential cultural historian Albert Murray, late jazz singer Carmen McRae, the still living singer Annie Ross, blues and jazz historians, and assorted musicians who knew Holiday to sketch a dynamic portrait of the woman whose small voice left a huge imprint.

Murray puts her addictions in the context of artists throughout history who’ve pulled sublime work from battles with their inner demons, noting how she transformed the way singers approached their craft. McRae and Ross sing her praises as an artist while outlining her funny, tough, generous nature (McRae) and the gendered costs of being a musician (Ross). Throughout, the conversation always returns – as it should – to her artistry, how she blurred the distinction between jazz and blues singing, and was actually without category (“She’s closer to being a torch singer wearing her heart on her sleeves, which blues singers don’t do” says Murray). And what emerges is a woman much more complex and full of life than the merely tragic figure so often evoked when people write or talk about Holiday.

Billie Holiday circa 1952. Photo: Bob Willoughby-Redferns Getty Images

Billie Holiday circa 1952. Photo: Bob Willoughby-Redferns Getty Images

The real strength of the film lies in the way it rolls out endless photos and performance clips of Holiday, from her early career when she was “plump and sexy” (as described by McRae), to her emaciated final days. For both the longtime scholar and the novice, the photos are mesmerizing. But it’s the expertly placed performance clips that truly enthrall. (Make note of where Seig places “God Bless the Child,” and “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.”) Near the end of the film, there’s a clip of Holiday performing with her band. She’s not out front, but right in the mix with the other musicians. The camera zooms in on her as various solos are played, and the wonderment and pure joy that fills her face makes you melt. Here’s the woman who singlehandedly rewrote what it means to be a singer having a series of clearly transcendent moments, underscoring how she was always in conversation with the musicians supporting her – and not just as a fellow artist, but as a fan. And therein is the secret of her power.

Here’s the full Johann Hari interview with Democracy Now!

And here’s José James performing “Strange Fruit”:


Previously on Art Doc of the Week: