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Becoming Billie Holiday

by Carole Boston Weatherford, Art by Floyd Cooper
Wordsong Press. 116 pgs.

A Review by A.B. Spellman

About thirty years ago I attempted to write a biography of Billie Holiday, who many, including me, consider to be the greatest of all jazz singers. After digging around in the alley-to-mansion-to-alley maze that was her life I gave up; the last twenty years, which were lived in a haze of heroin, gin, & mean, exploitative men, were too much of an ugly sameness to write. Now I am given Carole Boston Weatherford’s book for young adults, Becoming Billie Holiday, and I am pleased to write that Ms Weatherford has chosen just the right entrance into this troubled artist’s life.

She has pitched the book to contemporary teenagers. My generation would have been mortified to read this extreme life, but today’s young adults have experienced any sexual or narcotic extremity that Billie knew at least vicariously through the media or their intimates. Ms Weatherford has Billie speaking to them in first person narrative verses, most of which bear the titles of songs that Billie sang. These verses are matter of fact vignettes that offer snapshots of Billie Holiday’s life, at least through the 1930’s; Ms Weatherford spares herself and us the years that defeated me The result is a graphic yet tender three dimensional portrait of a life in the art of jazz. It is worth reading not only by teens, but also by all curious readers.

Before she took the stage name of Billie Holiday, she was Eleanora Fagan. The poems set the young Eleanora’s early childhood in Baltimore. Her father was a jazz guitarist of some standing who, unfortunately, was never around, and would take little interest in her until she became a star. This sense of absence is an abiding theme in Becoming Billie: “…You were the envelopes Mom kissed, / the letters she read over & over, / and the dollar bill she tucked in her bra….” Eleanora’s was a difficult childhood. Her mother, Sadie, struggled to earn a living; she often worked two jobs, and would absent Baltimore for long stretches as she took live-in work as a domestic. During these times the young, rebellious, truant Eleanor ran the streets, fighting, gaining a fluency in obscenity, and hustling. “…Once, in the five-and-dime store / a pair of silk stockings called my name: / Eleanora, wanna dance?...”

Inevitably, she gravitated to a job as towel girl, then to sex worker in a brothel that was run by one Alice Dean who, unfortunately, would be a major role model for Eleanora. But there was a wind-up Victrola there, and records by Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. The impressionable girl could not hear enough of them

As Bessie Smith belted out
bar after bar, bending notes
to moods, I mouthed the words
till I knew her blues by heart.

Ms Weatherford biopsies this difficult youth in Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do:

At eleven, I had the body
of a grown woman, the mouth of a sailor, and a temper
hot enough to fry an egg.

What I didn’t have
was anyone to hug me,
to tuck me in at night,
or kiss me hello and good-bye.

So I got noticed the only way
I knew….cursing and screaming
in the streets, picking fights
with anyone half as mad as me.

For me, the back
of a hand was better
than the back of a head…

The physically and socially (a forgivable euphemism, I hope) precocious pre-teen spent her evenings in the hot spots of Baltimore’s sporting life, hanging out with Alice Dean’ and her girls:

I’m Painting The Town Red

I was a moth, and the fast life, a flame.
Evenings found me at house parties,
small clubs, and speakeasies, sipping
white lightning and smoking weed
with night owls who didn’t suspect my age.
One night, I sang a blues…
My chirping hushed the chatter,
and the night crowd clapped for more…
I made the rounds at Club Paradise,
Buddy Love’s, Miss Ella’s,
and Pop Major’s and was a regular
at Ethel Moore’s good-time house.
She was like a big sister to me,
and piano players, like brothers.
In shady after-hours spots,
I found a voice to grow into
and someplace to belong.

And so this genius was heartbreakingly incubated. It is to Ms Weatherford’s great credit that her poems are empty of bathos or judgment. Instead, she draws this life in lines that are much cleaner and clearer than the life itself. She leaves the interpretation and interpolation to the young adults to whom she offers Eleanora-Billie. “This is how this young woman was made, or made herself”, is her attitude. “Make of it what you will”. As honest as Becoming Billie is, Ms Weatherford omits the prostitution that Eleanora endured just as she concludes the book before the narcotic and alcohol addiction. She has chosen to emphasize the great strength that Eleanor – Billie applied to elevate to stardom from a life that was essentially bereft of childhood.

Eventually, Eleanora and Sadie settled in Harlem, where the Billie Holiday persona was adopted. It is a consensus among jazz writers that Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby were the first great microphone singers. Amplification was the first electronic technology to lead to stylistic innovation in music: the women who were Billie’s antecedents in jazz and blues vocals, the aforementioned Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, for example, were shouters. Bessie, without a mike, could fill a large hall without straining; her voice was a brass instrument. Billie’s was a reed; she was much too subtle to succeed without amplification: all of those slurs, rhythm manipulations and bent notes would not have been audible in Bessie Smith’s environment.

How Deep Is The Ocean

Without the microphone
there would be no spotlight,
no band backing me
with bluesy swing.

My voice was too small,
barely an octave,
but the mic enlarged my songs,
let me hold listeners close.

With the microphone,
my voice was an ocean,
deep as my moods,
and audiences dove in.

This was an immensely influential singer. Louis Armstrong had liberated the voice from mechanical rendition of the melody, and his impact on vocalists can never be discounted, but Pops was essentially a comic singer, whereas Billie, though usually exuberant in her early songs, could break your heart with a ballad that you’d heard hundreds of times.

…I peered inside the melody ,/ peeked behind the rhythm, / and sang what the song meant.

Incidentally, contrary to popular opinion, she seldom sang blues songs.

Jazz was an art form, originated in America’s new black urban ghettos, that had become the country’s popular music. Yet, paradoxically, the U. S. was unapologetically racist during the years of Billie’s life, and she had stark experiences with it, most notably during an unprecedented southern tour with a white band that was led by the clarinetist, Artie Shaw.

With Thee I Sing

Racism ripped America at the seams,
and jazz stitched the nation together
one song at a time. But music
alone couldn’t mend the tear.
The needle pricked my fingers
till my soul was sore, and I longed
to hop a train for home.

I take this “…needle…” metaphor to be a double entendre reference to Billie’s addiction to heroin.

Though there is a coda about Strange Fruit, the powerful Lewis Allen poem about lynching that was to be her most famous song, Ms Weatherford ends Becoming Billie at a point when Billie had her life as she wanted it and projected that it would always be so. (“Prez”, of course, is Lester Young, the sublime tenor saxophonist who was her deep friend.)

If Dreams Come True

I will bathe in spotlights
and sleep on satin.
gardenias will bloom
year-round in my backyard.
Sadie’s rib joint will make
rich folk lick their fingers.
Prez and I will do ten dozen duets.
Crooners will sing my praises
between the lines of songs.
Horn men will trumpet my arrival
and claim me as their own.
Piano players will secretly
pine for me as my solos
move them to tears.
Singers will try but fail
to mimic my tempo and phrasing.
My biography will light
the silver screen; my myth
inseparable from my music…
I will reign over Swing Street
and have found the love I crave.

I do not know how teenagers will take this book as I have not been one for sixty years. I do know that they will not feel patronized by it and, if they are sensitive readers, they will be moved. This is tender, precise writing, a hard tale tastefully told. Floyd Cooper’s sepia toned illustrations catch the poems to which they are attached exactly right. My congratulations to all who were involved in the production of this fine book.

With the publication of Things I Must Have Known (Coffee House Press), A. B. Spellman is a poet again after thirty years as a Program Director and Deputy Chairman of the NEA.He has written a great deal about jazz, most notably his Four Jazz Lives (U. Michigan Press), and was a regular commentator on it for NPR. He lives in Washington, D. C. with his perfect wife, Karen, a cultural events producer, and is the father of three brilliant people.

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