But Holiday is no longer as influential as she was in her lifetime. Her deceptively simple-sounding style bears little resemblance to the elaborate improvisational techniques used by 21st-century vocalists, who are inclined as a group to emulate the more explicitly jazzy Ella Fitzgerald. Nor is the literature on Holiday comparable in quality to the music that it celebrates. Indeed, much of it is an unsavory blend of speculation and gush.
The truth about Holiday needs no embellishment to be compelling. She grew up in the ghettoes of Baltimore and New York, dropping out of school at 11 to work as a prostitute. Like Louis Armstrong, whose singing inspired her to become a jazz musician, she used her innate talent to pull herself out of the gutter—but lacked the self-discipline to stay out of it. Holiday started using heroin in 1941, around the same time that she began to be known to the public at large. Over time drugs and alcohol shattered her voice and laid waste to her health, and she died in a New York hospital room at the age of 44, under arrest yet again for possession of narcotics.
It is this cautionary tale that Holiday herself told in her ghostwritten memoir, Lady Sings the Blues (1956, written with William Duffy), and that is writ still larger in the slick, heavily fictionalized film version of Holiday’s story in which Diana Ross, of all people, played her on screen. The book itself was hugely controversial in 1956, discussing as it did matters of sex and drugs that many of the singer’s Eisenhower-era readers found unimaginable and preferred not to believe; they assumed she had exaggerated in order to sell more copies. In fact, the stories that she told were mostly true, as John Szwed explains in Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, a monograph that is, in his words, “not . . . a biography in the strictest sense, but rather a meditation on [Holiday’s] art and its relation to her life.”
Szwed does not quite succeed in answering a critical question: Why does Holiday remain to this day as central to American culture as any popular singer other than Sinatra himself?A former academic and jazz musician, Szwed succeeds in cutting through the thick haze of gossip that continues to surround his subject. Among other things, he establishes the essential factuality of Lady Sings the Blues, in the process filling in certain of the gaps on which Holiday’s cautious publishers insisted. But Szwed’s main purpose is to move the spotlight away from her life and direct it toward her art, which he does with admirable efficiency. Still, he does not quite succeed in answering a question that is central to understanding her: Why does Holiday remain to this day as central to American culture as any popular singer other than Sinatra himself? Is it because of the sheer sordidness of her story, which is vastly more dramatic than the comparatively uneventful life of a less interesting personality like Fitzgerald? Or does Holiday’s singing constitute in and of itself a sufficient claim on the attention of posterity?
Holiday started singing in public soon after she moved to Harlem in 1929. John Hammond, jazz’s first important record producer, saw her perform in a club in 1933 and was staggered: “She was not a blues singer, but sang popular songs in a manner that made them completely her own.” He claimed that she “sings as well as anybody I ever heard” in a column for Melody Maker, the British jazz magazine. Seven months later, Hammond cut two 78 sides in which she sang with a combo led by Benny Goodman, then signed her to a recording contract in 1935.
Holiday initially recorded not as a soloist but as a “sideman” on a series of combo recordings led by Teddy Wilson, one of the top jazz pianists of the ’30s.1 Nevertheless, she had already become a fully formed artist. Her small, slightly raspy voice sounded at once disillusioned and hopeful, with a touch of vulnerability that was remarked on by all who heard her. “There was something about her—not just the torchy quality of her voice—that made you want to try to help her,” the lyricist (and singer) Johnny Mercer recalled. She could make even the most trivial Tin Pan Alley ditties seem meaningful, and when she performed the work of such first-class songwriters as Irving Berlin and the Gershwins, she brought their immaculately crafted lyrics to vivid life without falling victim to the temptation to over-dramatize them.
Yet for all the distinctiveness of her performing persona, Holiday’s appeal was rooted no less deeply in her natural musicality. Unlike Louis Armstrong, she shunned the “scat” singing that would be adopted by such later jazz vocalists as Fitzgerald and Mel Tormé. In most other ways, though, she followed his example faithfully. She phrased with extreme rhythmic freedom, lagging far behind the beat in a way that occasionally disoriented her accompanists, and decorated the melodies of the songs that she sang with (in Szwed’s words) “small but unforgettable turns, up-and-down movements, fades, and drop-offs” that were all the more effective for their subtlety.
In addition to ornamenting melodies, Holiday paraphrased them in an improvisational manner directly modeled on that of Armstrong. To hear her sing such now-familiar ballads as Kern’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” or the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” is to grasp at once the nature of her method: She freely altered the songs she sang, often to accommodate the limitations of her untrained voice, whose effective range was barely more than an octave. Sometimes she stuck fairly close to the tune, but just as often she was more venturesome, at times radically so.
Nowhere is Holiday’s musical approach more successful than in “I Must Have That Man,” a little-known 1928 show tune by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields that she recorded when she was 21. Accompanied by a Wilson-led all-star band whose other members include Benny Goodman and Lester Young, Count Basie’s incomparable tenor saxophone soloist and Holiday’s favorite musical partner, she sings just one chorus of the cunningly rhymed song (“I need that person / Much worse’n just bad / I’m half alive and it’s drivin’ me mad”). On paper the lyric is little more than clever, but Holiday’s plaintive voice transforms it into an unforgettably intimate confession of unrequited love.
It was at Café Society that Holiday started adding songs to her repertoire that were different in character from the show tunes and movie songs that she, Wilson, and Hammond had previously favored. The first and best known of them, “Strange Fruit,” is a minor-key setting of a poem about a lynching. Sung at a paralytically slow tempo, it is full of melodramatic couplets whose sincerity cannot disguise their staginess: “Pastoral scene of the gallant South, / The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.” But Holiday embraced the song, recording it for Commodore in 1939 when Columbia, her regular label, refused to do so.
“Strange Fruit” would be followed by equally doleful songs such as “Gloomy Sunday,” “God Bless the Child,” and the quasi-
autobiographical “My Man” (“He isn’t true / He beats me, too / What can I do?”), all sung at the languorous, heroin-throttled crawl that Holiday increasingly preferred. Many were recorded with studio orchestras augmented by string sections, an innovation that dismayed jazz purists. Pop-music fans found her new style more accessible, though, and in 1947 she co-starred with Louis Armstrong in New Orleans, a Hollywood film about the history of jazz that might well have put her on the path to pop-culture celebrity. But she was arrested on a narcotics charge that same year, the first in a series of brushes with the law that instead turned her into a figure of scandal.
In 1952 Holiday started working with the record producer Norman Granz, who teamed her with jazz combos similar to the ones with which she had worked in the ’30s. While her voice had been coarsened by years of drug and alcohol abuse, the best of these performances are quite listenable, and it is only upon direct comparison with her prewar 78s (in particular her original recordings of songs like “I Wished on the Moon” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” that she later remade for Granz) that the decay is immediately apparent.
By the end of the ’50s, though, Holiday’s vocal decline was impossible to ignore. Witness Lady in Satin, a 1958 album of ballads on which she is backed by a large studio orchestra. While her versions of such pitch-black torch songs as “I’m a Fool to Want You” still have considerable emotional impact, the youthful saltiness of her timbre has turned to grit and gravel. The results are harrowing, a kind of sandpaper for the soul.
John Hammond was one of them. He regarded her post-1939 singing as “mannered,” and his explanation of what happened to her is worthy of closer examination:
She was still marvelously musical, but she had gotten self-conscious. I felt that the beginning of the end for Billie was “Strange Fruit” when she had become the darling of the left-wing intellectuals. I think she began taking herself very seriously and thinking of herself as very important.
Hammond, himself a lifelong left-winger but one who steered clear of Stalinism, here puts his finger on an important aspect of Holiday’s later critical réclame: Café Society, where she reinvented herself as a politically conscious torch singer, was a magnet for leftists, many of them of the hardest possible kind. Abel Meeropol, who wrote “Strange Fruit” under the pseudonym “Lewis Allan,” was a Communist who is best known by his own name for having adopted the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after their parents were executed for espionage and treason in 1953.
It was because of “Strange Fruit” that Holiday was embraced by other Communists and fellow travelers more interested in her utility as a political symbol than in her artistry. But Hammond was right to suggest that her artistry was also compromised by the song’s success. From 1939 on, she resorted with fast-growing frequency to a lugubrious self-dramatization and exaggeration that are nowhere to be found in her earlier work, and once her voice disintegrated, she became a pure mannerist, reduced to the hollow shell of a style.
Even at the end of her life, Holiday was still capable of singing with moving expressivity. But those who believe her later work to be superior to the recordings of her youth make the mistake of assuming that the unselfconscious simplicity of “I Must Have That Man” was somehow less “mature” than the inflated pseudo-profundity of “Strange Fruit.” They are also, I suspect, confusing Holiday’s life with her art, treating her as a martyr figure instead of seeing her for what she was: a greatly gifted artist who lacked the strength of character that kept Louis Armstrong, who came from a similar background, from succumbing to a similar fate. To romanticize self-destructive behavior is always a mistake, even when it is the behavior of a great artist—and it is an even bigger mistake to take such behavior as a sign of greatness.
1 Digitally remastered versions of the issued takes of these recordings are collected on Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles (Sony, four CDs). Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection (Hip-O, two CDs + one DVD) is a well-chosen selection of Holiday’s later recordings, accompanied by a bonus DVD containing most of her film and TV appearances.
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The Two Billie Holidays
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.