Another melancholy outing with Billie Holiday. Interesting thing to note, though; while to my ears this is sedentary music, in the thirties this was music for dancing. Presumably the genteel sort of dancing where partners only touched each others’ shoulders, but dancing nonetheless. Thus, the long orchestral intro of this and many other jazz numbers from the period; like the long breakdowns between verses in today’s EDM songs, it was meant to put dancers in the swingin’ mood. Now we can see how seemingly disparate musical styles have threads running between them, and while almost everything can change, certain rules still apply.
“I’d rather be lonely than happy with somebody else…”
Billie Holiday pretty much exemplifies the figure of the masochistic torch singer. She didn’t invent the trope, but she did it better than anyone. When Billie sang that she’d forgo any and all future worldly pleasures in favor of mooning for some man who don’t treat her right, you damn well believed her. Holiday suffered a lifetime of heartache and went through a series of relationships that could be called tempestuous at best. Although the attitudes prevalent in the torch song genre seem today like a sick symptom of a society that valued women – black women especially – for their capacity to withstand abuse, no one could question that Holiday’s songs were emotionally sincere. And we also have to admit that those are sentiments that at one low point or another, we’ve all found ourselves relating to strongly.
Classic Billie Holiday to soothe your troubled soul. Billie Holiday was a troubled soul herself, with a lifetime of sorrows on her shoulders. She just straight-up had a bad life. She was one of those people who was born into eternal night, and no amount of fame or money could set her free. So how is it, with all the heartbreak and pain she had to pour into it, that her music should be so soothing? I can’t say it’s uplifting; that pain is in there, after all. But there’s something in her voice that’s like a salve, easing the spirit. Did she sing to soothe herself too? Possibly – a lot of people do. Despite all her personal demons, she had the gift of making other people feel better.
Billie Holiday is just great to start the day with. Yes, on one level, her music is incredibly sad. She’s one of the all time torch singers. When she sings about love, you believe her heart is breaking. But at the same time, her music has the power to make you feel so good. That’s the power of something beautiful, I guess. Because her voice sounds like warmth on a winter’s day. You could curl up and go to sleep to her singing. Nor does it hurt that she performed with the best musicians of her time. When you listen to Billie Holiday, you can tune in and relate to all the emotion, really feel the words, and have a good weep. Or you can just ride the groove, not thinking about meaning at all, and feel so relaxed and at ease.
20 year old Billie Holiday sings in a first session with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra on July 2 1935 in New York. Next to Teddy on piano the All Star Band consists of Benny Goodman clarinet, Roy Eldridge trumpet, Ben Webster tenor sax, John Truehart guitar, John Kirby bass and Cozy Cole drums. Jazz promotor John Hammond heard Billie for the first time in New York’s Monette club in 1933 and wrote in Melody Maker: “Billie although only 18, she weighs over 200 lbs, is incredibly beautiful, and sings as well as anybody I ever heard”. Hammond told Benny Goodman, and the two went to this Monette club. Both were impressed and it was the start of Billie’s career.
Internet info can be shady, but this is what I found in regards to this recording. I don’t know how true it is, but it sounds legit. There’s just not that much known about Billie Holiday’s early years and the beginning of her career, at least by today’s supersaturated standards. Not that it matters in the end. It’s interesting to learn about the artist, of course, and it gives us greater understanding of the works. We know that Holiday had a horrible childhood, went through many bad relationships in adulthood, struggled with addiction for many years, and spent time in prison more than once. Yes, that explains why she sounds so mournful, why she wrote so many sad songs. But none of those facts would matter a whit if the songs didn’t have an impact of their own. Nobody buys a Billie Holiday record to hear the drug addict sing; we discover her records, then we want to learn more and we find out the troubles behind them. So it really doesn’t matter what we do or don’t know. A little shroud of mystery is nice.
What a masochistic love song. Billie Holiday was a great one for that. She didn’t have much luck with men in her life, moving from one unhappy marriage to another. Her personal anguish is always so clear in her singing. Though she is one of the ultimate torch singers and pretty much defines the genre, songs of self-defeating love have always been around and always will be. Because the idea of torch songs is most closely associated with the jazz era, we can pretend that it’s symptomatic of a by-gone time. We would like to do that because, of course, torch songs aren’t exactly the height of political correctness. They remind us of a more constrained society, where gender roles and class barriers, among many other things, stood in the way of true love. The idea that it is a woman’s place to passively stand by her no-goodnik man, or to pine and weep for an unavailable one, or mourn her lost innocence after her lover has left her, is basically what torch songs are all about. Always passive, always suffering, always helpless and without recourse. Those old roles make us uncomfortable now. Except that, as much as we’d like to think that these masochistic songs are purely a product of their era, we have to admit that they are in fact timeless. We’ve all played into those roles. We’ve been the spurned lover. We’ve been ready to make fools of ourselves, to grovel and weep and forget all dignity. We hear and recognize ourselves in torch songs, because while society’s roles for us change, emotions stay the same. You can get mad and say Billie Holiday’s love songs are sexist and backwards. Your discomfort is just our culture politicizing a perfectly innocent expression of what are universal feelings.
Let’s have a moment of beautiful sad music. Billie Holiday is the mother of all deliciously depressing singers. She makes sadness glorious. It’s the job on the artist to elevate the human. Holiday was a master of channeling something from her own life, which was hardly a happy one, into music in which anyone could see their own reflection. I think this power that music has cannot be underestimated in importance. Because sometimes we feel trapped and alone with our inner struggles, and too ashamed or too shy to reveal them. It soothes the soul, truly, to hear a voice that reminds us we’re not the only ones.