“It seemed worthwhile to me to think about how the spiritual currents Billie Holiday navigated might have shaped her life and her sound and what she and others made of them.”
Religion Around Billie Holiday by Tracy Fessenden. Penn State University Press, 280 pages, $34.95.
By Steve Provizer
This is one of the most unusual books about a jazz figure that I’ve encountered in a long time. The premise, as spelled out in this interview with author Tracy Fessenden, is fascinating — an exploration of how Billie Holiday’s genius was, in part, a response to the religious atmosphere around her. The author is the Steve and Margaret Forster Professor and interim Director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. Her previous book is Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature, published by Princeton University Press. She is Editor of the journal Religion and American Culture, published by Cambridge University Press.
Arts Fuse: What made you to think this kind of investigation of the life and art of Billie Holiday would be worthwhile?
Tracy Fessenden: Truthfully, I knew I’d be at work on the book for years, and I wanted to write about someone I knew I would never, ever grow tired of. The premise of the “Religion Around” series is that we can learn a great deal about any iconic historical figure by apprehending not only his or her own religious or spiritual life, whatever that may have been, but also the religious currents around that person and the ways he or she moved with or against them.
That Billie Holiday isn’t someone we readily think of as a religious figure makes her a great test case for that idea. She didn’t have the big church sound we associate with, say, Bessie Smith or Mahalia Jackson or Aretha Franklin, because unlike them she didn’t come up in the great Afro-Protestant musical cultures that gave us gospel and blues. Yet she herself has become a kind of sacred figure. And her sound is as alive today as it ever was. It seemed worthwhile to me to think about how the spiritual currents she navigated might have shaped her life and her sound and what she and others made of them.
Religion Around Billie Holiday is not a brief for Holiday’s piety or impiety, her importance to religious history, or her prophetic voice for civil rights. It is not a study of sacred themes in her work, for indeed Holiday recorded almost nothing that could be called religious. There’s the slyly ersatz spiritual “God Bless the Child”; a bootleg version of “My Yiddishe Momme” that showed up on a 2010 pressing of Jewish classics; and the rumor of “O Come All Ye Faithful” on a flimsy laminate disk she made in a coin-operated Voice-O-Graph booth, now a collector’s holy grail. She copyrighted the song “Preacher Boy” for her erstwhile minister husband, the brutish Louis McKay, but never bothered to record it.
Religion Around Billie Holiday focuses not on Holiday’s religious practice or expression but rather on the environing religious conditions to which her genius responded, and in which her life and sound took form. These include the urban, pre–Vatican II Catholicism that undertook to reform her; the theologies, politics, spaces, and sounds of the Afro-Protestant churches to which she never belonged; the vigilante faith that passed for justice in the gallant South; the vaporous, shape-shifting Jewishness of the American songbook; the gravitational pull of her contemporaries’ eclectic religious orbits; and the mythic charge of her own luminous iconicity.
AF: Billie was such a strong character, yet there are so many different descriptions of her personality. Why do you think this is the case?
Fessenden: Apart from Lady Sings the Blues, her memoir by as-told-to author William Dufty, Billie Holiday was not a self-chronicler. She didn’t keep a diary or give many interviews. The fullest record she left of her inner life and her experiences is in her music. It’s not surprising that those who are attracted to Holiday would find their own desires and struggles mirrored there. Farah Jasmine Griffin’s wonderful book about Billie Holiday, If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery, is premised on that observation.
What’s noteworthy to me is not that her admirers saw some part of themselves, some way of seeing, reflected back to them in Holiday, but that she had this effect on so many people, including so many great artists who found in her a kindred spirit. Langston Hughes and Charles Henri Ford wrote poetry about her. So did Elizabeth Bishop, somewhat resignedly, after Bishop’s companion, the heiress Louise Crane, fell madly in love with Holiday. William Faulkner and Marianne Moore were both drawn to her. Jack Kerouac wanted to build a novel around her, and Orson Welles wanted to put her in his films. When she was only nineteen Duke Ellington gave her the lone singing role in his 1935 film Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life. Composer Mary Lou Williams wrote a part of her Zodiac Suite for her. What these artists saw in Holiday was a fellow artist and an innovator, someone who, as Williams put it, “made sounds and things you’ve never heard before.” Barack Obama said that Holiday was a formative influence on him because he heard in her voice a “willingness to endure,” and in enduring to “make music that wasn’t there before.”
AF: You write about the concept of Catholic “fugitive souls,” including Kerouac, Jim Carroll, Martin Scorsese, and Bruce Springsteen. What you mean by this appellation and why it’s important in this context?
Fessenden: “Fugitive soul” is James Fisher’s gorgeous term for the temperament or style he associates with a midcentury “Catholic lost generation.” This generation’s relationship to Catholicism falls well short of either orthodoxy or dogged rebellion, argues Fisher, yet it remains steeped nevertheless in a certain religious imagination. The traits or temperaments that define the Catholic lost generation, for Fisher, include comradeship with (and fierce loyalty to) an unpromising cohort of hustlers, dreamers, and thieves; a worldly spirit of acceptance bordering on fatalist resignation; a “preferential option” for the marginalized and broken that expresses itself not in campaigns for change but in anonymous gestures of hospitality and compassion; and an abiding willingness to forfeit personal autonomy for the “consoling promise of self-dissolution,” chemical or spiritual, and the forms of community that offer it. Fisher’s examples make the Catholic lost generation sound like a boys’ club and a particular style of masculinity was no doubt a part of it. But women’s names might be added to his list. Dorothy Day and Flannery O’Connor fit his description of the Catholic lost generation in some respects, and Holiday in nearly all.
AF: One of the main goals of the book is to make clear that Holiday was an artist who deliberately and painstakingly crafted her work. She was not a gifted primitive. This point is clearly made. But you go on to make a more difficult point to grasp. You caution against “imagining a Billie Holiday who can be pulled cleanly away from this Billie Holiday’s performance of Billie Holiday.” The implication is that there’s no clear line between the act of singing and the art of singing. Is that what you were driving at, or is it something else?
Fessenden: What I mean is simply that Holiday’s exquisite performance of suffering, in songs like “My Man” or “Gloomy Sunday” or certainly “Strange Fruit,” ought not to be taken to mean that her suffering was only and entirely an act. Acting the part of the woman who suffered abuse gave her some control, perhaps, over the reality of abuse. But it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t her lot.
AF: You describe the song “God Bless the Child” as “a mock spiritual based on a mock scripture…” Can you talk about that song and how it fits into the book’s themes?
Fessenden: The original sheet music for the song, for which Holiday shares songwriting credit with Arthur Herzog, says that “God Bless the Child,” a “swing-spiritual,” is “based on the authentic proverb ‘god blessed the child that’s got his own.’ ” But “God Bless the Child” is generically neither spiritual nor swing, no authentic proverb relays its title, and the Bible never preaches its news, although the New Testament parable of the talents offers a distant approximation. Academic Jason Bivins suggests musicians have sometimes used “the languages and practices of ‘religion’ ” in ways that “confronted or evaded or jazzed the languages and practices of authenticity.” And that including the assumption African American musical art is always rooted in the spirituals of the church, or that it comes naturally, or that it will necessarily be redemptive. Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” might be understood in this sense as a kind of trickster hymn that “jazzed” the discourse of spiritual authenticity that surrounded and constrained her. According to Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, the song was really about hustling money; she wrote “God Bless the Child” to “gas the Duchess”—her mother, Sadie—who’d said no when Billie wanted cash from the till of the after-hours club Sadie operated from the Harlem apartment she and Billie shared, even though Billie had financed the whole enterprise by way of the stream of favors she received from Louise Crane.
Louise Crane, the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s long-term companion, came from a family that literally printed money, since the Crane stationery company had supplied the U.S. Treasury with its rag paper since the Hayes administration. Crane was well known to Holiday’s producer at Columbia Records, John Hammond, who moved in the same circles—Hammond was a Vanderbilt on his mother’s side. Hammond came between Crane and Holiday by bringing news of their affair to Crane’s family of bluebloods, and by putting an end to her long-running New York City gig at Café Society, the Greenwich Village nightclub.
A year earlier, in 1938, Hammond had dismissed Holiday from the lineup of the famous Carnegie Hall concert he produced, a concert of African-American musical performances he called “From Spirituals to Swing. Hammond would say he fired Holiday because of her drug use; she would say she walked away from the concert because he nickeled and dimed her. So “God Bless the Child” was a bit of a snub to Hammond, a way of letting him know that she could look out for herself, that she had no shortage of wealthy patrons, and that she knew more about spirituals and swing than the producer would ever fathom. “God Bless the Child” remains among the most covered and beloved of Holiday’s songs—even Hammond allowed that it might be “one of the very few for which Billie Holiday will always be remembered”—and has entered the sacred performance repertories of gospel choirs, black and white, throughout the world.
AF: Holiday’s use of substances is a huge subject. You make a particularly interesting point about the difference in Holiday’s behavior between when she was drinking and smoking pot and when she was using heroin, which you say could “compel her submission.”
Fessenden: Some who knew Holiday before and after she began using heroin in the early 1940s described a change in her character: from fun-loving and “don’t-carish,” as her childhood friend Pony Kane described her, to more doleful and burdened as her addiction took hold. Her friend Mae Barnes said that when Holiday’s drugs of choice were booze and weed, she’d “carry on like hell and have a ball,” going from club to club to hear music and “move with the rhythm” like the street kid she’d been in Baltimore, singing in speakeasies and goodtime houses before she was even into her teens. But when “Billie got on this heroin habit, sometime in 1942 or 43,” said Barnes, “she became meek and mild and couldn’t help herself, and anybody could make her do anything.” I’m not sure she had a different dependence on heroin than on alcohol; both of them ravaged her body, and she sometimes leaned more heavily on booze as a kind of DIY heroin detox, particularly when federal drug agents were hounding her, as they did more or less continually for the last fifteen years of her life. In other ways, her circumstances as an adult were not materially worse than her circumstances as a child. But by the time she was in her latter 20s the substances she used appear to have gotten the upper hand.
AF: What a dense, tangled relationship between Holiday’s abusive relationships with men and her multiple recordings and continued performances of “My Man” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” both of which accept this kind of abuse. What are your general impressions about her relationship to physical abuse, especially as it relates to the theme of Holiday’s Catholicism.
Fessenden: Dense and tangled indeed. Difficult as it was for me to imagine my way into this part of Holiday’s life, I wanted to understand how she managed to stand up to and steady herself in relation to the abuse she withstood, even to incorporate it into her persona as an artist.
It appears that physical abuse was a part of Holiday’s life from a very early age, as was the need for the toughness and resilience that allowed her to make her own way in the absence of sturdy guardianship. When she was not in the convent reform school, where she lived off and on for about eleven months between the ages of ten and twelve, Holiday lived under various roofs, sometimes with her mother or another relative, sometimes in boardinghouses, sometimes, it appears, with pimps and madams.
Her friend Pony Kane remembered occasions when Billie, then age eleven or twelve, would return to her boardinghouse room “looking like she been put through the mill” by some man the night before. “She must of liked the men beating on her,” Kane said. “A lot of her men did, yep.” A former pimp who’d known Billie as a child said of the girls he trafficked that he kept them in line by blackening their eyes, and that they’d show off their black eyes as badges of honor.
That was the reality of her life on the street. In the House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls, the Catholic reform school where being a street kid landed her, Holiday was exposed to an iconic tradition, extending back over centuries, of women and men who actively sought meaning in pain, and who counted the body’s capacity for suffering among the range of its possible modes of connection, even union, with the divine. At daily Mass in the House of the Good Shepherd and in every Catholic church she attended Holiday was exposed to the tableaux of Christ’s passion in the stations of the cross, the suffering saints in painted plaster and stained glass. A heavy crucifix hung in each church she attended and in each room of the House of the Good Shepherd. When she made her First Communion at the House of the Good Shepherd, Holiday was given Mary rosary beads. The rosary’s daily string of prayers centered twice each week on the “sorrowful mysteries” of Jesus’s execution: the agony in the garden, the scourging at the pillar, the crown of thorns, the carrying of the cross, and the crucifixion. “Mary” rosary beads, designed to facilitate devotion to Mary as Mater Dolorosa, Our Lady of Sorrows, are strung in seven groups of seven, each group separated by a medal representing a particular torment suffered by Jesus’s mother as he progresses toward the tomb. In the iconography of Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows, seven separate swords pierce her heart. Girls at the House of the Good Shepherd took saints’ names for the duration of their stay, many of whom died young of agonizing deaths—Holiday’s patron, St. Therese of Lisieux, died of consumption at 24–but who were remembered for their serenity and composure in times of great suffering.
So, in the convent too, Holiday had the example of young women who showed their bruises to the world as if to say, Bring it on-I do not transcend these injuries, but neither am I vanquished by them. Both the convent and life on the street cultivated in her a kind of equilibrium in relation to the punishing world as it is.
AF: In the context of talking about the (Catholic) Magdalens’ ethos of forgiveness, you quote Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. For him, listening to Holiday sing is “not being healed in any way. It is forgiveness pure and simple.” What, for you, are the qualities that make Holiday’s singing compelling to so many? And what impact would you like your book to have on people who listen to her music?
Fessenden: It was quite stunning for me to stumble on this passage from Murakami at the same time that I was deep in my research on the Good Shepherd Magdalens. The Magdalens were Good Shepherd inmates who for one reason or another chose to take the veil, and to live as contemplative sisters in perpetuity. Murakami says that it was in the “broken” quality of Holiday’s voice that he heard, and felt himself to receive, what he described as forgiveness. A nineteenth-century history of the Good Shepherd sisters describes the Magdalens’ role as that of cultivating “a great spirit of penance, abnegation, and mortification, to expiate their own sins, and also to obtain from God the conversion of the penitents.” A more recent account of the Order of the Good Shepherd describes the Magdalens as “women who allowed themselves to be found by God” among the battered and degraded, and from that place to “announce to all God’s reconciling love for everyone.” In either case, the Magdalen’s vocation, so intimately tied to her abjection, is the advancement of forgiveness in the world. The Magdalen embodied the conviction that there could be no outside to the scope of divine love and mercy; that no human being, made in the image of God, could ever absent him or herself from God’s care, try as he or she might.
Dorothy Day, Holiday’s contemporary who founded the Catholic Worker movement to shelter and feed the poor, made it her task to “see the dear sweet Christ in [every] pestering drunk that comes in demanding attention.” She did so for the simple reason that, as she believed, these “staggering, unlovely, filthy ones … are God’s messengers.” The brokenness that Murakami and countless others hear in Holiday’s voice is, I think, a similar recognition of the scope of humanness that no human can ever fall outside of, and an invitation to extend compassion to all who struggle. I hope that readers of this book will be moved to listen to Billie Holiday and to hear that invitation, too.
Steve Provizer is a jazz brass player and vocalist, leads a band called Skylight and plays with the Leap of Faith Orchestra. He has a radio show Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WZBC, 90.3 FM and has been blogging about jazz since 2010.