Saturday, July 18, 2009

Billie Holiday, 1915-1959

Billie Holiday, the great blues singer, died the year I was born. My sister, Sonja, indirectly introduced me to Holiday as a cultural icon when she gave me an album by the Irish singer/songwriter Van Morrison as a college graduation present. In several of his songs, Morrison invokes Holiday with a respect that verges into reverence. He calls out her name with awe and wonder, as if it were an apostolic greeting.

I had not known the tragic story of Billie Holiday’s life, however, until yesterday. On a Twin Cities radio station, 89.3 The Current, the announcer said that she died fifty years ago, of heart disease and cirrhosis in a New York hospital. A police offer was outside her door, as she was under arrest for heroin possession at the time she died. How sad, I thought − and what a strange use of law enforcement resources.

Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” recorded in 1939, takes on the lynching of African Americans. Seventy years later, it’s still worth a listen.

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