Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Billie Holiday: Blues Pay Dues

Women's History Month

You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation. (Billie Holiday)

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday bends every note almost to breaking point. She punctures every phrase with pain and passion. She combines reason and feeling in a mix that (for me) no one else has equaled.

She was born Eleanora Harris or Eleanora Fagan in 1915, and died 44 years later. According to birth records, her father was “Frank DeViese”, now believed to be a made up name. Her father seems to have been Clarence Holiday. Sandra Fagan was thrown out of her home when she was thirteen years old and pregnant with Billie. Fagan and Holiday later married for a short time, and Billie was raised mainly by her mother and other relatives. Eleanora later took the name "Billie" from a screen star called Billie Dove.

Billie had a difficult childhood. Her claim of being raped at ten years old, together with her frequent truancy, resulted in her being sent to reform school. She remained there for two years, and then moved to New York City with her mother. In 1929, Billie’s mother surprised a neighbor raping Billie, and the man was convicted for committing the offence.

For a while, by Billie’s account, she worked as a prostitute, and spent time in prison for solicitation. Her musical “training” was singing along with records by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, and she never learned to read music. She started her career by singing for tips in Harlem, working various clubs till (according to legend) a talent scout discovered her.

Billie was signed with Brunswick Records where she had room to do what she did best - improvise the melody line to fit the emotion. She had a close relationship with Lester “Prez” Young who gave her the nickname, “Lady Day”. She was also one of the first Black women to work with a white orchestra.

"Strange Fruit", Billie's song about lynching, proved too controversial for Colombia, her recording company at the time. She ultimately recorded it for Commodore and later for Verve.

In 1947, Billie was arrested on a drugs charge, and she was sentenced to a prison term. On her release, she performed at a come-back concert at Carnegie Hall. Less than a year later, she was arrested again for drugs believed to belong to her drugs dealer boyfriend. Her problems with the law limited her ability to work in clubs, but these difficulties may well have increased the emotional impact of her recordings.

Her autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues" was published in 1956.

On May 31, 1959, Billie was admitted to hospital with liver and heart disease. The police raided her hospital room and arrested her as she lay dying.

Today’s jazz and pop singers benefit tremendously from Billie’s legacy. In 1987, she was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and the United States Postal Service introduced a Billie Holiday postage stamp in 1994.

Boobies in satin, a gardenia in her hair, Billie never accepted the plantation as her fate. Bless you, Lady Day!

For more information, please see “Billie Holiday, the Official Site of Lady Day”

I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings about Billie.

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at