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Billie Holiday

Even though she died before I was born, I listen to more Billie Holiday than I do musicians of my own generation. As I write this, she is singing from the dead through the marvel of CD technology. It is “You Go To My Head”. She recorded this song early in her career, but I'm listening to the 1952 version when she was the same age I am now, having been through some of the same experiences. As a result of that, I connect with her later recordings much more so than her earlier (usually considered better) work.

Billie Holiday. Holiday's life is easy to pass off as tragic. A lot of tragic things happened to her, and the US government treated her with the same callousness as most HEROIN helper readers have come to expect. It is common to say that Holiday was self-destructive. I don't see this when I look at her life. I see a woman trying to find fulfillment in whatever way possible. Like anyone, she was only partly successful.

When using heroin, it is clear that she used to extremes. One observer said that she was using so much heroin that she was cooking it up in a tuna can instead of the traditional tablespoon. Given the high solubility of heroin, this would be a lot—especially given the relatively high level of purity of illegal heroin at that time.

Billie Holiday, like most black and many white jazz musicians at that time, was dogged by law enforcement. She only spent one long period of time in jail, however. In 1947, at the age of 32, she spent 10 months (of a one year and one day sentence) in a West Virginia work prison. From the government's perspective, this did seem to result in Holiday's rehabilitation. After this experience, she seems to have largely given up heroin—at least, it was no longer her primary drug. Unfortunately, she substituted alcohol for the heroin she had been doing. Her drinking was every bit as extreme as her heroin use had been.

It is often noted that her drinking and heroin use adversely affected her singing voice on the recordings she made in the 1950s. Clearly, the drinking had its effect. But her heroin use seems only to have adversely affected the quality of her vocal tone because those who write about music know precious little about how heroin affects the body.

Regardless, the work she did in the 1950s is thought by increasing numbers of people to be among her best. There is a maturity to the work that is not found in the 1930s work. What's more, the pain she had suffered in life comes across clearly in her songs—when she sings about lost love, only the deaf fail to connect.

One aspect of her prison stay was that she was denied a "club card" for New York City which basically meant she could not work in the city. This is a common situation that ex-cons face: after they have paid their "debt to society", society continues to withdraw payment by not allowing them to do any work other than the most menial. Microsoft, for example, will not hire ex-felons for seven years after their convictions. Such behavior on the part of society often keeps criminals from being anything but criminals. Billie Holiday was not a criminal, though; she just liked a drug the society didn't. She managed to make ends meet by touring a lot.

In the end, it was alcohol that killed Holiday. She collapsed and was taken to a hospital with problems associated with her liver and heart failure. The police used the opportunity to search her home. They supposedly found a small amount of heroin, and as a result, placed Holiday under arrest at the hospital. The police denied Billie Holiday's doctors the right to give her effective pain medicine. As a result, her final days were miserable.

Facts

Born: Philadelphia, April 7, 1915
Real Name: Eleanora Fagan
Nick Name: Lady Day--coined by Lester Young; the "Day" is short for "Holiday".
Died: New York, July 17, 1959

by Dr. H © 2001
Last Modified: 13 January 2004


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