arts / Blues / poetry / rock

Billie Holiday Swing Easy session – Preview

The Swing Easy show on BCB Radio, 8-9pm GMT on Tuesday July 22, will be devoted to the music of Lady Day – Billie Holiday.

Lady is the blues

She kind of drags her words behind the beat
in a way impossible to imitate (thank God)
and she messes with the tune
the way a horn-player will,
but she never, never loses the meaning
of what she’s singing.

Her diction is superb,
every word clear and placed
exactly right,
whether on the beat
or off it.

Her life,
her lost loves,
her death,
it’s all there in the songs:

Good Morning Heartache,
My Man,
You’ve Changed,
and especially Don’t Explain,

yet it is not depressing,
that cracked voice
out of too many cigarettes,
too many whiskey bottles,
and, in the end, too much smack;
it’s the song of a survivor
nothing could kill,
not even death.

Even her upbeat songs
have the taste of wormwood in them,
a manic sense that
after this it can only go downhill.

But there is no cynicism,
despite the world-weariness,
the having been used.

She got better
as her life and her body fell apart,
the voice more apt to what she was singing about
as it became
more broken, more ravaged
by too much time crammed into too few years,
so her last recordings are almost unbearable
whether they are with that wonderful distingué band
or that bizarre string orchestra
on Lady in Satin.

Despite the title of her life story
she wasn’t really a blues singer
in the strictest sense,
though she did a few 12-bars
in her time.

She didn’t sing the blues;
she was the blues.

(What’m I saying?
She could never be was.
She is.)

Not Lady Day;
Lady night.
Midnight striking.
A drunk staggering across 52nd Street
as the last cab
takes the help home
and the boss locks shut the doors of the club.

And the city turns to face another day.

With you.

Without you.

August 11-12, 2000

Please help me choose the tracks I play by filling in the REQUEST FORM below. I can’t promise to play your request, but I’ll certainly give it a try.

Go HERE for a more or less complete list of her recordings.

The first ten requests will be sent an audio file of the complete programme ahead of the broadcast.

The above tracks were broadcast by ATV UK in August, 1959, just six months before her death. They are the only clips from that show I’ve been able to find. Please let me know if you have any others – or even the entire programme.

Request form

Lady Day makes a brief vocal appearance in this 9min 29 secs Duke Ellington Symphony in Black, recorded in Paramount Film Studios, New York, on March 12, 1935


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