arts / jazz / music

Happy birthday, Lady Day

Billie Holiday

(born Eleanora Fagan)
(April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959)

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.

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