I am on a Billie Holiday tear. John Szwed’s revelatory book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth is the culprit. Szwed’s intent–to strip away calcified notions about the great singer, examine the concrete artifacts (musical, literary, historical), close-listen to her art and rebuild a fuller, more complex and authentic picture of her–is pretty largely realized (though Szwed admits to mysteries that are unlikely to be successfully parsed), and the book’s clearly and passionately written as well. Among the many surprises is Szwed’s “rehabilitation” of Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday’s memoir written with (some say by) William Dufty; of course, I’m about to crack it today after years of turning my nose up at it due to its professed disconnection from truth. Also, I loaded the CD changer with multiple Holiday disks, primarily my favorites from Columbia’s Essential series and the argument-starter Lady in Satin.
Listening to Holiday for hours on end Friday, I thought back to an experience I once had in the classroom. We were reading a text that featured a lynching, and I thought my students might be stimulated to interesting thoughts and feelings by Holiday’s studio version of “Strange Fruit.” These were 10th graders who had not previously succeeded in English, and they’d self-segregated themselves when choosing seats on the first day; the class was roughly 50% white kids and kids of color. For my part, I was utterly convinced the Holiday was not only the greatest jazz singer of all-time, but impossible to dislike; I was equally convinced the subject matter would be powerful to both “halves” of the population.
I played the track on a clunky portable CD player I’d checked out from the media center, but the sound was pretty good. “Strange Fruit,” in the unlikely case you haven’t heard it, does not exactly produce exuberant moods in the listener. It creeps out of the speakers and its horror unfolds funereally—Holiday doesn’t enter until relatively late, and this delay had the students looking quizzically at each other: “Did dude play the right track?” Also, pre-WWII jazz was not and is not high schoolers’ music of choice; I sensed a stiffening in the ranks. But then Billie took over, and the students’ turned their eyes to the song’s lyrics, which I’d copied for them. I was hypnotized by the precision of her delivery as it was applied to the subject matter–and of course, since I was still a green idiot, I assumed they were, too.
I paused a couple of beats after the song ended, then launched a very broad query: “So, what did you think of her singing?”
“SHE’S THE WORST SINGER I’VE EVER HEARD IN MY LIFE!!!!!”
The answer, yelled angrily by one of my quietest students, a young lady named Toni, froze me in my pedagogical tracks. I am sure my eyes bugged, and that my jaw slackened. I had been punched in the face, and I’d been leaning into the punch to begin with. Sadly, I was also expecting that, since she was a woman of color, she had to like Holiday’s singing. (I’ve evolved.)
I was so stunned that I have little recollection of my response. I ‘d become reasonably reliable in dignifying students’ responses (that now sounds to me like a condescending enterprise), so I’m sure I tried to figure out, or have her help me figure out, what she meant, but she was adamant, much snickering abounded, and the next thing I clearly remember is getting (desperately) to the actual lesson. But later, at home, I sniffed to Nicole, “The kid thought Billie Holiday was the worst singer she’d ever heard–can you believe that?”
So what’s the point? Well, Szwed’s sharp analysis of Holiday’s hard-to-pinpoint style makes clear that Holiday was not always easy on the ear: her delivery was frequently sharp, raspy, crying. Her timing was consistently eye- and ear-popping, but that’s a subtler thing to hear unless perhaps you’re a musician yourself. It occurred to me that, actually, young Toni was in fact listening intelligently and had no need of her response being dignified. From a reasonable perspective, her assessment had an anchor in fact–well, not that she was a horrible singer, but that, in the context of what Toni had listened to, the worst she’d heard. 28 years later is not a satisfactory response time for recognizing a teaching mistake–but better extremely late than never. Sorry, Toni! (We’re Facebook friends.)
Friday nights, Nicole and I often head out to Tony’s Pizza Palace, a family-owned pizza joint we’ve been patronizing for most of our nearly 30 years together. We always sit in the booth that abuts the window with a bullet or pellet hole in it (look closely at the above photo and you can spot it). We always order a cold pitcher of Bud, two small Greek salads, and a Tony’s Special (green pepper and sausage). We always get a little caught up with the server, and check in with the head honcho, a charming young man named Daniel whom I taught the same year as Toni, featured above. Then we grab an additional libation, go back home, sprawl out on the couch, and meditate upon three of four specially selected tracks. It’s relaxing, stimulating, fun, and the perfect transition into the weekend. True to form, we followed our ritual last Friday, and selected the following three tracks, the first two of which we’ve worn out in the past, the third indicating I still couldn’t get Szwed and Lady Day off my mind.
To evoke our beloved NOLA, and to electrify our ears, minds and bodies:
To revisit a romantic favorite from our days of penury:
To engage with pure desolation–but also with an alert artistic mind at the end of its rope:
During the weekend, I chose to explore the work of a young Chicago MC one of my current students had begged me to check out. Perhaps still feeling guilty from my earlier revelation, my conscience was the driver, but this young lady, from Oklahoma City by way of Salt Lake City, was, like Toni, right (only less problematically). I loved her recommendation so much I bought some of the artist’s work. She goes by the handle of Noname, and she’s something–smart, mischievous, funny, and skilled. I’ll go out an a limb and say she’s gonna be a star. Thanks for the tip, Juniper!
The new one (soon to appear way up on my annual list):
The previous one:
Coming attractions: I’ve assigned my comp class the following listening, reading and viewing for our next semi-Socratic (you’ll recall my reportage on our Mitski’s Be the Cowboy lesson last post). Feel free to engage if you need some homework!
How Dev Hynes Became a Miracle Worker for R.&B., Pop, and Everything Else You Can Imagine (Lizzy Goodman, New York Times Magazine)
Premature Evaluation: Blood Orange, ‘Negro Swan’ (Briana Younger, Stereogum)
Blood Orange builds a refuge for black stories on the exquisite Negro Swan (Judnick Mayard, The Onion AV Club)