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Moanin' Low

UCSC professor Angela Davis makes a radical reassessment of the life and work of Billie Holiday

By Peter Koht

On April 21, following a screening of the documentary Strange Fruit, UCSC history of consciousness professor Angela Davis would like to reintroduce you to Billie Holiday. While many know Holiday as the primary example that illustrates the dangers of drugs and jazz, the Lady Day that Davis is acquainted with is a much more revolutionary character.

In Davis' opinion, to write a biography on Holiday that highlights "drug addiction, alcoholism, feminine weakness, depression, lack of formal education and other difficulties" is a disservice. In doing so, authors and filmmakers "tend to imply that [Holiday's] music is no more than an unconscious and passive product of the contingencies of her life."

Movies are perhaps most egregious in this biographical aspect. Most follow the formula set out in the 1972 Diana Ross vehicle Lady Sings the Blues, which tends to focus entirely on the seedier parts of Holiday's story at the expense of her contributions to expanding American conceptions of race and sexuality.

In Davis' book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, one of Davis' keenest observations is Holiday's radical take on traditional love songs. As with dozens of other "almost it" jazz singers, the majority of Holiday's repertoire was made up of Tin Pan Alley castoffs, whose degraded imitations of black music were intended to populate urban jukeboxes. These rehashes were written, produced and marketed with little concern as to the aesthetic tastes of their intended audience. While a lesser singer might have turned these also-ran tunes into maudlin pieces of crap, Holiday infused them with a sense of sarcasm through both her tone and her inimitable style of phrasing. Even in the middle of yet another love song, she was subversive.

In 1939, she accepted an offer from a relatively unknown progressive activist, teacher and songwriter named Abel Meeropol to sing a haunting tale about a lynching--"Strange Fruit."

Holiday had never seen a lynching. Neither was she known as an explicitly political musician. Yet in her interpretation of this song, she "brought previously unexplored dimensions of race, violence and, implicitly, sexuality into the nightclub and concert hall."

The 12-line song, reworked by Holiday and pianist Sonny White, debuted at Café Society in Greenwich Village. In Davis' opinion, Holiday "premiered a song that, at first, seemed antithetical to her quest for financial success." Her record company didn't want it. Music publishers wouldn't touch it. Audiences couldn't clap afterwards. Despite these challenges, the tune became a cultural phenomenon. Even the New York Post commented upon its impact: "If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its 'Marseillaise.'"

In the year following the debut of "Strange Fruit," Holiday was paradoxically vaulted by an unsellable song from her position as an anonymous nightclub chanteuse to a recognized national jazz star. In addition to her new notoriety, she also found herself firmly established "as a pivotal figure in a new tendency in black musical culture that directly addressed issues of racial injustice."

According to Davis' perception, "It is difficult to listen to Billie Holiday singing 'Strange Fruit' without recognizing the pleas for human solidarity, and for the racial equality of black and white people who are still in the process of challenging racist horrors and indignities."

Angela Davis speaks as part of the Kuumbwa Jazz Center's Jazz on Film Series on Thursday, April 21, at 7pm at the Del Mar, 1124 Pacific Ave., SC; $8-$10. (www.kuumbwajazz.org)

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From the April 20-27, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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