Billie Holiday: The Last Interview And Other Conversations (Melville House)

Another in the Last Interview series of unpretentious, straightforward presentations of great talents in their own words. It’s short, as was Billie Holiday’s life. An introduction by South African journalist Khanya Mtshali and a mere six interviews, from 1939 to 1956, including one the radio station management decided not to air because they felt Holiday sounded under the influence. And then a transcript of an interrogation at Customs that will break your heart and cause your teeth to grind. Finally, an “In Her Words” for Confidential Magazine recorded days before her death in 1959 that laid out the most persuasive argument I’ve ever read for showing kindness and sympathy and dignity to the addict. Her words feel so immediate, so there. Police waited outside her hospital room to arrest her had she lived.

“I just want to be straight with people, not have their sympathy.”

“I’ve got two strikes against me”—being black and an addict. “I’m proud of those two strikes. I’m as good as a lot of people of all kinds.”

That’s how she put it in the first and second, chronological interviews in the book. She expands on the theme 20 years later as she lays dying:

“When you’re poor and black, you’re born into a world that turns your heart into a tin can and anyone who is in the mood swings out and kicks you. You’re only a hunk, a black creature in a white world that thinks you’re just a skin without a soul. And when the ‘meaning’ in you screams for you to make your stand, you make your stand straight and strong. Then the kicks come faster and harder and you’re booted out of shape. But you hold onto your stand….”

What was her stand? To sing. To sing the way she felt, to sing true. Maybe she didn’t have the strongest voice—she expresses dissatisfaction here a few times listening back to her records, always thinking how something could have been better if it were a bit slower in one spot, or faster. But she’s proud of her phrasing. What she does to words that’s somehow real beyond the meaning of words…

“The things that I sing have to have something to do with me and my life, and my friends’ lives, and…it has to have a meaning, you know?”

What does she like besides singing? Going fishing with her husband. Not to fish herself, but to “sit in the boat and eat the hotdogs and drink beer and scream when he catches a fish.”

I think it was a good life.

My friend Jenny Mae loved her. Everybody loves Billie Holiday. But Jenny Mae looked a little like her, even though she was white, and sang a little like her, and lived a little like her. A big, sweeping, roving, soulful, tragic, quick life. A life full of life.

You’d think her story would be depressing—Holiday prostituted at 14 with her mother; the government began harassing her after the dangerous and revolutionary “Strange Fruit” became popular, to the point where she was unable to earn decent money or share her talent live; Artie Shaw made her wait alone away from the white musicians—a great talent like Holiday, forced to hide herself! Yet she is so matter of fact, it doesn’t depress. It informs. She told what was happening, both in her voice beyond the words and in the simple, true words she chose. She informs, and then she transforms. Through a cool jazz scrim, she sings the blues.

 

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