I listened to Billie Holiday a lot when I was young. And I found her moving. But I didn’t really appreciate how marvelous she was until later, when I was much older. Which means, I guess, that aging does have some compensations after all.
In the old days, I listened to the music she recorded in the 1930s and early ’40s. During those years, her voice was fresh and youthful, and she was coming out with one tune after another, most of which were later reissued by Columbia Records in the United States. They were brimming with imagination and acrobatic flights of song. The whole world was swinging in time to her swing. I mean, the planet was actually swaying. I am not exaggerating. We are talking magic here, not just art. The only other musician I know with such magical virtuosity was Charlie Parker.
The younger me didn’t listen that hard to Billie Holiday’s later recordings, her Verve era, which she recorded when drugs had coarsened her voice and corroded her body. Or maybe I consciously steered clear of them. I found her songs of that era, especially during the 1950s, painful, oppressive, pathetic. As I moved through my thirties and into my forties, though, I found myself putting those songs on my turntable more and more often. Unbeknownst to me, I was beginning to crave that music, physically and emotionally.
What was it that I was growing able to hear in Billie Holiday’s later songs, songs we might label somehow broken,that I could not hear before? I have thought a great deal about this. Why have they come to draw me so powerfully?
It hit me recently that the answer may somehow involve the idea of “forgiveness.” As I listen to Billie Holiday’s later songs, I can feel her reaching out to embrace the hearts of the many people I have hurt in the course of my life and my writing, those who have suffered for my many mistakes, and drawing them to her. It’s alright, she sings to me. Let it go.This has nothing to do with “healing”—I am not being healed in any way. It is forgiveness, pure and simple.
I know this take on Billie Holiday’s music is deeply personal. I would never suggest it applies to everyone. That is why I am recommending her superb Columbia collection. If I had to choose one song, without question it would be “When You’re Smiling.” The Lester Young solo in the middle is also delightful, a work of genius.
“When you are smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”
And the world does indeed smile. You may not believe it, but it’s true—it actually beams!