Billie Holiday and the Black Arts Movement

Billie Holiday, Washington, D.C., 1948 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Black Arts Movement (BAM) was a controversial, politically charged cultural uprising, which James Smethurst, in his eponymous study of the era, calls “the cultural wing of the Black Power movement.” According to Kalamu ya Salaam, one of its luminaries, the BAM spanned the years between 1965-1976, and the work that came out of it was highly influenced by some of the experimental poetry that began to appear in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in little magazines and journals. It also took a lot of its inspiration from the bebop and free jazz that appeared throughout these years. John Coltrane was something like the musical patron saint of its artists. But if John Coltrane was the musical patron saint, Billie Holiday, who died in 1959, before the BAM really began to take off, can be considered its high priestess.

This seems counter-intuitive at first: after all Billie Holiday, for the most part, belonged to an earlier era. For example, Holiday biographer John Szwed writes that bebop “made its first full appearance in 1944” and by that point Billie Holiday had already established a name for herself.  Nonetheless, Billie Holiday’s appeal to the BAM is undeniable, and her influence on it is still understudied. In one of the most expansive anthologies of the movement, Black Fire, the poems “The Singer” and “Elegy for a Lady”( written by James Danner and Walt Degall respectively)  pay tribute to Billie Holiday. Sonia Sanchez celebrates Holiday in her piece “liberation / poem.” And as Howard Rambsy III writes in his seminal text The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of American Poetry, “[t]ribute poems celebrating the lives and legacies of Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, and Harriet Tubman were especially prevalent” during the Black Arts era.

This can be attributed to the fact that Billie Holiday, perhaps more than any other artist, embodied the blues in all its fullness; this is to say not just the despair generally associated with the blues, but with the blues as a kind of cultural and political perspective. As Albert Murray writes in Stomping the Blues, “The blues as such are synonymous with low spirits. Blues music is not.” On the contrary, Murray tells us, “Not only is its express purpose to make people feel good, which is to say in high spirits, but in the process of doing so it is actually expected to generate a disposition that is both elegantly playful and heroic in its nonchalance.” The essence of this spirit is evoked in the music, lyrics and voice of the incomparable Billie Holiday. Angela Davis writes in her study, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, that Billie Holiday’s work was often characterized by “subversive renderings of the conventional and formulaic popular love songs.” The subversive approach that Holiday used was to infuse these Tin-Pan Alley songs and popular ballads with a deep sense of the blues tradition that, as the subtitle of Davis’ book suggests, hearkens back to Gertrude Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. These subversive songs thus combined the political and the cultural, reappropriating Black music from whitewashed American pop culture into a Black historical context.

Billie Holiday’s most affecting song is probably “Strange Fruit,” and this song is, of course, deeply political. It is also emblematic of Billie Holiday’s cultural and political aesthetic, and it is through her performances of this song that she truly takes her place as high priestess of the BAM. The importance of the song cannot be understated. According to Angela Davis, Holiday asked her audience members to imagine the scene of a lynching each time she performed the song, and it “almost singlehandedly changed the politics of American popular culture and put the elements of protest and resistance back at the center of contemporary black musical culture.” Thus, Billie Holiday was ahead of her time, anticipating the cultural and political mash-up that characterized the work of the BAM.She brought the musical traditions back to the subversive and political work heard in songs like Bessie Smith’s “Back-Water Blues” or “Homeless Blues,”—songs which evoke the sense of homelessness and displacement in America that haunted Black Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The striking difference with “Strange Fruit,” however, was that it was boldly, directly, unambiguously political, and confronted white America with the brutality of its racism. Holiday first performed the song early in 1939 at the New York nightclub Café Society in Greenwich Village. The location is important, because it would have been a largely white audience, and according to Billie Holiday scholar David Margolick, it was, at the time, New York’s only non-segregated nightclub. This gave her the opportunity to not just speak to Black audiences about a reality they were all too aware of, but also to confront white America with the brutal reality of race relations in the United States, especially in the Deep South. In fact, the song was so controversial, her record label wanted nothing to do with it, as they were afraid of offending southern listeners. Holiday eventually recorded the song with Commodore records, “a small left-wing company defined by its progressive repertoire of artists.”

The blues, being a creation of Black Americans, had thus always contained this aspect of protest, but Billie Holiday in effect created the protest song by fusing the blues with a stark political message. The great irony is that Billie Holiday did not actually write the song herself (as she claims she did in her unreliable autobiography Lady Sings the Blues). The song was written by a Jewish schoolteacher, Abel Meeropol, who used the pseudonym “Lewis Allen.” Holiday also was not the first person to perform “Strange Fruit.”; Meeropol’s wife performed it before Holiday did. Nonetheless, she took the song, with its sound that hovers somewhere between traditional blues and the baroque dirge and used her subversive interpretive approach to singing to turn it into a work of art that was as integrated as the nightclub Café Society itself. This is to say that “Strange Fruit” demonstrates how American culture is European culture made Black.

In this sense, Billie Holiday set the blueprint for the works of the writers of the Black Arts era, if not stylistically, as the bebop and free jazz musicians would do (through what Archie Shepp called “Fire Music”), then conceptually. For the BAM, Billie Holiday, like Shakespeare for English letters, was the catalyst. In his book on Black musicians, Black Music [Amiri Baraka, a founding member, calls her “The Dark Lady of the Sonnets,” referencing Shakespeare directly, and writes: “Nothing was more perfect than what she was.”

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Whit Frazier Peterson

Whit Frazier Peterson is a lecturer and research associate at the University of Stuttgart in Stuttgart, Germany, with interests in African American literature, modernism, surrealism, Afrofuturism and Black Speculative Fiction. He grew up in the Washington DC area and lived in New York for twelve years before moving to Stuttgart where he now lives with his wife and two children. He has self-published two novels: the first, Harlem Mosaics , is about Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, and the second, Robert Johnson’s Freewheeling Jazz Funeral, is set during the 2008 election cycle. He is currently at work on a dissertation about literary anthologies and canon theory and is writing a historical novel set in the future.

Comments on “Billie Holiday and the Black Arts Movement

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    One might mention that Meeropol adopted the Rosenberg boys orphaned by their
    parents’ execution.

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