On Billie Holiday's voice

21:42, Feb 27 2013

I was reading These Lives I Have Buried by Lindsay Rabbitt the other day, an excellent short book, an essay from the Four Winds Press series. And in and around stories of struggle and loss, heartache, pain, grit and soul there was a mention of Billie Holiday. An all but parenthetical mention - but I was drawn to it, my eyes spotting the name midway down the page out of context - I went back to read how and why Holiday was mentioned. As I say, it was not hugely crucial to the impact of the story, just a reference.

But as soon as I saw the name I was transported; all of a sudden snippets from half a dozen Holiday standards are running through my head. In reality I'm listening to nothing. I'm now staring off over the page but Billie Holiday's voice is there. It's with me. In me. I can scroll to her on my iPod, sure. But in my mind I've already done that. No need to play the songs. Not this time.

It's likely that I'd never heard anything by Billie Holiday, at least as far as I was aware, until after I heard Bono name-checking "Lady Day" in Angel of Harlem.

I'm not sure that that, on its own, was the trigger. But it definitely sent me to her music.

I was sent back to her music just recently after falling for Old Soul, a cut'n'paste hip-hop reimagining that rides along on Billie Holiday samples by L'Orange.

The L'Orange album is still doing it for me - but every time I play it I duck back to Lady in Satin or Billie Holiday Sings or Lady Sings the Blues.


We had a few Billie Holiday records growing up; mum was a fan - still is. We had some CDs later on. I had some tapes after that. And every time she was referenced, in any way, it was back to the music; back to study at the source; from the source.

Hearing the Blood, Sweat & Tears version of God Bless the Child drew up a rare writing credit by Holiday - so it was off to find her version. A listen to Karen Dalton is great, but I'll go back to Holiday after. I used to be a huge fan of Madeleine Peyroux - the first two albums are sublime, but from there it's been watered-down variations on that same theme, never ghastly but not as great as she was. That said, a listen to Peyroux, even just for a tune or two, and it's off to hear Billie. To hear it done right. To hear more. To hear it raw.

That voice cries out of pain - not so much in pain but very much in an expression of pain, the memory of so many types of pain so close. That voice cries out like a horn, a bell, a piano even - anything but a human voice.

But there are times when you'll have a Billie Holiday record on and you don't ever need to hear any other voice. Like when you have a Billie Holiday record on. That would be an example of the kind of time when that would be the case. Any time you're hearing Billie Holiday. And every time you wish you were hearing Billie Holiday.

All of a sudden it made so much sense why Billie Holiday was referenced in this tiny book.

A book that talks of lives lost, of the baggage carried, then eventually discarded, some of it still along for the ride, impossible to shake. (All of it, ultimately.) That voice will carry the tone. That voice is sadness and longing. That voice is so many worlds of pain. And it's beautiful.

And as I finish the book I've got Billie Holiday's voice in my ear. Like a trumpet. Like a saxophone. Like her pal Lester Young. Like a hi-hat and a sizzle-cymbal. I'm riveted. I hear her voice now before I hear her voice; the name brings the voice to me.

I think of when I was reading the book all about Strange Fruit, way back whenever. And a couple of years ago ripping through the autobiography. Both times her voice was there - on every page, as I turned the page I heard a new song in my head.

You can't listen to her singing Strange Fruit just once. That song will replay straight after - even if you've walked away from the speakers. You'll carry that with you.

The very thought of Billie Holiday brings up her singing The Very Thought of You. Or I'll Be Seeing You. Or Love Me or Leave Me or Lover, Come Back to Me or I'm a Fool to Want You. The entire Lady in Satin album, in fact. And so many others....

So there I am staring off over the page on the bus. A short ride with a short book. A voice from several lifetimes ago providing the small amount of magic in a very ordinary day. Billie Holiday becomes the voice I go to - the slightest thing can evoke her. And I'll take that sentimental journey every time.

What voice do you hear before you've heard it? Is there a singer who can transport you just by mention of their name? And what are your thoughts on the great Billie Holiday? Favourite songs/albums? What does her voice do for you; to you?

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