A Huge Influence On The Blues By Billie Holiday

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Brief Biography Of Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday, also known as ‘Lady Day’, is considered one of the most prominent and influential jazz/blues artists of her time with a thriving career spanning nearly 30 years. Born April 7, 1915 as Eleanor Harris, she was the daughter of musician Clarence Holiday and Sarah Fagan. Because her father left at an early age and her mother was often absent, Holiday had a troubled childhood and was sent to a Catholic penal colony twice. Holiday found solace in music, which led to her performing in Harlem nightclubs.

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Her career took off when she was used by Benny Goodman on a record, also performing in bands as a vocalist. She never had formal music training, but the intensity and emotion carried through her singing soon made her immensely successful. Much of her lyrics were influenced by her struggles in life.

Billie Holiday broke many stereotypes (she was the first black women to perform with an all-white band) and endured prejudice and hatred to become an established artist, captivating audiences all around. However, she soon became addicted to opium and after falling into severe depression and being arrested for drug possession, she lost her battle with substance abuse, ending her career in 1959.

“Strange Fruit” is a minor 12-bar blues song, first performed at Café Society in 1939. Because of the horrific background to the song, Holiday would always close with it and the waiters would stop in advance. The room would be entirely dark except for a spotlight on Holiday and there would be no encore.

Strange Fruit is homophonic, the only instrumentation being the piano as the harmony to Holiday’s vocals as the melody, her voice the main focus because of what she was singing about; the lynchings of the South. The song is played in B-flat minor to keep the sorrowful atmosphere. The piano and vocals contrast with each other throughout the song with Billie Holiday singing piano and very melancholic, changing throughout the song, sometimes mellifluous, sometimes gravelly and wail-y. Most of the song is played piano with some sforzando to accentuate the lyrics.

The piano plays a few bars introduction mezzo piano and gradually decrescendo to piano as Holiday starts singing. The song has an unpredictable rhythm (because Holiday was queen of improvisation) that moves with both conjunct and disjunct motion with stepwise movement and sudden leaps.

Holiday sings legato throughout the song, however there are parts where there is staccato, such as when she sings ‘poplars’. The piano also plays staccato to emphasize Holiday’s singing. The piano plays staccato again as Holiday sings ‘pinch’ to further emphasize the point. When Holiday wants to highlight something, she drawls the words or sings them staccato, such as when she draws ‘bulging eyes’ but emphasizes ‘crooked mouth’.

As Holiday sings “for the wind to gather,” the piano ceases legato and instead uses quavers and semiquavers for a build up as Holiday cries out the last few lines of the poem. When Holiday sings, “drop” she again almost wails it and crescendos. The texture of the song stays the same, light and thin, until the end where other brass instruments can be heard, almost dissonant and like a final cry of protest before silence.

Note distinctive characteristics of the singing/performing style.

Billie Holiday would usually perform with gardenias in her hair and have her head tilted back. She had neither a loud voice nor a large vocal range but made up for this and would “command attention not with forcefulness but with reluctance…as if hesitant to reveal too much.” -Geoffrey Himes

Though she had never had professional singing lessons, her musical ability astounded many. One of the most distinctive features of her singing was the depth emotion she was able to convey. Said to have “a voice of pure velvet” by Oscar Peterson, she had incredible phrasing and an unbelievable sense of rhythm, allowing her to express and capture pain. She had an uncanny ability to draw audiences in as she “sang slightly behind the beat in a confidential hum and implied that she had secrets too painful to share. And that made listeners lean in even closer to hear.” Her ability to improvise was also remarkable as she would never sing a song the same twice.

Known as one of greatest tempo singer ever, Holiday always said she wanted her voice to sound like an instrument, particularly the horn and she did, bending and glissing notes to sound similar to a horn player.

“When she sang something, it came alive. That’s what jazz is about.”- Bandleader Archie Shaw

Give your opinion of the singer/performer’s music and style. Do you like it? Explain using music terminology.

I quite like Billie Holiday’s singing style, which is contralto, a type of singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female voice type. Her unique voice is small, raspy and sometimes gravelly but it can also be very harmonious and delicate. Her ability to convey despair and delight through her compelling, passionate voice make her a marvellous singer. However, though her voice may be distinctive, I wouldn’t say I enjoy her music (and the blues in general) because of how her songs are very repetitive and alike because of the similar chord progressions. The similar instrumentation and slow tempo (usually adagio or andante) in all songs, as well as the similar topics (love and heartbreak), make her music uninteresting for me. However, Billie Holiday has had a huge influence on the blues, a genre which progressed and allowed some of my favourite music created. 

24 May 2022

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