Billie’s Blues – Love Me in My Pain, by Dr. Tony Stringer

Billie’s Blues: Love Me in My Pain

Dr. Tony Stringer

January 29, 2017

Do we require that our prophets be Buddhas or Christs?  If so, Billie Holiday was no prophet.  There was little that was Buddha-like in her nature, yet her life exemplifies the search for transcendence.  She had much to transcend——a life that began in poverty, parents who abandoned her, an adolescence that introduced her to prostitution, lifelong battles with drug addiction—–so much to transcend, and she did not always succeed.  There was little that was Christ-like in her behavior or manner.  She could be rude, challenging, profane, self-destructive, and grievously unwise in her choices.  Yet in her lived a voice that could transform the listener.  And despite politically-motivated persecution up until her very death, her spirit and influence endured long after an ignoble ending to her life.  

In our quest for self-knowledge and human understanding, if we are to follow only Buddha, Christ, and others we would place in their exalted company, then I will waste your time this morning on this conversation about Billie Holiday, her blues, and the circumstances that led to them.  But if, like me, you draw knowledge not only from the greatest heights at which we humans can sore, but also from the lowest depths which we human beings can plumb; if, like me, you find an awareness of self not only in the spiritual highs, but also in the emotional lows of life, then join me in this exploration of Billie’s blues.  

[Good Morning Heartache interlude]

Good morning, heartache, you ole gloomy sight

Good morning, heartache, thought we’d said goodbye last night

I turned and tossed until it seemed you had gone

But here you are with the dawn….

Wish I’d forget you

But you’re here to stay

It seems I met you

When my love went away

Now every day I start by saying to you

Good morning, heartache, what’s new?

Good morning, heartache, here we go again

Good morning, heartache, you’re the one who knew me when

Might as well get used to you hangin around

Good morning, heartache, sit down

What are the blues?  Is it merely the color we give to clinical depression, or is it the sheen of insight that comes from authentic encounters with the common unfairness in human existence?  Is the blues a voice arising from the hoarse throat of a particular oppressed people, or is it the universal song of human suffering?  Are blues songs just about sadness and grief, or do they encompass a dark comedy—–a recognition of the things we all go through:  The lover who leaves us broken-hearted; the hunch that never pays off; the opportunity we missed again; the third, fourth, or fifth time we couldn’t help but make the same foolish mistake.  Is the blues about pessimism, or pessimysticism—–the near certainty that the universe is out to get us.  “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”  

[God Bless The Child Interlude]

Them that’s got shall have

Them that’s not shall lose

So the Bible says and it still is news

Mama may have, Papa may have

But God bless the child that’s got [her] own, that’s got [her] own.

Yes the strong gets more

While the weak ones fade

Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade

Mama may have, Papa may have

But God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own.

Rich relations give crusts of bread and such

You can help yourself, but don’t take too much

Mama may have, Papa may have

But God bless the child that’s got [her] own, that’s got [her] own.

“Them that’s got shall have, them that’s not shall lose.”  Billie doubtlessly began life as one of them that’s not.  Born Eleanora Fagan in 1915 to two unmarried teenagers, what little Billie had left her early on. Her father abandoned mother and child to pursue his career as a jazz guitarist, and her mother left Billie to be raised by an assortment of relatives and acquaintances.  

Billie disclosed little of her childhood when she published her autobiography, entitled, Lady Sings the Blues.   But what we do know is grim. Sporadic school attendance before dropping out entirely at age 11.  Sexually assaulted at age 12.  Working as a prostitute by age 14, for which she was arrested and sentenced to labor in a work house.  And yet, in these grim years, she discovered both the music, and the innate talent, that would take her from such beginnings to worldwide fame.  

Louis Armstrong’s horn and Bessie Smith’s voice summoned her from the brothel to the stage.  She went from Eleanor Fagan, the child whose life was the blues, to Billie Holiday, the woman who sang the blues like no one had before.  

Music producer, John Hammond, heard the underage Billie singing in a Harlem nightclub and was so impressed with her voice that he arranged for this unknown girl to record with the famous Benny Goodman Band. Hammond said that hearing Billie changed his career.  “She was the first girl singer,” he said, “who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius.”  Billie was 18.  And she became, at that moment, as the song so aptly describes, the motherless child who got her own.  

She took pedestrian pop tunes and transformed them into unforgettable masterpieces of jazz vocalization. She performed with the top jazz instrumentalists of the era.  It was Lester Young, one the greatest jazz saxophone players of any era, who gave her the nickname Lady Day.  Many of her recordings were created on the spot, in the studio without written arrangements or rehearsal. And those recordings topped the music charts and saved more than one struggling record company from bankruptcy. She became the first black woman to be hired to sing with a white jazz orchestra and the first black female singer to tour the South with a white band. She faced heckling and discrimination, but fearlessly gave back as good as she got, sometimes having to be physically restrained to keep her from going after men yelling racist insults from the audience.

I think Billie’s greatest act of resistance, however, was her performance and recording of Strange Fruit.  Based on a poem written by a Jewish schoolteacher about a black lynching, the song had a deeply personal meaning for Billie.  As an adult she found and developed a relationship with the father who had abandoned her.  But she lost him again when he succumbed to an acute illness and was denied treatment because of his race.  It was to Billie as painful and as violent an ending to his life, as if he had been lynched.  And it was that very personal loss that Billie chronicled when she sang of “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze.” Though one record company refused to release it, and most radio stations refused to play it on air, it became Holiday’s best-selling recording.  

At her insistence, the nightclub, bar, or concert hall would be in complete silence.  The only stage illumination would be a spotlight shining upon her face alone.  She would sing the stark and startling verses in that signature voice of hers, and with the last line, the room would fall into complete darkness.  And when the lights came up, she was gone.  Strange Fruit became her signature song and it remained the finale of her performances for 20 years.  It is a difficult song to hear, especially in church.  But later, difficult or not, we’re going to do it.  Time Magazine called it the song of the 20th century.  As such, it deserves our listening, painful though it may be.

The connection between Billie’s life and Billie’s art is direct and raw.  She sang Strange Fruit with the poignancy of personal loss.  She wrote Motherless Child when her mother refused to loan her money. Some of her most popular songs were inspired by her wayward husband’s extramarital affairs.  That Ole Devil Called Love, and Hush Now, Don’t Explain, directly chronicle the highs and lows of her marriage.  From Billie yesterday to Beyoncé today, there is justice in growing rich and famous off of a cheating man. Will the ladies present say, Amen!  Never cheat on a woman who has an audience.

But if she is black, if she is blue, and if you are the U.S. government, you can kill that woman no matter who she might choose to sing to.  Billie Holiday was a drug addict.  Billie Holiday was an alcoholic.  Being a great artist doesn’t change those hard facts.  But the hard facts of her life could drive many of us to the drug or to the drink.  

Think about what’s happening right now.  Drug use is increasing in every part of the United States.  And I am not talking about the use of arguably benign and possibly medicinal drugs like marijuana.  I am talking about hard drugs like heroin and opium-derived prescription pain killers, whose overdose now kills more than 25,000 people annually.  From states like Virginia and Montana where overdose deaths are up 2% to states like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania where deaths have increased 28% in just one year——epidemiologists now aptly compare what is happening with drugs to the 1980s AIDS epidemic.  A worse rate of death than occurs in motor vehicle accidents.  A worse rate of death than we suffer from gun violence.  How many of you saw the video of the crying toddler tugging at her overdosed mother lying on the floor of a Family Dollar store?  The video went viral last year, with a poignancy that wrenches the soul.

That is now the face of drug abuse in America.  It is the face of a mother lying on the floor of that Family Dollar store.  And it is no longer just the face of a person of color.

So a question that I want to put to you today is: How do we as liberal religious people respond to pain?  Whether the person we witness is white or black, what is our reaction to the pain we see in the lives of others?  It is an important question to ponder as we think today about the future of our congregation.  It is an important question to ponder as we witness the changing policies that flow down from a very different White House today.  

What happens to people in our society who abuse drugs? If they are black, the response has been to put them in jail.  That was certainly the response to Billie Holiday.  In fact, the U.S. government made a mission out of prosecuting the lady who sang the blues.  Johann Hari, in an article entitled, The Hunting of Billie Holiday, details this mission.  The hunter in this story is Harry Anslinger, the appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, an agency that was on the verge of being shut down.  An agency that had been corrupted and badly damaged by the doomed Prohibition-era war against alcohol sale and consumption.  An agency in need of a new target to justify its continuing existence.  

Anslinger was no fan of jazz and no appreciator of the blues.  Such music sounded, he wrote, “‘like…jungles in the dead of night.’” To him jazz musicians’ lives reeked of filth and in jazz music he found not rhythm, not swing, not freedom, but what to him seemed “ancient [and] indecent rites.”  He sent out agents to gather evidence of the drug use of dozens of jazz musicians, and dreamed of one great bust when he would arrest the lot of them in a single day.  But failing in this grand scheme, he ultimately settled on one target: Billie Holiday.  

A month after she first publically performed Strange Fruit, a month after she had the audacity to confront America with its heritage of lynching, Anslinger assigned a black covert agent to the sole pursuit of Billie Holiday.  I’m not prone to conspiracy theories, but I suspect the timing was no coincidence.  Our government at the time found the song so very threatening that the House Un-American Activities Committee summoned its author to testify under oath whether the American Communist Party was somehow behind it.  The lady who had previously only sang the blues was suddenly singing a politically threatening tune.  The pursuit of Holiday ended the only way it could, with her standing before a judge in the case that was called The United States of America vs. Billie Holiday.  The singer confessed in court to her drug addiction, but rejected any show of pity from the judge or the jury.  She asked only to be sent to a hospital.  She asked for a chance to be cured of her addiction.  At the height of her career, she was sentenced to a year in prison instead.  

This was 1947, but the same scenario continued to play on in Holiday’s life, like the proverbial broken record, as she was pursued and prosecuted for the next decade.  In 1959, malnourished and suffering from liver cirrhosis, she lay dying in New York Metropolitan Hospital.  Just before receiving last rites from a Catholic priest, the Narcotics Bureau raided her room, handcuffed her, and placed her under arrest for drug possession.  She died two days later, at age 44, her body shrunken and wasted.  Her final thoughts are unlikely to have been of the next great masterpiece she would compose and sing.  She would have been much too preoccupied with thoughts of her next appearance before a compassion-less legal system. Fortunately her death removed her from any further prosecution.

What do you think has happened to that woman lying unconscious on the Family Dollar floor, her child tugging helplessly at her arm?  Her life was saved by the timely administration of Narcan, a drug to combat the effects of her opiod overdose.  And then she was arrested.  

Perhaps she should be.  How dare she put her child through that?  How dare she so neglect and so endanger the young life in her charge?  How dare she despair?  How dare she suffer the blues?  

It is a peculiarity of the human mind that we explain our own bad behavior by making reference to external circumstances.  The devil made me do it!  If you live in the South, you’ve heard that one.  She drove me to it!  Were it not for this, were it not for that, I would not be in this mess today.  Our own bad behavior, we explain, we understand, we excuse by making reference to forces beyond ourselves.  But strangely the same behaviors, exhibited by others, are always their own damn fault.  And to hell with them.

Social scientists call this the human attribution error—-to find external excuses for ourselves, while we seek inherent guilt in others.   To justify and absolve ourselves, while we blame and condemn others.  

There are many ways to respond to the pain of others.  We can blame them.  We can shame them.  We can condemn them.  We can ignore them.  We can hate them for disturbing our peace.  But as liberal religious people, there is but one response consistent with who we are.  That is to love them.  To love them in their pain.  I ask you today, as you ponder the future of this congregation, to remember that we have a calling to love.  To love the transgender children who have a safe place to go to school because of the love that flows through this building.  To love the staff and patients of the women’s health center across the street whose existence would be under far greater threat were we a different kind of church.  The kind of church that would not be capable of loving them.  I ask you to remember that our calling is to love when we think about where we might go, what our impact might be, and where that impact is most needed today.  It matters less to me what decision we make today, it matters more that whatever decision we come to is made out of love for those we leave, those we take with us, and those we choose to embrace anew.  Our calling is to love, and let that be foremost in our minds and hearts, whatever we choose to do.

We ascribe many things to that flame we light to start our worship.  We have called it a flame of truth, a flame of justice, a flame of protest, a flame of righteousness, a flame of kinship and community, a flame of hope.  Indeed it is all these things.  But the Austrian artist commissioned to design our chalice as a symbol of the Unitarian Service Committee’s work to rescue Jews from Nazi Germany, saw it as a flame of sacrifice and love.  Before all else, the flame that burns within us, the flame that burns before us, is a flame of love.  

Why do I love Billie Holiday?  It is not just that I love her music.  Not just that I thrill at her voice.  It is that her imperfect, messy, victimized and ultimately tragic life invites me to love her. She sacrificed her dignity, her autonomy, even her physical safety for the love of men who did not deserve her.  Billie was no prophet.  She was no Buddha.  She was no Christ.  But I draw purpose not only from the heights we soar, but also from the depths we plumb.  I draw inspiration from those who are capable of emerging from such depths with their capacity to love still intact.  For they teach us that while there is a time to demand justice, a time to demand better behavior, a time to insist on  commitments being kept and responsibilities met, there is also a time to simply love.  Unconditionally, even unrequitedly.  I hope to be capable, some day, of a love so impervious, so unrelenting, so enduring, so true, that it can whisper, if even for a moment, “Hush now——-don’t explain.”

[Don’t Explain Interlude (selected verses)]

You know that I love you

And what love endures

Nothing rates above you

For I’m so completely yours

Hush now, don’t explain

You’re my joy and pain

My life’s yours, love

Don’t explain

And may it be so.