August 3, 2021

When America went for Billie Holiday


«Billie Holiday was his new straw man. His sacrificial lamb »

The new movie about Billie Holiday, The United States vs. Billie Holiday focuses on the witch hunt suffered by the jazz muse by narcotics agents. A bloody story about which Julio Valdeón writes from New York.

A section of JULIO VALDEÓN.

Billie Holiday has a new movie. The voice of bone and snow, patron saint of pain and jaco, reappears on the screens, actually on the platforms, with The United States vs. Billie Holiday. For the girl from Philadelphia, born in 1915, the law made her life impossible; for being black and a drug addict, she ended up without a license to perform in the clubs of New York. The defeat of the FBI in its attempt to imprison all jazzmen was fresh: with the abolition of Prohibition the narcotics agents, commanded by Harry Anslinger, had directed their gunboats against African-American musicians. As we read in Chasing the scream: The first and last days of the War on Drugs, the Johann Hari book that inspires the Billie movie, Anslinger’s men believed that “a lot of jazz players think they are playing great when under the influence of marijuana, but in reality they are becoming hopelessly confused and playing horribly.” They hated that music. They hated their makers. They hated the corruption that they believed to distinguish, emanating from their improvisations. They hated his formal freedom, his hedonism, his lustful spirit, and, of course, his growing influence. Hari says that the musicians closed ranks. It was impossible to get them to expose themselves and the department reoriented its witch hunt. Instead of crushing the entire guild, they would go after one of its figures. They chose one of the most iconic; also, alas, the most susceptible to making mistakes and ending up trapped. Billie Holiday was her new straw man. His sacrificial lamb.

All animosity was little for who had the audacity to record “Strange fruit”, the chilling poem about lynchings written by a teacher from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol, a member of the communist party. Billie recorded the song in 1939. The impact was long-lasting. It should be remembered that in the blues tradition there are practically no lyrics that confront racial segregation, the parades of far-right groups like the KKK or, in general, the appalling violence against the black minority. Anyone who denounced the hell of the Jim Crow laws in, say, Alabama or Mississippi was taking a serious risk of starring in their own horror story. The verses of “Strange fruit” had to resound like shots of light in the most obscene hours of the deep south… «From the trees of the south a strange fruit hangs. / Blood on the leaves, and blood on the root. / Black bodies swaying in the southern breeze. / A strange fruit hangs from the poplars. / Shepherd scene of the brave south… ».

All that said, the torment was almost always intimate. A hell between his devastating addictions and his love for slightly sadomasochistic love relationships. With a fierce and haughty character, abused by many, a star in permanent flight from herself, the singer, the most exciting in the history of jazz, left a trail of murky anecdotes and personal cataclysms. She died of cirrhosis at the age of 44, ruined, with two police officers at the door of the hospital room, subjected to inhuman harassment. His records remain, monumental. For example, the recordings for Commodore and Decca. Of course, each and every one of the blazing, scorched fifties records, from Billie Holiday sings, from 1952, to the agonizing Lady in satin, from 1958. Although if given the choice, I would highlight the glittering, unforgettable recordings for Columbia with Teddy Wilson and Lester Young, recorded between 1933 and 1944 and collected in an unforgettable box, Lady Day: the master takes and singles. Truly, the treasure chest.

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