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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Eleanora’s Birthday Blues

A woman once said, “Don’t threaten me with love, baby. Let’s just go walking in the rain.” Her name was Eleanora Fagan Gough and today was her birthday.

Her tale is not a new story, teenagers, having babies, and a father leaving. Trials and tribulations of single parents in poverty are well known. And no one is really surprised to find out, a child born into that scenario could have been sentenced to a Catholic Reform School at age 10. It is a plot as old as time, and continues with a move to “The Big City” to become a prostitute, and later arrested for drug possession. Perhaps a plot twist you never see coming is a benefit concert for the Associated Communist Clubs of Harlem in May of ’44, earning her an FBI file and presumed censorship regarding an anti war song. Below is her mug shot from 1947.

Of course you can guess the ending, Eleanora Fagan Gough died broke and much too soon at age 44, a heroin addict, and finally succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver. The name most recognize is Billie Holiday. What makes her story different from the thousands of similar stories is what she did between those dates of life and death; however, finding reliable sources to document that mystery is some what of a challenge. Her autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues” contains distorted facts and tales.

What is known of Eleanora is that she sang in local Harlem nightclubs, where in 1933 she met John Hammond, a record producer, and that is where her life takes on a very different sub-plot. She performed with Benny Goodman and made the local rounds, before settling on a stage name, borrowed from her favorite actress, Billie Dove. Her Father was “widely believed to be Clarence Holiday.” Her nickname, “Lady Day,” was given to her by friend and fellow musician, Lester Young.

Unlike many Jazz artists of the day, Billie Holiday sang with emotional intensity, showing the influence of Blues singers, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Her unique sound was also influenced by her friend, “Pres” (Lester Young)as well as Louis Armstrong, whom she reportedly called “Pops.”

I owe Eleanora for changing my perceptions on music. As a teenager, I first encountered Porgy and Bess at the local community theater. I was fairly certain that anyone named George and Ira Gershwin would not have music I would like. I was wrong, “Summertime” and “Porgy” resonated with me no matter what style it was called. “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” and “Strange Fruit” both won Grammy recognition. The singer defied labels.

Billie’s talents also included a gift for songwriting.

Billie took it as a compliment that she was hard to classify. “Certainly, her music was rooted in the blues tradition,” observes Angela Y. Davis, author of Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. Davis further delves into the influence of her love songs and the impact of social consciousness in two separate chapters.

Her accomplishments and tributes include: A Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987; A Billie Holiday postage stamp in 1994; Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000; Immortalized in 1959 by The Poet, Frank O’Hara, in ‘The Day Lady Died;” and lastly, U2’s 1988 release of Angel in Harlem, was inspired by Lady Day, as seen in the lyrics, “Lady Day’s got diamond eyes, she sees the truth behind the lies…Angel in the devils shoes, salvation in the blues.”

Like many creative, artistic temperaments, Billie suffered from addiction and depression. She also had her share of abusive relationships, which started at a young age. Like most great Blues Artists, her songs resonated with experience, not the “Tin Pan Ally”sound she so detested. Lady Day, took the inner strength of those experiences, and used it to transform and improvise lyrics and sounds to match the emotion of a song, common by Blues singers, uncommon for Jazz.

“Don’t threaten me with love, baby. Let’s just go walking in the rain.”

Sources: Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (Paperback) by Angela Y. Davis, You Tube, Wikipedia,,,,, Malaspina Great Books,

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