Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Voice of a Lady

Uniqueness is a valued commodity in the world of popular art, often having the ability to outweigh the importance of artistic ability. Having said that, it is difficult to come up with the names of even a handful of real originals. Much of the time when you hear of a well-known figure being referred to as such, what is being considered is a way of life rather than artistic output. Not to diminish his work in any way, but John Huston is a name that immediately springs to as someone who lived a rather wild and colourful life very much of his own choosing. But if I wanted to recommend Huston's most famous films; The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, at least in the case of the former I would be able to say, 'well, if you liked The Big Sleep, you'll love Maltese Falcon', and I could go on with a long list of films that came out before and since to act as points of reference, putting aside cinematic devices that Huston is commonly thought to have pioneered on Maltese Falcon, that is. Mind you, Sierra Madre is a different kettle of fish, and could easily be described as a unique work in the annals of cinema, but having seen most of Huston's films I'd venture to say that the story, and its telling, stand alone as such amongst his works.

Yet there is one whose artistic voice can be compared to no other singer for means of reference, this is because when trying to come up with a list of names of women who sound like Billie Holiday, what you are inevitably left with is a list of singers who are doing their very best to imitate the frightening intensity of Lady Day, who was a true original.

 Lady Day

Holiday's life was one comprised of extreme hardship; as a child she was abused, as a teenager she was forced into prostitution, and unsurprisingly, as an adult she became a substance addict. Throughout all of this she was a an African American woman born long before the Civil Rights Movement. At least in her case, it is possible that great suffering was the muse of great artistry.

Because not only did Holiday have supernatural timing when singing, not only was the timbre of her voice unlike that of any of her contemporaries, but the incredible despair which she was able to evoke in her recordings so long ago is something impossible to fabricate. The jazz standard, usually such a lighthearted display of escapism, becomes a crushing, passionate cry in her possession. It helped that she was often given songs with lyrics that seemed tailor-made for her talents, such as her anthemic Sophisticated Lady:

They say, into your early life romance came
And in this heart of yours burned a flame
A flame that flickers somehow, then dies

Then, with disillusion deep in your eyes
You learned that fools in love soon grow wise
The years have changed you, some how
I see you now

Smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow, nonchalant
Diamonds shining, dancing, dining, with some man, in a restaurant
Is that all you really want? 
No, sophisticated lady I know
You missed the love you lost long ago
And when nobody is nigh you cry

Having met a few sophisticated ladies in my time, when Billie sings the above words, I am drawn into the music as though I were staring into a pair of grief-stricken eyes.

Not all of the songs Lady Day sang were depictions of life during the Jazz Age. She is largely responsible for an early, powerful cry of protest against injustices toward her race in America. The song Strange Fruit is remarkable not only for its depth of meaning, but the fact that its primary vehicle of delivery was a young black woman, herself a resident in this age of systematic, cruelly enforced, discrimination:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Who knows how much the above lyric and its delivery by Holiday influenced the general public at the time? However much, it is fair to say that taking a clear stand against these horrors took incredible guts, especially given that she was a potential target herself. To use her voice toward such an end could in no way be attributed to self-aggrandizement, and I must say that I have deep doubts about the motives behind the charitable deeds of many modern performers. And while it may seem hackneyed to point out the absence of comparable musicians among the current crop on offer, I can't help but feel that the young singers of today, with their childish behaviour and desperation to retain their spot in the sun simply don't hold a candle when compared to Billie Holiday. In 2010 is there a singer renowned on several continents simply for the pureness of her voice? In the unlikely event that there is, will that voice reverberate fifty years after its owner's passing with an inimitable hunger of the soul?

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