First Listen #57: Billie Holiday’s ‘Lady Sings the Blues’

Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues (1956) has been sitting on my record shelf for the past month or so. Unplayed. Other than taking it out of the shrinkwrap to remove the print of a painting of Billie Holiday included in the Vinyl Me Please edition of the record to put on my wall, I’ve barely held it in my hands. I got it with the hopes that it would allow me to finally listen to an entire Billie Holiday project, but I’d been too intimidated to do so until now. I’ve put Lee Daniels’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021) on my watch list, so I could no longer allow Miss Billie to sit on my shelf collecting dust. Not during THIS Women’s History Month. 

Photo Credit: https://www.vinylmeplease.com/products/billie-holiday-lady-sings-the-blues?_pos=1&_psq=billie%20&_ss=e&_v=1.0

1956: Lady Sings the Blues

(via Genius)

Lady Sings the Blues is such an incredible incredible project. In the vinyl library for Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun (2000) a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that Erykah’s music on that project was the perfect description of the “ebbs and flows of the human experience,” and I’d have to offer that same sentiment here for Billie’s album. If not more so. The songs on here focus primarily on love (naturally. I mean, what other human emotion gives you such a wide range of feelings?). And Billie (and the other writers of the tracks) talk just as much about the beautiful parts of love as they do the shitty ones. 

Willow weep for me

Bent your branches down along the ground and cover me

Listen to my plea

Hear me willow and weep for me

Gone my lovely dreams

Lovely summer dreams

Gone and left me here

To weep my tears along the stream

BILLIE HOLIDAY, “WILLOW WEEP FOR ME”

And often, that exploration happens on the same song. On “Some Other Spring,” Billie is hopeful for a chance at “[trying] to love” again while lamenting over the “faded blossoms” of love lost that she still clings onto. And that’s only one of the moments on this album where we get this beautiful push and pull. And the roughness in Billie’s voice from years of vocal strain and tumultuous experiences only adds to how visceral the sentiments on here sound, especially backed by a band of talented musicians. While I was reading up a little on Billie and LSB, I was read where folks were saying that Billie’s voice was at its worse on this project (and the others close to her death), and while it is obvious that her voice isn’t as vibrant as it is in her earlier work, she is in no way folding vocally. She was a remarkable vocalist, and you can still hear that on LSB. There’s a part on the first track on here where she’s digging into the lower register of her voice (during the “The blues ain’t nothin’ but a pain in your heart / When you get a bad start / When you and your man have to part” lines), and she almost has to grunt to get there, and my little heart PITTER PATTERED. I have a thing for being able to hear “human” sounds in music (e.g. breaths in between rap lines, sighing, grunts), and that moment did a lot for me.

There was also a powerful transition in the album’s atmosphere from “Some Other Spring” to “Strange Fruit” that I LOVED. Billie’s voice goes from the romantic and dreamy yearning that we get on the tracks before to eerie and haunting on “Strange Fruit.” The RANGE. The trumpet solo we get at the beginning is so raw (gives the one on the first track a run for its money), and the images that Billie conjures up of the horrors of lynches in the Antebellum South are so vivid and heart-wrenching. You can’t help but feel everything she’s saying run through your entire body. And the guitar at the end is CHEF’S KISS. I’ve heard this song so many times, but every time I listen to it, it feels like the first time. Definitely my favorite moment on the project, but every song on here was perfect.

Billie Holiday is a figure in (Black) musical history that has been (rightly) glorified for so long (even with the more tragic parts of her life) that there’s a sort of separation that exists between her and the rest of us – a space of superhumanness. What this project does is offer a chance to desensationalize the last few years of her career. By the time this album was released, Billie had been through more than her share of physical and emotional abuse (and the effects of her trying to cope with both) and was trying to put herself back on track. And outside of the fame and notoriety of who she was, she was doing work that all of us are trying to do (on a varying spectrum, of course). While reading through her Wiki page, there’s a quote in the section about her death where a reporter says that she “had been strikingly beautiful, but she was wasted physically to a small, grotesque caricature of herself. The worms of every kind of excess – drugs were only one – had eaten her.” And like….what a dehumanizing sentiment to offer! To be reduced to “had been” and “once was.”

Lady Sings the Blues (while not her final project) is a peek at an amazingly talented singer aged by a lifetime of shitty experiences. A singer whose voice bore the strain and anguish of pain and addiction but remained strong. And that’s how she deserves to be remembered. 

Bouta go watch US vs. Billie Holiday rn!

Overall Project Rating

Featured Image via Library of Congress


(listen to Lady Sings the Blues on Spotify by clicking the image below)

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