#45: Billie Holiday – “Lady Sings the Blues” (1956)

The clocks went back a week ago. It’s got dark outside. Everyone is suddenly three times more tired than they were two weeks ago, and I’ve done a very silly thing. Which is to say, for some foolish reason, this was the week I picked to listen to jazz blues.

Billie Holiday has a very recognisable voice, which is more than anything else interesting to listen to. It couldn’t be anyone else. That’s the highest form of compliment I have. Lady Sings the Blues came late in her career, after the drink and the drugs had risen up to be almost overwhelming levels. It came out about the same time as her autobiography, which had the same name. I’m reminded, in an oblique sort of way, of Marianne Faithfull – although Holiday’s voice is significantly better.

Jazz blues, as far as I can gather, are a hundred and one variations on “I had an awful boyfriend; he left me and that’s somehow worse than if he hadn’t; ask me anything”. Once at a time, that feels confessional; a whole album’s worth feels trite. It feels like it’s something the genre asks for, like if you want to sing in this particular way, it has to be about how that terrible man left you but you still love him. There’s a lot I could ask about this – in terms of how autobiographical it actually is, and whether or how much that even matters, but really what fascinates me most about Lady Sings the Blues is track five.

Tracks one to four: all bad boyfriends. Wall to wall, crap men. Tracks six to nine: bad situations, mostly containing useless men. Track ten is a wildcard, that one’s a bit more cheerful. The boyfriend in this one is apparently pretty good. I suppose there has to be one. Eleven and twelve, we’re back to romantic wastes of space again.

Track five is “Strange Fruit”.

It doesn’t fit. But for “Strange Fruit”, this is an album of lounge music, of stuff you have in the background – a fantastic mood-setter, but one where you don’t necessarily listen too hard to the words. And then, there it is, right in the middle. A political gut-punch, right in the middle of 1956. Listen to that trumpet. You have to listen to "Strange Fruit". It's the antidote to trite.

That’s been my conundrum for the week. I’ve also had a cold, a hundred bits of work, a lot of Scottish history. The strange case of “Strange Fruit” is still one I’m working out in my head.