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Billie Full Of Grace

Billie Holiday sings at a Sunday afternoon jam session.
Charles Peterson
Getty Images
Billie Holiday sings at a Sunday afternoon jam session.

To consider a women's Hall of Fame in American music is to come face-to-face with that music's debt to African-American religious life. The biggest names in blues — Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox — all came up singing in the makeshift choirs of black churches in the South. What Billboard magazine first christened "rock and roll" were the Holy Roller hymns of gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man," the British singer's love song to American sound, pays tribute not only to a style and mood but to a path of transmission, the line of influence that runs straight from the brashest black preaching to the sounds and moves of Elvis, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. The gospel-choir backup of sharp, knowing women in "Son of a Preacher Man" completes the homage. That's the sound that silences Mick Jagger when he wisely cedes the vocal to gospel singer Merry Clayton in "Gimme Shelter," her furious backup wresting the lead and taking center stage. The combined catalogs of, say, Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, daughters of preacher men all, make a century-long version of Clayton's 30-second breakthrough, the woman's response to the preacher man's call now in full, glorious command of the altar/stage and all who worship there.

Billie Holiday made a single, wry nod to gospel in "God Bless the Child," an ersatz spiritual that quotes a nonexistent Bible verse. The stylized gospel-choir chorus on the 1950 Decca recording highlights the extraordinary difference of Holiday's own voice: soft, talky, its deft modulations of musical syntax filling a surprisingly narrow melodic range. Holiday's is not a gospel voice, if by gospel we mean Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston in full-throated, multi-octave flights of supplication and praise. Her style was not formed in church, if by church we mean the great variety of Afro-Protestant spaces that nurtured congregants' unquenchable aliveness in the face of racial terror and injustice. But for a scant year in early adolescence, just before or around the time she began singing in cabarets, Billie Holiday did sing in church: the Catholic chapel of a convent reformatory, the Baltimore House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls. Her stint in a convent reform school gave Holiday bad-girl cred and an ambitious spiritual discipline, and both went lastingly to her style and her sound. Whatever assaults and privations were dealt to her there, the House of the Good Shepherd was where Billie Holiday learned to arrange the jagged pieces of her life into a coherent persona, where her battered spirit was made the subject of confessional performance and where, in the course of this project of self-fashioning, she received dedicated practice and instruction in singing.

Billie Holiday, born Elinore Harris but known then by her mother's married name, Gough (and whose first name was alternately spelled Elenore, Eleanora, or Elenora) was sent to the Good Shepherd Sisters twice. On January 5, 1925, an Elenore Gough was placed in their custody as "a minor without proper care or guardianship" and released to her mother ten months later. On Christmas Eve, 1926, Elenora Gough was ordered again to the House of the Good Shepherd in connection with a rape proceeding. In the report of the Baltimore Afro-American, Mrs. Sadie Gough charged that a Cora Corbin had abducted her 11-year-old daughter and brought her to the Fell's Point lodgings she shared with 26-year-old Wilbert Rich, with whom Sadie found the girl in bed. Corbin's story, reported in the paper, was that Elenora Gough had been put out of her house, and arrived at Corbin's door asking to stay with her and Rich. Another party in the incident, identified as 40-year-old James Jones, was charged with carnal knowledge of a minor on the basis of Elenora Gough's statement to police that she had gone first to stay with Jones "after her mother had threatened to put her in a home." In February 1927 she was released to her mother by order of habeas corpus. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd retained her file and marked it "Did not return to us."

When she was not in the House of the Good Shepherd, Billie/Eleanora lived at the rough edges of a jazz-loving city with a shifting cast of mentors who catered to its hungers and pleasures. Childhood associates in Baltimore remembered that the "best-dressed hustlers used to come around the neighborhood to get Eleanora for the sing." Holiday began her singing career in the Prohibition-era good-time houses and pop-up speakeasies on Baltimore's waterfront, where the girls took street names — Tootie, Nighty and Pony were three in her crowd — rather than the saints' names of the convent. At least one of her waterfront companions had also served time at the House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls. The Baltimore Sun reported that when police arrived to quell a rebellion there in October 1927, they found "some of the girls fighting, some singing, and some dancing."

The combined apprenticeships, convent and street, went to Billie Holiday's distinctive undemonstrative cool, her soft parlando delivery of straight-up talk turned to song. "She had a whole way about her," her accompanist Specs Powell recalled. "Tapped her foot very quietly, her head tilted slightly to the side. Nothing ever shocked her. She could say the most vulgar thing but never sound vulgar. She could curse a person out and still make it sound like music." Holiday's "timeless, floating quality," write musicologists Hao Huang and Rachel Huang, "comes partly from our being unsure how to identify 'the beat.'" Holiday famously sang to a beat that almost always floated over or lagged behind that of her accompaniment, which required her to occupy two different temporal worlds at the same time. The result for the listener could be an "intoxicating confusion": a "sense that truth is elusive" and "certainty is ephemeral; and this sense, perhaps, is one key to the Billie Holiday experience."

In her 11-plus months at the House of the Good Shepherd, Holiday attended a compulsory Catholic Mass every day and sang every day from the Liber Usualis, the common book of Latin chant used in all Masses and celebrations in the liturgical year. It was a discipline at least as formative, one imagines, as Charlie Parker's summer in the woodshed, playing scales. The Liber Usualis was the work of the Benedictine monastery at Solesmes, France, which undertook a modernizing renewal of Gregorian chant at the end of the 19th century. Chant would still be sung sotto voce inside a minimalist melodic register, but no longer in weighty, metrical fashion. "The 'metered time' disappears as such," wrote Solesmes Abbey choirmaster Dom Joseph Gajard of the new method, such that "the rhythm, of material, becomes a thing of the spirit." The Solesmes method liberated the singing of chant from a fixed beat in metronomic time, directing the "notes to be sung quickly and lightly" in the manner "of ordinary speech, or in unpredictable groups of two or three."

A 1903 directive from Pius X sought to keep women and girls from singing the chants of the church on the grounds that singing the Mass was "a real liturgical office" women were "incapable of exercising," but the ban was unpopular and roundly ignored. Father Charles Borromeo Carroll, choir director and chaplain at Good Shepherd during Holiday's tenure, later wrote a book on vocal technique, The Priest's Voice: Its Use and Misuse. Carroll taught that the liturgical voice performs a divine office whether speaking or singing, and that the development of "soulful" qualities in one carries naturally into the other. Speaking and singing the Mass were continuous insofar as chant, loosed from fixed meter, relied for tempo and even melody on the pronunciation of the Latin text. The Priest's Voice devotes sections and asides to "words and diction," "the charm of inflections" and above all the beauties of "phrasing," all premised on the point that the liturgical "voice carries a divine power which gives life to the world."

Holiday's superb diction, idiosyncratic stresses and disciplined attention to phrasing suggest an attentive pupil. You might hear the liturgical recitative of the Mass in the strings of words sung to a single pitch in "Sailboat in the Moonlight" or "Fine and Mellow," or the ­syllabic chant of the antiphonal psalms in every punched syllable of "Autumn in New York" or "Fooling Myself" or "Billie's Blues."Barney Josephson, who opened the Greenwich Village basement café where Holiday first sang of Southern lynching in "Strange Fruit," remembered her as "meticulous about her work." If an accompanist "played a note that disturbed her while she was singing, he heard about it. If the piano was one note behind or too fast, she picked it up. If she wasn't satisfied, she let them know." She was "not a show woman," bandleader Billy Eckstine said, and if she gave the impression "she didn't give a s***" what her audiences thought, it was because she was singing not for them but for eternity. William Dufty, the as-told-to author of Holiday's Lady Sings the Blues, said that Holiday "knew in her bones that a thousand years from now, as long as the language endures, people will still listen to her singing and be moved by it. Call it arrogance, serenity, hallucination, there it was."

Practice in singing at the House of the Good Shepherd took place in a setting devoted to the reform of a young woman's life along a particular narrative arc. The Good Shepherd Houses of this period distinguished between "preservate" and "penitent" inmates. Preservates were girls who, "though innocent and pure, have been sent by legal authority to the Sisters in order to remove them from evil surroundings and bad parents." This is grade one, as it were. The second class were "called the 'penitents,' or children who have been wayward and who are either committed to the institution to be reclaimed or voluntarily enter to lead a life of virtue." If the distinction was observed at the Baltimore House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls, Holiday would have entered first as a preservate and the second time as a penitent. Finally, the third class was called "'the Magdalens,' who typify the converted Mary Magdalene," and who take the veil of nuns to live out lives of penance within the convent's walls. The Good Shepherd's rules anticipate movement through the ranks, with the expectation that many who leave the class of preservates will inevitably return as penitents, and that of the penitents some fortunate few may be reclaimed as Magdalens.

A surviving photograph of Baltimore's "colored Magdalens" taken in the 1920s shows fourteen women, some of whom appear to be still in their teens. A few look winsome, even radiant; others sullen and sad. "Our poor penitents when they arrive, are, in general, crushed and despondent or reckless," say the Good Shepherd's teaching rules."The best means of bringing them to good, is to make them understand that the past is quite past, that with a new name they are to commence a new life." At the House of the Good Shepherd, Elenore Gough was given the name of Madge. In Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday remembered that she "drew the name of St. Theresa" — perhaps a confirmation name taken later, or a second new name given at her second commitment. She never entered the Magdalen class after leaving the class of penitents in 1927; still, she took in short order a third new name, Billie.

The task of the Good Shepherd Magdalen was to build a beatific life from the raw material of delinquency and despair. In the annals of the Good Shepherd, the lives of the "Magdalens of a sad past" merge downfall and vocation in an unbroken narrative thread: the ransomed slave girl brought to the city and "sold for crime"; the society girl brought low by opium; the child denizen of sordid "variety theaters" and "adult haunts of vice," all of them delivered from the "terrible fascination of the street" to the sanctity of convent life. Every girl at the House of the Good Shepherd was at least a potential Magdalen, since it was the lives of the fallen and reclaimed before her, the sins and snares they navigated, that offered her the model for her own. No matter how long their tenure at Good Shepherd, penitents were enjoined to convict themselves anew of one or more past sins each time they said confession. Since sexual experience was what most often marked girls as delinquent and in need of spiritual correction, their confessions likely made for serial retellings of abandonments and bruising intimacies, attachments warped by feeling or severed by fate. Your heart has an ache; it's as heavy as stone. You're a good gal, but your love is all wrong. You get a bad start; you and your man have to part. He isn't true; he beats you too. "I've been told that no one sings the word 'hunger' like I do," says Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. "Or the word 'love.' Maybe I remember what those words are all about. Maybe I'm proud enough to want to remember Baltimore and Welfare Island and the Catholic institution and the Jefferson Market Court, the sheriff in front of our place in Harlem and the towns from coast to coast where I got my lumps and scars, Philly and Alderson, Hollywood and San Francisco—every damn bit of it." The blues, says Ralph Ellison, "is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain."

Today the Good Shepherd order describes its Magdalens as "women who allowed themselves to be found by God" among the battered and degraded, and from that place to "announce to all God's reconciling love for everyone." In the sterner imagery of the Magdalens' 1901 rule book, their office "is to tend in all their actions to a great spirit of penance, abnegation, and mortification, to expiate their own sins, and also to obtain from God the conversion of the penitents." In either description, the Magdalen's vocation, so intimately tied to her abjection, is the advancement of forgiveness in the world. "What was it that I was growing able to hear in Billie Holiday's later songs," the novelist Haruki Murakami wonders, "songs we might label somehow broken, that I could not hear before?" What Murakami decides he hears is forgiveness. It "has nothing to do with 'healing,'" Murakami says. "I am not being healed in any way. It is forgiveness, pure and simple."

The spectacular canonization in Rome of St. Thérèse of Lisieux was reported on the front page of the New York Times in May 1925, midway through Holiday's first residence at the House of the Good Shepherd, where she recalled taking the saint's name as her own.As an adult, Holiday prayed to Thérèse in times of trouble, of which there were many, and she continued to say the rosary. In Donald Clarke's Billie Holiday: Wishing On The Moon, Mary Lou Williams' former manager recalls a story in which Williams attended a funeral or wake with Holiday, who wanted her friend's attention. "'Mary, talk to me,'" Billie said, "'I'm Catholic too.' And she holds up her fist and she has her rosary wrapped around her hand." According to Dufty, a censorious priest once upbraided Holiday from his side of the confessional after hearing the recitation of her sins. Holiday shot back, "You're a white man and you ain't God," and quit the confessional for good. The Catholicism to which she remained attached accommodated vice and forgave it; when the Paulist "jazz priest" Father Norman O'Connor assured Holiday she could enjoy herself and still be a good Catholic, she told him she wished he were pope.

After Holiday died broke at 44, a wealthy Catholic layman, Michael Grace, stepped forward to pay for her funeral and burial, but her estranged husband Louis McKay cabled to insist that no one make "arrangements regarding my wifes (Eleanore McKay a/k/a Billie Holiday) funeral whatsoever or use of my name." Holiday lay in an unmarked grave until McKay, yielding to fan pressure, had her exhumed and buried in St. Raymond's cemetery in the Bronx, beneath a headstone carved "Hail Mary, Full of Grace." On the occasion of her funeral the New York Post reported that for "Billie Holiday, an artist who sang some of the purest notes in improvised sound, there was no music save the traditional unaccompanied Latin chants of a 10-voice Catholic choir."

Tracy Fessenden is the Steve and Margaret Forster Professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, and a Fellow of the Center for the Study of Material & Visual Cultures of Religion at Yale University.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tracy Fessenden
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