Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Billie Holiday's birthday today


From Sam Harris's interview with Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs:

...In 1939 Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit,” the famous anti-lynching song. That night the Federal Bureau of Narcotics told her to stop singing the song, because according to [Harry]Anslinger, it represented everything that was wrong with America...

But a fascinating thing about the jazz world is that it had an extremely high degree of solidarity, and no one would snitch. The one exception was Billie Holiday’s scumbag pimp husband, who did, in fact, inform on her to Anslinger.

The Bureau gives this order to Holiday to stop singing her anti-lynching song. She had grown up in Baltimore when it was a segregated city, and she had promised herself as a little girl that she would never bow her head to any white man. So she said, in effect, “Fuck you. I’m an American citizen and I’m going to sing my song.”

That’s the point at which Anslinger resolved to break her. He hated employing African Americans, but you couldn’t really send a white guy into Harlem to stalk Billie Holiday. So he employed this African American agent named Jimmy Fletcher. 

Fletcher followed her around for two years, and Holiday was so amazing that Fletcher fell in love with her. For the rest of his life he was ashamed of what he did. He busted her, and she was put on trial. She said, “The trial was called ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday,’ and that’s how it felt.” And she went to prison.

But the cruelest thing is what happened next. She got out, and there was hardly anywhere she could sing anymore, because you needed a license to perform anywhere where alcohol was served. Her friend Yolande Bavan said to me, “How do you best act cruelly?...It’s to take something that’s the dearest thing to that person away from them.” That’s what we do to addicts in Britain and America every day—we give them criminal records that cut them off from any access to the legal workforce.

Billie Holiday relapsed on heroin and alcohol and fell back into a very bad addiction problem. In her early 40s she finally collapsed and was taken to the hospital. 

She was convinced that Anslinger’s men were going to come for her in the hospital, and she was right. She said to one of her friends, “They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them. They’re going to kill me.” 

I spoke to the last surviving person who had been in the room with her. Holiday was handcuffed to the bed. The police knew she had liver cancer by this point, but they handcuffed her to the bed and didn’t let her friends in to see her. They took away her record player, her candies, and everything else. One of her friends managed to insist that she be given methadone because she had gone into heroin withdrawal—which is very dangerous when you’re as weak as she was. Once on the methadone, she started to recover—but then they cut off the methadone and she died...

Labels: ,

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home