Eleanora Fagan, also commonly known as Billie Holiday and Lady Day, was an African American jazz singer. Born April 7, 1915, she was a major singer and influencer in the jazz community from 1933 to 1959, when she met an unfortunate early death.
Holiday grew to be a rather big blues singer in the 1930s, despite having a rather rough childhood that included rape, truancy, and even a court case at the age of nine. Holiday began performing in small nightclubs in Harlem, New York. This was despite the fact that she had become a victim of human trafficking as a young teen. Many believe that music was one of her ways of coping, that helped to break that mental barrier of trauma.
Before her big break in 1935, when she was signed to Brunswick Records, Holiday was faced with multiple imprisonments that most likely would not have happened today. She was punished for being raped by a neighbor, for example. Both racism and sexism were horrible factors in Holiday’s life and jazz was a true solace to that. Holiday would go from table to table at jazz clubs, teaching herself to improvise by singing the same piece differently at every table. This turned out to be a rather useful tactic because it caught the eye of John Hammond, a record producer. Beyond that, she became more and more popular, signing to Brunswick Records with the jazz pianist Teddy Wilson. They made quite the iconic duo. From there, Holiday’s career skyrocketed! Though her life was not perfect, she had her dream job and was pretty financially well-off for an African American woman in the 1930s. Though with such power and influence, Holiday decided to make a stand. She may have been well-off, but that did not mean that the majority of African American people, especially in the South, were.
Holliday discovered a poem written by Jewish school teacher Abel Meeropol. ‘Strange Fruit’. Holiday did everything in her power to try and make sure you did. It seems to be a confusing story at first, but as one continues to read, the grotesque picture being painted soon becomes clear. ‘Strange Fruit’, made into a song by Meeropol and covered famously by Holiday, is a poem describing African American people hanged in trees and left to rot, no one wanting to touch them. The corpses, of course, being referred to as ‘Strange Fruit.’
A quote from Billie’s autobiography referring to how her father was declined medical treatment when he was fatally ill due to racism, discusses her motives for continuing to sing such a depressing song. “It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South”.
‘Strange Fruit’ grew to be Holiday's most popular song, and Holiday because widely known as an activist as well as an amazing jazz singer. Though Holiday remained popular and even performed at Carnegie Hall, the infamy of her drug and alcohol abuse, as well as her addiction to toxic relationships, was growing at a rapid pace. Holiday had multiple legal issues, even as her career came to an end. She was placed under police guard for drug possession whilst on her deathbed with cirrhosis, a disease of the liver caused by heavy alcohol consumption. She died at the age of 44, cutting her career short due to unfortunately poor habits.
These habits were likely caused by trauma in her past, caused by both racism and sexism, that caused trauma in her past, as well as her career, always holding those societal norms that were against her. She fought against these societal norms, which took a great amount of strength, but eventually fell victim to them once again.