Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915 was a jazz singer and performer during an age when women were really starting to flex their muscles. To countless American women she gave strength and courage to challenge the complex interplay between race, class and gender.
None of this was know to me when I latched onto her music in my youth. In my first clumsy attempts at flirting, I recited a few lines from Billie's song, "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl", to a co-worker with disastrous consequences. "I want a little sugar in my bowl, some steam on my clothes, " I told him. Naturally, he didn't stand a chance against the beguiling words of the sultry Lady Day. I, on the other hand, was terrified and realized too late what an effect such words could have on a man. I was a girl playing a woman's game, out of my league but to young and inexperienced to know better.
Later, Billie Holiday helped me make it through my first real heartbreak. Boys had come and gone but this one was different and I was sure it was love. We moved in together and I sold my car to finance repairs to his. I threw everything I had into the relationship only to come home one day to find he had simply been biding his time until something better came along. Abruptly, it was over. My love had left the house a shambles and turned off all the utilities. I felt utterly alone with no car, no phone and barely enough money to get the lights turned back on. I slept all day and listened to Billie Holiday all night. "In My Solitude", she was my sanctuary and my solace. I could hear in her voice that she knew what I was going through, "Filled with despair, gloom everywhere, I know that I'll soon go mad….in my solitude." She shared this deep, dull, engulfing pain. Billie had been there. Billie had done that. She told me it was okay to cry. Get the sorrow out of your system then get your big girl pants on and go kick some ass!
I found long ago that Billie Holiday was a rock to countless women and not "mine" at all. However I still feel a personal connection to her life and music. It's the same illogical feeling that I had as a very young girl when I realized I may not be my "best friends" best friend. It's a feeling of familiarity and possessiveness that says, "Yeah, you might like her but there is no way you could know her the way I do."
Of course, when it's all said and done Billie doesn't belong to anyone but rather she speaks to all of us. The heartbroken, the oppressed, the warrior, the mother, the daughter, the spurned lover. She is the quintessential woman, managing to make each of us feel like the only one in the world that matters.
Happy Birthday, Billie, thank you for being there for us.