The Influence of Social Context on Billie Holiday’s Music

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About this sample


Words: 3543 |

Pages: 8|

18 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Words: 3543|Pages: 8|18 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Billie Holiday’s influences and her connection with Jazz
  3. The impact Billie Holiday’s childhood had on her life choices
  4. My Man
  5. Conclusion
  6. Bibliography


Billie Holiday born April 7th 1915 was an extremely influential musician on the Jazz scene during her career that spanned over 30 decades starting in 1929. Billie Holiday has been noted as a pioneer of her times, not just for her style of singing but also for her protest song “Strange Fruits” during the Jim Crow era. In the 1930s and 1940s Holiday had mainstream success on record labels such as Brunswick, Columbia and Decca Records and is famously known for song like God Bless the Child, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do, My Man and Strange Fruits. My essay will demonstrate how Billie Holiday’s experiences in childhood and early life shaped the way in which she interpreted inconsequential love songs whilst evoking complex emotions during her performances and recordings. I will focus on the social context of Billie Holiday’s career and how her turbulent childhood, abusive relationships, Great Depression, Great Migration, African American poplar culture and the racism she encountered during the Jim Crow times helped mould her artistry.

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Billie Holiday’s influences and her connection with Jazz

Although no musical education was attained by Holiday, her vocals were unique, masterful in quality, style and her work helped define Jazz. She crafted her musical style of Jazz by imitating Louis Armstrong’s swing and rhythmic nuance together with the self-expression and vocal power of Bessie Smith Barney Josephson founder of Café Society where Holiday performed recounts one of her comments, 'I do not think I'm singing. I feel like I am playing a horn. What comes out is what I feel. I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it'. 

Great Jazz instrumentalist prized Holiday because she sang with many distinctive features, such as fluctuations of pitch to create contrasting elements in her phrasing, which is what a musician would do with a physical instrument. “Gloomy Sunday” and “Solitude” showcase this feature very well.

As a child, Holiday came into contact with her “first good Jazz” in a brothel were she ran errands. Instead of receiving pay, Holiday requested to stay and listen to Armstrong and Smiths recordings on the victrola were she spent many hours. West End Blues recorded by Armstrong in1928 was the first time she heard anyone sing without using words (Holiday 2018). This sparked her fasciation, which held so much meaning to her; the meaning would change every time she heard it depending on how she felt whether it was happy or sad to the point of her crying. This connection to an art form that allows musicians to improvise musically and express themselves emotionally is a clear demonstration of Holiday connecting music to how she felt whether consciously or unconsciously. By listening to Louis Armstrong we can hear how he influenced Holiday’s singing style. Her 1939 recording of ‘Them There Eyes’ is a good example of Holiday phrasing a song just as Armstrong did in 1931.

Holiday’s interpretation of songs also captured her audience’s attentions; her phrasing kept them hanging on to every lyric she sung. ‘Strange Fruits’ is a great example of this effect. Holiday was able to transform the so-called “Tin Pan Ally Songs” and challenge them by relating it to her life, Burnett James essay “Billie Holiday and the Art of Communication” points out that,

Billie’s musical style and emotional sensibility were not of the sort likely to prosper with the more rigid form of the classic blues. She needed the kind of tune she could work her will on, those she could and refashion to her own musical and emotional end, and out of which she could create something personal rather than social or racial. Her art was always looking inwards, in to her own heart, and discovering their deep and simple truths.

“If you find a tune that’s got something to do with you, you just feel it, and when you sing it, other people feel it, too,” Holiday once explained. Here we can see a clear and conscious connection between Holiday’s musical ability and her emotions, which captured her audience’s attention.

The impact Billie Holiday’s childhood had on her life choices

Holiday, born to two young teenagers in Baltimore, was left at a young age with her cousin Ide after her father left and mother went to look for work. Being left behind would turn out to be one of many turbulent times in Holiday’s life. While living in extreme poverty Holiday was abused, and unduly beaten regularly as a way of discipline by her mother’s cousin Ida. Not only did Holiday endure abuse from home; she was also raped at the age of ten whilst living with her mother whom at this time returned to Baltimore. Unfortunately Holiday was sent to a nunnery for inciting her rapist. The unnecessary cruel treatment suffered at the hands of nuns; as she recalls the trauma in her book Lady Sings the Blues, of having blood stained hands from pounding down a looked door to get out, together with the abuse from Ida, her rapist and the arrest at the age of 14 on the streets of Harlem for prostitution would indeed have an effect on Holiday’s adult life. Coupled with the fact Holiday’s father was absent and her mother had left her at a young age, Holiday would of experienced far too much turmoil for a girl her age.

I would like to approach the effects child abuse had on Holiday’s adulthood and argue a case, of this being one of the reasons Holiday sang the way she did. Research has shown that children’s social context can have a large influence on their development and adulthood. Professor Kevin Brown (Word Health Organisation) published a report that outlines the types of abuse that is typically divided into five types: physical, sexual, emotional, psychological abuse, and neglect. Holiday was the victim of four, potentially all five types of abuse during her childhood. The report further states that children who are abused by more than one person subsequently suffer more problems than those abused by one person, which is the case for Holiday. It goes on to say that the negative impact of abuse and neglect on children should not be underestimated, especially in relation to its long-term burden on physical, mental health and development. I have highlighted the negative outcomes as a result of child abuse from the report, which I believe relate to Billie Holiday’s adulthood:

  • Emotional and behavioural problems
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Increased risk of further victimization
  • Antisocial and criminal acts

There is also research that proves children who are deprived of contact with their mothers can often experience difficulties later on because of poor attachment bonds (Bowlby and Ainsworth, n.d). I would also like to take into account the absence of Billie Holiday’s father, Clarence Holiday. Parents shape the way in which we see and organize meaning about other human interactions. So a woman’s early relationship with her father, who is usually the first male object of her love, shapes her conscious and unconscious perceptions of what she can expect and what is acceptable in a romantic partner. 

Holiday repertoire very often consisted of love song’s, which reflected relationships she encountered such as “Don’t Explain” and “Billie’s Blues”. To support my case I’d like to take into account Holiday’s marriages and connect them to the context in which her career developed. Holiday’s marriages would turn out to be abusive and aided the downward spiral to drug addiction. In 1941 Holiday met and married James Monroe, drug dealer and pimp (Horsley 2019). When Monroe was convicted of drug smuggling, Holiday took up with Joe Guy, a musician who also supplied her with drugs. After her mother’s death Holiday began drinking and using drugs more frequently. Haunted by a deep fear of loneliness, she became dependent on her male lovers to an abnormal degree. In 1947 Holiday and Joe Guy were arrested and charged with receiving and concealing a narcotic drug; Holiday, was sentenced to prison. John levy, Holiday’s lover and manager would then take his turn in exploiting her (Horsley 2019). Her relationship with Louis McKay starting in 1950 and gave her a sense of security and the ability to reduce her drug habit for a time. But the years of drinking, heavy smoking and drug use were taking a toll on Holiday’s voice and health. In 1956 she was again arrested for narcotics possession, this time with Louis McKay who eventually left when Billie took up with yet another manipulative and abusive man, Earle Zaidins. The effects of Holiday’s lifestyle started to become noticeable in her performances. The arranger Ray Ellis was disappointed at her vocals, which bore the scars of her alcoholism and willful disregard of her health. Yet in songs such as “For All We Know”, that shadow of self-destruction makes the phrasing sweeter and the glimpses of optimism all the more haunting. In 1959, the year of her death, her final live appearances she performed “Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” with style and grace, her life was in her voice.

It is clear to see the impact Holiday’s abusive childhood affected her choices as an adult, taking into account the report and Dr Kromberg article. Perhaps, then, Billie’s traumatic childhood is a good place to try and understand her and her artistry. Being constantly abandoned by her mother and father, the rape, the injustice, the treatment from the nuns and prostitution could well have contributed to the diminished sense of self. These feelings would also go some way to explaining her abnormally dependent personality, her desire to attach herself to someone who would love and care for her, and then, once in a relationship do anything including physical violence to maintain it. Angela Davis writes:

“Many of Holiday’s songs are pervaded by loneliness and gloom – and remains unequaled in her ability to re-create these emptions musically. By the subtleties of her phrasing and her flawless sense of swing, she offers us a glimpse into the human emotion of despair”.

“My Man” written first in French (“Mon Homme') by Jacques Charles and later performed by Holiday is an example of Holiday’s emotional interpretation of love songs. The original recording is faster and has a humorous feel to it compared to Holiday’s interpretation, which is slow and melancholic. Holiday’s message is able to escape the ideological constraints of the lyrics. She became a legend in her own time for her role as the tragic victim of male abuse, racism, drugs and alcohol, and she appropriated this role for the narrative ballads she chose in the later years of her career, such as “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” Her earlier repertoire was laments of a woman unlucky in love, such as “Lover Man”, and “My Man”.

My Man

“I don’t know why I should, He isn’t true, He beats me too Oh my man, I love him so, He’ll never know

All my life is just despair, But I don’t care”

In order to further understand the context in which Holiday’s career developed, form the perspective of the Great Depression, Great Migrations, racism and the African American popular culture, I would like to demonstrate the effects these had on Holiday’s career. Jazz was known to America before the roaring 20’s, its roots lay within the slaves that came to America. However Jazz was indeed maturing in New Orleans where Louis Armstrong was born and raised. During the Great Migration in the early 1900’s Louis Armstrong left New Orleans together with many African Americans to flee the South for a better life. While Jim Crow laws where gripping African Americans in the South, in the North, life was a less intense. Between 1910 and 1939 the first wave of southern African Americans embarked on the “Great Migration”, which begun due to World War I, and resulted in industrialized urban areas, giving way for African Americans to fill the job spaces. The second significant cause of the Great Migration was the desire of African Americans to escape Jim Crow, a racial caste system that operated rigid anti-black laws.

The Great Migration had resulted in a massive demographic shift across America. New York and other major cities had a rise in African American population of 40%. In Harlem the African American population rose to almost 200,000 in the 1920’s. This would lead to an important artistic movement known the Harlem Renaissance, which would have an enormous impact on the culture of the time. Louis Armstrong arrived in New York where The Harlem Renaissance had aided the increasing popularity and respectability of Jazz music (Schuller, 1986). With this explosion of African Americans in Harlem came with it the influences of music, poetry, dance and fashion. Underground nightclubs, dance halls and speakeasies became popular for African Americans to entertain and express themselves together with whites becoming curious of this culture. One of the interchanges at these nightclubs was between black and white musicians (Gregory 2007). The whites came to the jazz clubs to listen and learn. They’d reproduce these sounds into numbers that big crowds of young whites danced to across town. The white jazz bands paved the way for white audiences to start appreciating new forms of music and the black artists who produced it. By the 1930s some African American bandleaders would be working the big ballrooms. The Swing era would also see the first high visibility integrated bands, including Artie Shaw featuring Billie Holiday. White musicians got the better end of the bargain but these interactions were changing the sounds and the sociology of American music.

Just as the Great Depression started, Holiday moved to Harlem where life was hard for Holiday and her mother. In her autobiography, Holiday mentions “a depression was nothing new to us, we’d always had it hard”.

Prior to the Great Depression, African American unemployment rate climbed to approximately 50%. After the stock market crash in 1929, jobs either disappeared or were filled by whites in need of employment making it harder for African Americans. Holiday and her mother worked at a Harlem brothel and later were arrested for prostitution (Holiday 2018). After serving time in a workhouse, Holiday desperately sought work and ended up auditioning in an underground speakeasy, unintentionally as a singer where the producer John Hammond would later spot her.

Together with the need to find employment during the depression and the influence of jazz that traveled with the migration, we can see the effects this would have had on Holidays career choice. Jazz music became a way for Holiday to support herself and mother but would also become a way for her to express her troubled life. Embarking upon her career while the Great Migration was in effect and the start of the Great Depression, together with intermingling of blacks and whites in the underground jazz clubs, would breed the perfect place for Holiday’s protest song “Strange Fruits”. Before performing at Café Society (the first interracial nightclub), Holiday had just finished touring with Artie Shaw, were she became the first black women to go on tour with an all white orchestra. This would prove to be challenging due to Jim Crow. Holiday quit the band because she’d been asked to take the freight elevator to enter a hotel where the band had a gig. This was one of many segregation laws Holiday would encounter while on tour.

The context of how Holiday’s career developed is also seen in the racism she would have encountered during her life. Although not an activist, Holiday still felt strongly about the injustice African Americans received. This is demonstrated in her performances of “Strange Fruit”, which Holiday called her “protest song” and radically transformed her status in American Popular culture. Her performance of Strange Fruit firmly established her pivotal role that directly addressed issues of racial injustice. Lewis Allen a political activist, approached Holiday at Café Society with his poem “Strange Fruits”, Holiday mentions in her book “I dug it right off, It seemed to spell out all the things that had killed Pop”. Holiday’s father had been exposed to mustard gas while serving in World War I. He fell ill on tour in Texas and was refused treatment at a local hospital. By the time he was able to receive care in the Jim Crow ward of the Veterans Hospital, pneumonia had set in, and he died shortly after (Holiday 2018). Holiday blamed the unjustified racism for his death, causing her to further connect with the lyrics of “Strange Fruit”, an anti lynching song. Lynching’s where blacks were hung from trees and murdered with unspeakable brutality, often in a carnival-like atmosphere, rampantly took place in the South with the approval of local authorities following the Civil War and many years after. Lewis Allen heard how Holiday’s father had died and was interested in her singing Strange Fruits saying “she’d be the one person who could sing it” (Margolick 2000). While Holiday didn’t actively go out of her way to protest against racism, she came across this poem and immediately connected with the words. During the arranging process of the song Holiday recalls in her book,

“I worked like a devil on it because I was never sure I could put it across, or that I could get across to a plush nightclub audience all the things that it mean to me” (Holiday 2018).

I believe this demonstrates Billie Holiday’s intention to consciously protest about something she felt deeply about. Strange Fruits ended up being Holidays most notable work of art. The phrasing of each lyric leave’s the listener with chills, a realization and reality of what “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze” really meant.

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Throughout Holiday’s career, her gift of aesthetic communication gave her the ability to give her songs a deep felt emotion, which underlined her own misfortunes. Her musical ability transmitted her own state of mind and that of her audience causing her them both to connect. Holiday’s performances acted as a lens permitting others to look into their own emotional and social lives brought about by the context in which her own life and career developed. Ultimately, it is clear to see how the events of Holidays personal life together with the social context outlined in this essay influenced not only the style in how she sung but more importantly, they way in which she interpreted her songs. Jazz music found its way to Harlem with the Great Migration and the Great Depression brought a need for Holiday to look for work. Together with the social and racial implications of Holiday’s life, all four of these factors would form the context in which her career developed.


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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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