Friday, June 3, 2011

A performance by Lady Day

In her interesting and informative book "With Billie", Julia Blackburn talks about the song "Strange Fruit". A song that will be forever associated with Billie Holiday even though artists of the stature of Nina Simone have also sung it. This song is almost solely responsible of imprinting the horror of racism and segregation in the hearts and minds of people who though that music was only for entertainment. The civil rights movement would take over from there later on and bring to an end this dark period of American history.

But in February 1959, all was still to be won, when Lady Day, in the sunset of her career, made this filmed live appearance in London, accompanied only by a sparsely played piano. She is there, in front of the audience, having fought her demons and addictions, having lived a hard life and bearing the scars to show it.    

Here is what Julia Blackburn says in her book:   

"... There is a film sequence of Billie singing "Strange Fruit" at the Chelsea Palace Studios in London in February 1959. By then she has become painfully thin and the dress she wears is stretched over the angular scaffolding of her bones. Her hair is pulled back from her face and tied in a long pony tail. she looks austere and beautiful and her face has taken on the abstract iconography of a mask. Even though she is performing in front of an audience, you have the impression that she is lost in her own thoughts and oblivious of her surroundings. She sings very slowly, giving full weight to the power of each word, allowing the images to grow in their terrible intensity..."

Lady Day turned into night five months after the filming of this performance.

1 comment:

  1. this song is so iconic. but somehow, this particular performance, as she struggles with liver disease, in front of a foreign artist, bristles with ominous intensity, as holiday growls her way through this song of suffering for all later generations to witness.

    beautiful and timeless.