Birthday of the Blues

Today is Billie Holiday’s birthday. She started her famously untidy life in Baltimore on April 7th, 1915 as Eleanora Fagan. It didn’t last long. She died at 44.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could begin with more obstacles to face – poverty and racism for starters with physical abuse and drug addiction down the road. With no status and no advantages she managed to create a lasting body of work and fundamentally changed the way people sing songs. Billie Holiday performed sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall and was also arrested on drug charges in a hospital bed during her final illness. Saying she had highs and lows doesn’t even begin to describe it.

What strikes me is how casually the world would have overlooked her, as countless millions born into similar circumstances have been. It is completely whimsical that we got to hear her voice at all – it could so easily have gone another way. Jazz impresario John Hammond went to a club to listen to a different singer but heard Billie Holiday instead. She caught a break and made a lasting impression, and as a result people will be listening to Billie Holiday long after the rest of us are forgotten.

Here she is with her voice weirdly out of synch to the video – so close your eyes if you have to. I’m guessing this is what the experts mean when they say she sang like a horn player, trading solos with the guys in the band.

So I guess we learn from this that talent can be found an appreciated in spite of adversity, though in the case of Billie Holiday you can’t say adversity was overcome. Her amazing emergence makes me think of a talk I heard a few weeks ago that had to do with the way diamonds are formed and brought to the surface. They are incredibly hard to find even if you know the conditions are right for diamonds to exist. There could be a diamond strike under your house, or under the parking lot across the street, but not necessarily both.

Ever stumble across an amazing, totally unexpected find?

About these ads

58 thoughts on “Birthday of the Blues”

  1. Wow! Maybe I’ll be first today. I’m up early as daughter had to get to school at 5:30 to catch a school bus to Bismarck for Regional solo and ensemble. Regarding unexpected finds, a friend of ours in Montreal found an old violin for her daughter in a second hand store, paid very little for it, and then found that it was Italian -made, 500 years old, with a beautiful sound, and worth about $20,000. I really love Billy Holiday. have any Baboons heard David Sedaris do an imitation of her. It’s remarkable.

    Like this

    1. Yup. Can’t remember which story it is in–maybe SantaLand Diaries–but he is great. Sedaris is one of those finds, isn’t he?

      Like this

    2. I doubt anyone sees this, but I wanted to respond to something in Dale’s post. You have done a typically superb job, Dale, of introducing a fascinating theme or personality. Your sketch of Billie Holiday is excellent. But I had a thought when you ran that list of handicaps Billie faced: being poor, black, female, etc. All true. And all those were true for Ella Fitzgerald, too, only on top of it all she was not attractive. The best you could say of Ella is that she was “plain,” and maybe that’s a little generous. Billie Holiday had a seductive look that surely helped her career (while simultaneously attracting the Wrong Sort of Man). Ella was poor, black, female and unattractive. She did it ALL with her voice and talent for delivering songs. Both women are marvels.

      Like this

  2. this blog is the best find by happnstance i have to offer. to go from enjoying a radio show to enjoying the people who enjoy the show with me to enjoying the people with no show but a daily tweak instead. who would have thunk it.

    Like this

  3. My life has been blessed with unexpected diamonds. I have lived intentionally in ways that allow me to blunder into them. It helps to be a bit unconventional (“odd”) and open to new experience.

    When I was in my first year of graduate school at the U of MN I lived in a horrible little house on the West Bank. I didn’t know a soul in Minnesota except my parents. My average bank balance that year was about $5.00, which was a limitation on dating.

    On a whim, one night I decided to go to a coffeehouse. The Scholar looked funky enough. I had heard they featured folk music, so I hopped up on a stool and began sipping intense black coffee. The waitress said the act was some kid with a guitar, a student at Saint Cloud State. He hadn’t performed there yet, but she’d heard he was good. I was expecting “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore” or something like. Maybe “Kumbaya.”

    Then Leo Kottke got up on stage and began creating a storm of music on his old Gibson 12-string guitar. I’ll never be able to describe the emotions of that moment. I was beyond being stunned. Part of me was astonished at hearing music totally unlike anything I’d heard. Part of me felt I’d lived my life wanting–even needing–just this sound, only I hadn’t known what I was missing. I suppose the closest analogy I can offer is “love at first sight.” I began trying to catch every performance Leo did in the Twin Cities; I probably heard him in concert a hundred times or so a year.

    Leo’s music was incredibly intense in those days . . . scary-intense. The Scholar itself was a small venue, with maybe room for thirty folks tops, and a typical audience was only half of that until Leo’s fame grew. I usually could sit within a dozen feet of Leo. The place was always dark except for a red spotlight. The whole thing–the intimacy of the room, the smell of coffee, the amazing roar of all those percussive notes–added up to an experience very few people have had.

    Like this

    1. i was a john fayhe fan who has a link to leo but in kind of a drunken stumbling way. john bends a tune around a guitar twang and writes with the ear of artist on a roll and taking liberties smiling all the way. leo is so intense. he is always trying to find a way to squeeze in another note and the disapline he brings is a wonder to behold. the 60′s on the west bank had to be a kick and a nice reflection to have in your bag of tricks. hope to hear more stories as time ticks on here. i love the past on times and places i know with details i can visualize but knew nothing about other than their probable existance. thanks for todays. its a keeper.

      Like this

      1. I used to have about a dozen Fahey albums. He was an incredible guy, full of contradictions and personal demons. I used to be friends with one of the guys who traveled the South in the 1960s to discover old blues guitarists and re-start their careers. Fahey was not a very robust guy, having physical problems and enough weird notions to occupy a host of therapists. Read his liner notes if you want an index to how messed up he was. John came to the Twin Cities to do a pair of concerts, and it was awful. He ran into some drunk teens at his motel who were here for a wrestling tournament, and they roughed him up. When I saw him the next night he was incapable of playing. Back in the day when I could sorta play guitar, I could sorta play a few Fahey compositions. Fascinating dude. Not with us any more.

        Like this

      2. i saw him play the cedar in the mid 70s and watched him get drunk right before our very eyes. he played until he couldn’t. memorable and left with a realazation that being an artist is not always an easy road. demons was the word that came to mind but aybe thats what made him as out there as he was. his christmas albums are my favorites. his other stuff is on the list too but christmas was special.

        Like this

    2. I remembered that someone had written about the Scholar and Leo in the shared stories on the web site for the book, West Bank Boogie, and now I see that that was you, Steve.

      Like this

      1. It is a good book, Jim. She interviews some remarkable people, such as the multi-talented Willie Murphy. The West Bank drew in an amazing group of people in the late 1960s: musicians, political activists, artists and some odd folks that defied description. Somebody told me one night that one of the most gifted jazz musicians lived in an apartment on the West Bank, but I’d probably never hear him perform because he was killing himself with alcohol. That was Butch Thompson, one of the ones who beat his demons.

        Like this

      2. I visited the West Bank for the first time in 1981 when we moved to Minnesota. I was suprised to find that the West Bank still had a lot of the culture from the 60s and 70s. I heard Willie Murphy at the 400 bar and also Koerner, Ray, and Glover. I also heard Eddie Burger at the Riverside Cafe and a group of excellent musicans that played Bazilian music at the Triangle Bar. I shared some of my experiences as a late comer to the West Bank at the same place where your shared your story about The Scholar and Leo on the West Bank Boogie web site.

        Like this

  4. Only tangentially on topic, but the Night Owl edition of TB usually has a gem or two that I start my day with before the post du jour goes up. Never seems to make any sense to comment at that point, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what is being said.

    Carry on, Nocturnal Baboons!

    Like this

  5. Morning all! I’ve been here in my cube since 5:45 – waited patiently for TB to get going and then got carried away w/ a project. Wonderful bit of Billie Holiday, although I was distracted by the mismatch audio & video!

    Well, those of you who know me will be able to guess where I’m going with today’s question. The teenager, of course. Best and hardest decision I’ve ever made, best and hardest job I’ve ever done. When I started my road to becoming a parent, I never imagined I would love her so much and love the journey so much. Can’t imagine anything that would be better… even with chocolate involved!

    Like this

    1. it is amazing what people do to a life isn’t it. all the art and music and mountaintops don’t compare to the smile of that little twit that you love.

      Like this

    2. and a lovely young woman she is, verily-you’ve done a nice job.

      ditto on the gem-like quality of parenting-could never have designed a child I would find so interesting or done half the things we have done had I not been the mother of a son.

      Like this

  6. May have to think on this more as I haven’t found a 500 year old violin or discovered an amazing jazz voice…but I do take a lot of delight in watching Daughter as she plucks treasures up here and there and turns them into other things. She spent a good chunk of Friday evening turning detritus that had been buried by winter snow into fairy houses. As she finds interesting things they come home and get added to her drawers of art project material, though the gas cap she found a couple of weeks ago holds enough fascination that it is rattling around the living room where she can pick it up and ponder it from time to time. I may get called in to consult on how to attach that one to a creation sometime…(my job, along with trying to corral the “treasures” is to figure out how to attach heavy or odd stuff to her projects…I keep a lot of floral wire and a variety of glues on hand).

    Like this

  7. i heard yesterday was billy dee williams birthday. he was 74. they named valdo kalrizian as the role he was noted for. i think of him and think of the dude in lady sings the blues where diana ross played billy holiday. mann france avenue drive in 1969 i think. do i still have that brown cardboard double album cover of ladie sings the blues i enjoyed so many times. if billy dee williams is 74 diana ross must be close. hard to think of diana ross as 60 or 70 something. it will be hard to think of me as 70 something in the not too distant future but i have a feeling it will slide in unnoticed. i was laughing at myself the other day as i read about someone who was 60 and thought to myself that 60 is not so old… time does change ones perspective. but those memories are a nice companion to have on the journey. the 500 year old violins are memorable i am sure but i am so amazed by the stuff i run into along the way everyday…its an amazing place out there and all you have to do is stick your head out and watch wait and listen.
    think i’ll go out there today and see what it holds. i’ll check back later.

    Like this

  8. Rise and Shine Baboons:

    I remember in about 1982 or 83 Garrison Keillor did not do his Prairie Home Morning Show anymore and I was bereft. I was sure nobody could do it better. Then, after awhile, these two guys launched The Morning Show at the same time. I was immediately hooked.

    Dale Connelly is one of those rare finds. Thanks Dale.

    Like this

    1. You are too kind, Jacque.
      In the very same way, I was able to find a supportive audience that quite kindly kept me employed for a long time. Thanks back at ya!

      Like this

  9. We stumbled across treasure when we had our nephew Vin live with us 1988-1990, while his mom “went off the deep end” and then got her life put back together. He was 10 at the time, our son’s favorite cousin, and out of that experience they became almost brothers. Everyone told us we were being so good to take him in during that time, like it was a burden. We were the lucky ones – he’s had the most positive, philosophical outlook of anyone I’ve ever known, taught me a thing or two. We missed him terribly when he rejoined his mom, but he stayed in our lives all this time – he’s the “nephew-son” who just got married on April 1.

    Like this

  10. I’m with Steve on this one: “It helps to be a bit unconventional (“odd”) and open to new experience.”

    My diamonds have been too numerous to mention, much less recall one or two special gems that have stood out. Many center around music (I’ve discovered more than a few on the late, great, beloved ‘Morning Show’ with Dale and Jim Ed, who did one hell of a lot of diamond mining for the rest of us.).

    Many center around food–finding that little, no-name bistro in a strip mall in Chicagoland that served Michelin-star quality food was one of my wife’s and my favorite pasttimes when we lived there. Or stumbling across the best chips and salsa I’ve ever eaten in a tiny Mexican joint in Buena Vista, CO, during a long road trip. Or just driving a few miles out of the way to eat an adventurous meal in a small town or quiet neighborhood instead of opting for the freeway/big city convenience of fast food or chain restaurants.

    Many other diamonds have been collected on travels, finding those out of the way, unknown hotels, clubs, sights, natural wonders that few have visited. In rare cases, finding someplace that fewer still even know exist. Paddling the Upper Missouri River Breaks in North-central Montana with my father, in homage to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, springs to mind. Now THAT’S a wilderness.

    A fourth area is music. Getting out to hear the local musicians while traveling. I heard a dynamite jazz group in Kansas City, playing in a downtown hotel lounge, with about five people listening. How come those guys weren’t international jazz stars.

    Or the rollicking fun of the ad-hoc band on San Antonio’s Riverwalk one Monday night, featuring the most amazing trombonist I’ve ever heard. The man was the Maynard Ferguson of the trombone, and more.

    Oops, I guess I have recalled and named a few of my diamond finds. Once I get on a roll …

    Taking the road less travelled in all aspects of life is how to find the diamonds. Few have done any prospecting in those areas. A lot of the diamonds are in our own backyard, but they may be covered up by coal dust. You won’t find them if you don’t dig a little. Thanks for the good prompt this morning, Dale. The world would be a better place if everyone started off each day listening to some classic jazz.

    Chris

    Like this

    1. Thanks for the finds, Chris.
      Early morning jazz therapy is another good idea to set the tone for a day’s work. Could the government shutdown avoidance negotiators benefit from listening to “Fine and Mellow”? It might be just the thing that helps avoid a catastrophe.

      Like this

      1. You are so much more elegant than I, Dale. You want to unblock the negotiations with jazz. I was thinking more like giving every Republican congress person a big Fleet enema. Get things moving.

        Like this

    2. great post chris, i read a book after hearing calvin trillen speak that made your point. my kids think im strange but thats what kids are supposed to think isn’t it. calvin was/the new yorker food critic and his whole deal was to find what is best locally and roll with it.
      google. “Dept. of Gastronomy: By Meat Alone”. The New Yorker.
      its way to easy to do burger king and redlobster. all the local flavor is in the search. my son and i went to kansas city this past summer and we had one afternoon to do something just him and me so i said lets go find kansas city barb que. we were there with a legion baseball team staying at the comfort suites at the freeway exit 12 miles from town where there was a rib joint that looked like an applebees and by all reports couldn’t be beat. we had to go find the joint in the city in the working man part of town where the ine was 15 minutes long to get in and the formica tables lined up cafeteria style was anything but glamorous and the slab of ribs and cole slaw was all that anyone ordered. he didn’t want to order because the slab was 18 dollars and no way could he eat a whole slab. i am a viggie so i enjoyed the slaw and watched him eat the whole rack in just under 12 minutes surprised when it was gone that thats all there was. it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip and woud have never come up if not for the exact logic you suggest here. i am with you on this one chitrader. we found a good mexican food spot with a huge local following same way in san antonio, now that you mention it. one of the things i hate most about traveling around china without a translator is that i have to eat safe. when i have a translator and can be certain i am requesting veggie stuff i have wonderful meals.

      Like this

      1. Mmm, Tim, you jogged my memory of another gem, although it’s a relatively famous gem–Arthur Bryant’s in KC! I think I had the ‘smoked ends’ and the smokiness lingered for what seemed like hours, similar to the finish of a great wine.

        Bryant’s was just like the place you described; non-descript, working-class neighborhood, plastic tablecloths, cafeteria serving line, but oh, my goodness, the BBQ! That was the first time I tasted ‘real’ BBQ. It’s what I try to copy when I make my own at home.

        Chris

        ps to Dale: At times like this, I think the legislators are beyond hope. If they’re diddling away over a couple billion dollars, what’s going to happen when they start talking trillions?? They don’t deserve to hear any jazz until they make some real decisions! (He said indignantly)

        Like this

  11. enjoying everyone’s finds – kids – whether your own or someone else’s, human or critter, always seem to add a surprising amount of joy. it always makes me happy to hear a parent or caretaker describe the love and joy they feel for the child. very nice.

    on that note, i’ll say “Lassi” – i bought her because i wanted her sister, Kona, and didn’t have much hope for her mothering or milking capabilities. this morning i milked her a bit for the first time on the milk stand. she ate like a trooper, she murmured to her little Juju, and she stood with her hind legs stretched back so i could reach those teeny little teats. didn’t kick the bucket – a total surprise. Kona, who is still the better looking goat, is wonderful but not as willing to stand for me yet. that will come.
    OT Kona’s Boy goes to his new home on sunday afternoon – i’m not naming him but i’m already attached. his new owner will care for him kindly and he will have another small buckling as a pen pal and she will bottle feed them her goats’ milk. it’s part of the deal – not an easy part though.

    Like this

    1. thanks for keeping us up to speed on the kids. i would have a hard time with the shipping them out part of the deal but i guess that is part of the deal as you say. milk on.

      Like this

  12. I am definitely a treasure hunter. I love antiquing, bookstore hunting, eBay trolling…looking for that overlooked treasure. ‘The thrill of the chase’ is very appealing to me.

    Clyde may recall a few years ago when a friend of mine, whose family owns an antique store in Mankato, found a copy of Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman) at a rummage/estate sale. They told the home owner what they had and helped them sell it through Christie’s (?) auction house.

    Like this

    1. the world is full of nice people. they don’t make the same headlines do they.
      i am looking forward to the garage sale season about to launch here with the sunshine. wednesdays and thursdays 8-12 is my time to treasure hunt. albums and old stereos are the bargians found most often. but keep your eyes open. the most amazing find is often the one you wern’t looking for but just hapened on and were lucky enough to be paying attention.

      Like this

    2. I think you mean the store Earthy Remains, the contents of which were just auctioned off and the building is for sale.

      Like this

      1. What??? Aw….crud. I haven’t seen Jordan in a long time…I hope he and his clan are doing ok.

        Like this

  13. Good morning to all:

    Billy Holiday is one of my favorites. John Hammond made a big discovery. In my early years in college I spent a lot of time listening to jazz and reading about jazz. Finding out about this music and learning to appreciate it was a big discovery for me.

    Through my participation in sustainable farming I have met some remarkable farmers. I was not the one who discovered these farmers. My role has been to get these farmers more involved in educational work and, to a lesser extent, in research. The most remarkable of these farmers, in my opinion, is Dick and Sharon Thompson. They were the leaders for the work I did with the Rodale Institute’s Midwest Farmers’ Network and are one of the nation’s leaders in promoting and advancing sustainable farming.

    Like this

  14. Morning–

    The first thing that comes to mind is several years ago Red House records was ‘cleaning out their warehouse’ and selling 10 random CD’s for $20 or something. In the random collection I received were Stephen Fearing, The Colorblind James Experience and Adrian Legg.
    WONDERFUL!

    Once upon a time there was this girl…. she volunteered at a theater I volunteered at. She was a reporter for the local MPR station. So I started listening to MPR so I could impress her. Found PHC, found The Morning Show, and consequently found all you.

    Enjoy the day!

    Like this

    1. MPR used to have a free samples CD assortment that pledge drive volunteers could paw through. The station obviously got a lot of free promotional copies of new CDs. These would be strewn all over a big table. After doing your hitch answering phones you could look for a gem amongst the dross.

      Like this

      1. I’ve pawed through that pile myself Steve. I never got anything really noteworthy but it was a nice perk none the less.

        Like this

    2. Hmm…I recall that your sweetie was met doing theater (I recall a story about a spotlight), so clearly this was an earlier crush – but if it got you to us, that’s the important part. ;)

      Like this

      1. Yep; different girl… lost track of this one and that’s OK. :-)

        (This is Tech week for me; has had it’s ups and downs as they always do… but I think I will survive; got some Mt Dew left and bought more Snickers today).

        Like this

  15. Ah, I’d forgotten about garage sales, thanks for mentioning, tim. Lots of unique treasures – it’s like gambling: you have to put in your time going to lots of penny slot type sales, and then once in a while you hit the jackpot. Favorite garage sale story:
    Back in ’81, the summer we were on our friends’ farm (and the only summer I milked goats, Barb) Janis and I would leave the babies with the guys on Saturday mornings, get our coffee thermos and head out. One morning we found the coolest little German wood burning stove – we thought it would be just the thing for the garage/workshop the guys were planning to build. With only a little indecision we plunked down the $25 and put it in the back of the Suburban, then proudly displayed our treasure to the men when we got home. Unfortunately, they were not impressed… there was some part missing (stovepipe?), and the garage never quite materialized. We were laughed out of the house, and we learned our lesson. Next time we were out and found ladders, we made sure to find a pay phone and call them first to see if the ladders were wanted. By the time we got back, they were gone, and the guys’ comment: “Of course you shoud buy ladders – we can always use ladders.”

    Like this

  16. Nope, I never have, except maybe the bottom of many boxes. Getting close to moved in, except for the three pieces of furniture and the 50 or more farmed works of art to trash. But none of those is a treasure, except to us.

    Like this

  17. There is a television show all about finding diamonds in unexpected places. The PBS version of “Antiques Roadshow” can be fun. I’m not interested in the economic value of the objects people drag into the show, but it is interesting to hear the appreciation of them that is delivered by the appraisal expert. I enjoy learning what makes for a great or just good piece of pottery.

    But I mostly enjoy seeing people get weak-kneed and stunned when they learn that some ugly pot they have been hiding in the basement is so valuable that selling it would pay for their kid’s college. Most people have interesting reactions. A common reaction is a gulp or gasp followed by some stammered expression like, “Of course, this is a family heirloom, and I’d never part with it.” And you can see the dollar signs in the eyes as that person frantically plans on a way to cash in.

    Some reactions are priceless. A woman who showed up with a painting that turned out to be worth something like $50,000 was so thunderstruck by the quote that her eyes glazed over and she weakly said, “I beg your pardon.” She came close to fainting. After hearing the quote again she asked in a sweet, distressed voice if there was a place she could sit down.

    It is interesting to contrast those reactions with those you see on the original British version of this show. With some exceptions, the Brits seem determined to hear the value quotation without showing the least emotion. They hold their haughty expressions, and even the tips of their mustaches don’t twitch!

    Like this

  18. I’ve found two gems in unexpected places. The first is, of course, the late, great Morning Show with Dale and Jim Ed. Thanks for bringing us so much music, Dale. I knew there was a radio show out there for me and then one day there you were! Your show got every morning off to a great start for me. It was a perfect and natural fit for my life and I felt like it would never go away. It made me late for work though. Often.

    The second unexpected find was Rock Bend Folk Festival. It started with a group of friends taking Ross Gersten’s idea and running with it. (“Like, why don’t we all get all of our friends and just play music in the park all weekend, man?”) Rock Bend has been going strong for 20 years and will celebrate 21 this September. Its philosophies remain unchanged. Rock Bend always will be free for everyone and never will be “coerced, coopted, or besmirched by the proliferating greed of commercialism.” It’s all about music, people and fun. Like the LGMS, it is a spontaneous work of art that worked out and is a great success every year. I’m glad to be a part of it.

    This group is an unexpected find too. I guess I do have three! tim said it best earlier today. He said something about going from really enjoying the LGMS to enjoying the people who were enjoying it too… that’s great!

    Like this

  19. Good news! I tracked down two more soup spoons! Now I can feed soup to 8 baboons. (Tim gets to use the slotted spoon, so he will make 9).

    Like this

  20. Dale, nice note about Billie. Thanks, love her. My big discovery today: your news item on KFAI! Made my day to hear you on the air in the morning again (Peter O, too!). I hope you do more work for them, you need each other! You sound great, keep it up!
    Best wishes,
    -BtA

    Like this

Comments are closed.