I sometimes like to read about the seedier side of life because that’s where I see the diamonds in the rough, the flowers that bloom in November.
Just before we have our little tea and biscuit chat about Billie Holiday, because that’s the topic of today’s post, I’d like to give a little mention to a flowering plant called the ‘Sea Daisy.’ What’s that got to do with blues singer Billie Holiday you say, well, I’ll tell you, but all in good time.
I acquired the seed, quite by accident. When I was moving to the coast, several years ago, I dropped the pot. Plant, soil and all. My husband, realist that he is said, ‘You’ve lost that now, just bin it.’ and being the dreamer, idealist, that I am,(not necessarily an optimist) I got down on my knees and started to scrape up the earth with my hands, putting it back in the broken pot, much to the amusement of all my new neighbours, who were nosing around at the time.
A little baby leaf, about the size of a fingernail was all I had left of the plant that had died on the kerb, and it wasn’t even attached to anything, so I stuck it in into the soil, put in on the sill of the tiny window, in that dark little (temporary) bedsit, prayed over it, gave it love, baby. How do you give a plant love? Hard to explain. I’m not really one for expression of love, although I do feel it, I suppose, whatever it was, is, I gave it to that pot of soil, with the little biddy leaf.
The leaf grew, went from strength to strength, and I got some funky green things growing, man. It was far out. The plant did indeed regain its former glory but also, also, a strange new plant was born. Sea Daisies. They bloom in April/May and then again in the constant rainy gloom of November, where the days are short and dark, like the chocolate bars of today, but that’s seasons for you, you can’t live with ’em, you can’t live without ’em…
Of course, I notice them more in November. Looking at those copious and vibrant amounts of beautiful pink flowers, year after year, during such a dark, damp November day, would put hope for the promise of spring in most people’s hearts. Any time I feel down, especially during these short days, I just look at those flowers in November and it cheers me right up. I’m looking at them right now. Here’s mine, a bit blurred, but then, I can never take a good picture, always blurred.
Flowers in November and diamonds in the rough and light in the darkest places… brings me right back to Billie.
Short listed for the Orange Prize, the book ‘With Billie’ by Julia Blackburn, instantly drew my attention because she sort of rescued the book, or rather a portion of material for the book. The woman who was originally accumulating all the research was Linda Kuehl. She painstaking and extensively gathered personal letters, photo’s, transcripts, documents from courts, hospitals, police rooms, newspaper cuttings and two shoe boxes full of audio tapes, full to the brim with interviews from everyone to John Levy the bass player to John Levy, the pimp.
Tragically, Linda Kuehl, committed suicide, by jumping from her apartment building, before the completion of her book. It is not known what had tipped her over the edge.
So, already, Julia Blackburn’s book, has a rather interesting back story, not a nice one, but still interesting.
A Jewish guy called Abel Meeropol, wrote a poem called ‘Strange Fruit‘, about the systematic murder of black men by racist groups. Cause of death, strangulation, through lynching. He had been disturbed by a photograph of the murder scene and its victim. He set the poem to music and later changed his name to Lewis Allen. When the song is performed by Billie Holiday, it is still reminiscent of a poetry performance, the music accompaniment and melody is minimal, making the lyric and atmosphere even more potent. In the early 1900’s, lynching was at it’s most prevalent but was still going on in the forties. Black men were lynched for the ‘crime’ of ‘uppitiness’, a black man might be getting ‘above his station’, through job promotions, signs of growing wealth, going out with a woman he shouldn’t be going out with, any excuse. Billie herself had experienced segregation, even at the peak of her career and success. Even in some places in New York, facilities were out of bounds to her, restaurants, toilets, hotels, venues that white people took for granted. Sometimes she would have to stay in her room until she was called upon to sing her songs.
Billie cites one of the main reasons why the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the FBI was always on her case, was because of that song. After she recorded it and it did so well, she felt it was no coincidence that they were always breathing down her neck. The minute she sung the last note of that song, she became, unwittingly, a political activist. Unwittingly, because she claimed she didn’t know what the song was about, at first. The poem is not without its clever subtleties, symbolisms and metaphors.
She was soon to understand, as time went on, how volatile it really was, and how it would guarantee that even, as she lay in her sick bed, she would be harassed by the authorities until the bitter end. Apparently, she had been getting much better in hospital, eating well and recovering enough to feel optimistic about the future.
But then a nurse reported the presence of white powder around her nose and she was instantly arrested, interrogated, all simple comforts removed from her bedside. No possibility of bail, kept under watch every minute of the day. She was told that now, even if she got better, she would be transferred straight from hospital to prison.
Something broke in Billie that day. All her life, she had battled demons, survived a childhood of abuse, a life time of prostitution, a war with addiction, and finally, her very last battle with the authorities, before the wave of the white flag. All her life, she may have given in, but she never gave up. Now, it was time. Within the month, she was dead.
Many jazz musicians, black and white, were using drugs around the same time Billie was, including jazz legends Sarah Vaughan and Gerry Mulligan. Sarah Vaughan was targeted more readily than Gerry Mulligan. Perhaps, also being black, female and a friend of Billie’s may have made her fair game but as Billie said from a 1947 interview from Downbeat magazine, ‘I’ve made a lot of enemies. Singing that song hasn’t helped any.’
Jimmy Fletcher, a Federal Narcotics Agency officer, was a man who had some regrets regarding the hounding of Billie. He appears to have had conflicting emotions, on one hand, understandably, he hated drugs and all they stood for, but he had a respect for Billie that had little to do with her being a singer and more to do with her humanity, what she was, not who she was. She had class, despite the quagmire that she had found herself in. Although completely swallowed up by her environment, she somehow, in some way, was able to rise above it. Her lack of confidence in the face of her fame and especially her talent, gave her an attractive modesty, a beguiling humility. She was known to be intelligent, kind and appeared to have integrity. Jimmy Fletcher noted that he had an opportunity to help her a few times and never took him up on it. Apparently, that was typical of Billie, she never called in favours from people she had much to get back from.
She came from the gutter and lived in it, but her ‘goodness’ gave her class. I’m not talking about social class, not monetary, silver spoon or hereditary. We all know the biggest fools and mightiest asses can and often do run roughshod through all the social classes, and there’s scum to be found on every shoe. Humanity, integrity, goodness, they’re the important qualities that denote class, in the true meaning of the word. What scale are we on ?
I’m going to leave Jimmy Fletcher with the last word, or at least, second to last. He said of Billie that ‘She was the loving type.’ Many would find it almost impossible to be the ‘loving type’ in an environment like that, and with an upbringing like that. It’s almost a miracle, but then, we know it must be possible, for we have seen flowers blooming in November.