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NPR Arts & Life

Turning The Tables: Drawing Inspiration From Billie Holiday

NOEL KING, HOST:

Billie Holiday started singing in nightclubs in Harlem in the early 1930s. A few years later, she started recording with the legendary producer John Hammond. And eventually, she changed what it meant to be a jazz singer. Lady Day, as she was known, fought addictions to alcohol and heroin. And when she was 44, her heart and liver failed, and she died. But she left behind powerful music, including this 1939 recording, "Strange Fruit."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

KING: Billie Holiday inspired generations of musicians. And now she's done the same for a group of poets in Nashville, Tenn. They're called the Blair House Collective, Adia Victoria, Ciona Rouse and Caroline Randall Williams. They recently wrote a poem cycle for Turning The Tables, which is the NPR Music series that highlights the accomplishments of eight women who formed the foundation of American popular music. This week, our focus is on Billie Holiday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Pastoral scene of the gallant South.

KING: We asked Caroline Randall Williams about her creative process.

CAROLINE RANDALL WILLIAMS: When I was thinking about writing about Billie, one of the things that I asked myself first was why I feel so drawn to her. It's so clear that she was navigating such a great deal of pain despite all of her gifts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Then the sudden smell...

WILLIAMS: Looking at any picture of her singing, she looks like she's fighting for her life, in some way. You can see this pain, also this effort. Also, this will to live. Sometimes people look at somebody who's struggling with substance abuse, you look at that person, and you think, you're self-destructive. I think that in Billie's case, the life that she had - you know, the complicated childhood - when you think about what she lived through and what she chose to go on living with, it makes you think, you know, these substances - the drinking, the heroin - that was her trying to fight for her life, trying to find a way to stand the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINE AND MELLOW")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Love will make you drink and gamble, make you stay out all night long. Love will make you do things that you know is wrong.

WILLIAMS: Her voice is clear like brown liquor is clear. It's sharp. It's strong. It's smoky. But there's a lot of air somehow in it, but also a lot of ache in it. She didn't sing right when the chord changed. She took one second longer. She changed the way we understand pace. She said, OK, there's the beat, but then here's me, and I'm going to do it at my pace, and I'm going to allow you to receive this gift of my sound at my leisure. And I think that's a really extraordinary thing to listen to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINE AND MELLOW")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Treat me right, baby, and I'll stay home every day.

WILLIAMS: This poem is called "Treble," for Billie Holiday.

(Reading) This red in the bone. This blood in the home. This high, yellow moan. Oh, it's violent. All white everything is violent. Yes, light skin only mean one thing. Trouble. Trouble to get. Trouble to wear. A hard story, a half mirror. This skin mean my blood. Trouble. Can you call me a lady for the treble hours? Those high, white notes of daylight? Treble. Strain my vein for that treble. It's violent. So I get all right with my all white, hey. Can you hold that mirror and my blues, just this high, yellow arm, trying to get some on-purpose junk in the blood?

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE HOLIDAY SONG, "FINE AND MELLOW")

KING: That was poet and author Caroline Randall Williams. She's part of the Blair House Collective in Nashville, Tenn., along with fellow poets Adia Victoria and Ciona Rouse. You can find a video of them reading their poems inspired by Billie Holiday at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE SEEING YOU")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) I'll... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.