ON MAY 31, 1959, an ambulance pulled up to Knickerbocker Hospital in Harlem, a charity hospital that provided free care “to the worthy sick poor of New York City.” The ambulance carried a woman who had collapsed earlier in the day, and whose arms bore visible needle tracks.
According to hospital policy, the telltale signs of visible heroin use put the woman into the ineligible class of unworthy sick poor, so she was turned away at the Knick, strapped back into an ambulance and taken to the municipal Metropolitan Hospital in East Harlem.
There she was wheeled into a corridor and left unattended for hours. Haggard and undernourished, the woman looked much older than her 44 years. No one bothered to find out her name until a doctor passed by the stretcher where she lay and did a double take.
A jazz fan, he recognized the woman at once: She was Billie Holiday.
Holiday was placed under house arrest at Metropolitan Hospital, and died there some weeks later. Her death would be attributed to cirrhosis of the liver, to an infection of the kidneys, and to congestion of the heart and lungs.
Her estate amounted to a roll of 15 $50 bills she had concealed on her person, and 70 cents in a bank account. She was buried without a headstone to mark her grave.
Today Billie Holiday is revered as one of the greatest musical artists who ever lived. A half-century after her death, Time magazine named Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit,” her searing witness to Southern lynching, on its list of the hundred most extraordinary English-language songs of all time.
Millions of copies of her records have been issued in every decade since her death. No other music recorded 60, 70, or 80 years ago sounds so perennially new.
Why are we still listening? Because of Holiday’s stylistic innovations, in part. Billie Holiday sounds new to us because musical artists who came after her are still coming to terms with her sound.
If all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, all jazz is an implicit riff on Billie Holiday.
Holiday received her only formal vocal instruction as an inmate at the House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls in Baltimore, where she spent a total of about a year between the ages of 10 and 12. It was a place where girls whose parents couldn’t or wouldn’t look after them were sent by the courts, and where girls and young women who’d been caught up in sex trafficking and statutory rape proceedings were held in protective custody.
The troubles Holiday sang of remain very much a part of American life today. Her “Strange Fruit” called out the evils of racist violence in searing terms. Despite seeking treatment, she was unable to kick her addiction to heroin.
Yet Billie Holiday is so much more than a tragic figure. We wish that she’d been spared some of what she survived, that she hadn’t been earning her way on the street by the age of 12, that she hadn’t been ravaged by heroin. Her tragic persona was a way of giving voice to degradation and pain, her own and others.
At the same time, however, one hears a kind of resilience that is very hard-won.
Barack Obama said that Holiday was one of his great early influences, and that in her music, “beneath the layers of hurt, beneath the ragged laughter, I heard a willingness to endure. Endure—and make music that wasn’t there before.”
Tracy Fessenden is a professor at Arizona State University and the author of “Religion Around Billie Holiday.” Her Crawley Great Lives Series lecture on Holiday will be held in Dodd Auditorium on the University of Mary Washington campus at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14, and is open to the public free of charge.