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God bless the child: How religion built Billie Holiday’s inner soundtrack

April 12, 2018

ASU professor examines spiritual impact on jazz singer’s art and life in new book

Editor's note: You can listen to Tracy Fessenden's Billie Holiday Spotify playlist while reading this article.

The distinctive, melancholy voice; the floral accented hair; the lore of a life marked by lows, highs and lows again; the name Billie Holiday quickly conjures the personification of a jazz singer.

But what about religion? What were the spiritual drivers behind the singer’s songs, struggles and successes? It’s not a theme readily connected to Billie Holiday, but Tracy Fessenden believes religion shaped the woman her fans and friends called “Lady Day.”

Fessenden, the Steve and Margaret Forster Professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, explores the impactful but understated connection between religion and Holiday in her new book, "Religion Around Billie Holiday." She recently shared the discoveries of her research and writing with ASU Now — just in time for Jazz Appreciation Month.

Question: What inspired you to write a book about Billie Holiday and religion? 

Answer: Six or seven years ago, my friend Peter Kaufman, a historian of European Christianity, invited me to write a book for a new series — “Religion Around” — which starts from the premise that we learn something valuable about an iconic figure by studying the religion around that person. I chose to write about Billie Holiday because her music has always haunted me, and I wanted to know how religion might have shaped her life and her sound. I also knew that I could listen to Billie Holiday night and day for the years I would spend writing this book, and never grow tired of her.

When students ask me why they should study religion, even if they are not religious themselves, I often tell them that religion is all around them, so studying religion is as important as studying any other aspect of their environment. Writing for the “Religion Around” series gave me a chance to put that answer to the test.

Tracy Fessenden

Q:What are some of the more surprising things you learned about the singer while researching and writing this book?

A: Between the ages of 10 and 12, Billie Holiday, then known as Eleanora Fagan or Elenore Gough, spent a total of about eleven months in a Catholic convent, the Baltimore House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls. Biographers have said very little about this period in Holiday’s life, and when they do mention it, the convent usually figures as one of the many hardships she endured. It was a place where girls whose parents couldn’t or wouldn’t look after them were placed by the courts, and where girls and young women who’d been caught up in sex trafficking were held in protective custody. But the House of the Good Shepherd is also where Holiday received her only formal vocal instruction. At daily Mass at the House of the Good Shepherd she sang liturgical chants in the minimalist melodic register she retained and perfected as a jazz singer. 

While at the House of the Good Shepherd Holiday was also exposed to the stories of ancient and medieval women saints in the Catholic tradition who had made rich, complicated, venerated lives from their own, very punishing personal histories. She was schooled in their lives and taught to emulate them to develop a distinctive persona.   

Q: How did religion shape and influence Billie Holiday’s music — the blues — which was often called “the devil’s music?”

A: Holiday could sing blues like no one else sang blues, but she wasn’t primarily a blues singer. In fact, she often resented that label, as though being black had landed her in that category by default. Blues or rhythm-and-blues, R&B, functioned as a catch-all category for black popular musicians until fairly recently, just as “race records” or “race music” was the catch-all designation for black musicians before that.

In the 1920s and '30s record companies made little distinction between religious and secular audiences in marketing race records. For their part, black religious records and blues conspicuously touted a divide between them — saved and sinning, sacred and profane, God’s word and the devil’s music. But both brought spiritual resources to the task of plain endurance in punishing circumstances. 

Church songs tend to locate spiritual power in community, while blues songs find spiritual power in independence. One reason the distinction between the church and the devil’s music stuck is that blues came into being in murderous times, among those for whom church was still a place of relative safety. Every black church was a secular institution as well as a sacred one, insofar as it was a place where congregants could bring problems in search of this-worldly solutions.

Q: Billie Holiday’s life is often described as “tragic” given her death at such an early age. Is this a fair and accurate description?

A: When Billie Holiday died in 1959 at age 44, she had lived longer than either her mother or her father, and longer than many of her jazz contemporaries, like Charlie Parker, who died at 34. When we regard her life as tragic, I think we register the fierce wish that she had been spared some of what she survived: that she’d had a decent home life, that she hadn’t been earning her way as a prostitute by the age of 12, that she hadn’t been ravaged by heroin. Holiday’s tragic persona was also a part of her art, in the sense that it was an image she cultivated, and to some degree controlled. It was a way of giving voice to degradation and pain, her own and others. But at the same time, alongside this project and in it too, you hear a kind of resilience that is very hard won, never triumphal or glib.

Q: Holiday remains an important figure on the musical landscape almost 60 years after her death. Why do you think she still holds such a powerful impact?

A: It’s true; we could go into a Starbucks right now and hear Billie Holiday, and her voice wouldn’t sound like a nostalgia trip — it would sound very fresh and of the moment. She pretty much invented jazz singing, and everyone who has come after Billie Holiday has had to deal with that. The great composer and instrumentalist Ornette Coleman said that the difference between jazz on the one hand and rock and pop music on the other is that in the latter, everyone plays or sings to the beat of the drummer. But in jazz the drummer is one instrumentalist among others. So everyone playing jazz is more or less liberated from a fixed beat in metronomic time.

Billie Holiday figured that out very early in her career, the first vocalist to do so, and she changed music as a result. Other vocalists in the big band era sang along to the band. Billie Holiday was with the band, one instrumentalist among others, and also separate from the band. She really was the first true jazz singer. No one singing or playing jazz escapes her influence. If all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, all jazz is an implicit riff on Billie Holiday.  

Fessenden's book "Religion Around Billie Holiday"

Q: What do you hope readers will come away with after reading "Religion Around Billie Holiday?" 

A: I hope people will gain an appreciation of the influence on Billie Holiday of Catholic liturgical music and Catholic understandings of confession and forgiveness, of the Jewish songwriting culture of Tin Pan Alley, of the echoes of black church sounds in the blues she heard and sang in brothels. That’s the “around” part of Religion Around. But music, like religion, isn’t just ambient; it’s also something we carry inwardly. I think almost everyone has an inner soundtrack. We all have songs in our heads. And spirituality is a kind of inner soundtrack, a set of inner grooves. So more than anything I hope readers of this book will be moved to listen to Billie Holiday and to listen inwardly, so that we have her music in our heads as we go about tending the world and making our lives.

Tracy Fessenden’s book “Religion Around Billie Holiday” is available now through Amazon and Penn State University Press.

Top photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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ASU in top 1 percent of world’s prestigious universities, says Times Higher Education

April 12, 2018

University in upper crust of world’s 20,000 universities in teaching, research, knowledge transfer, international outlook

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2018 here.

Arizona State University is in the top 1 percent of the world’s most prestigious universities, according to 2018 rankings announced by Times Higher Education.

Times Higher Education world university rankings represent the only global performance tables that measure research-intensive universities across core missions: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

The rankings include the world’s top 1,000 universities (representing no more than 5 percent of the 20,000 higher education institutions around the globe) and are based on responses from 20,000 senior scholars from more than 140 countries. In total, 77 countries are featured in THE’s table of the top 1,000 universities.

“ASU is proud to be a globally engaged, 21st-century knowledge enterprise that delivers high-quality education and leading-edge research opportunities to learners and partners around the world,” ASU President Michael M. Crow said. “As a community of innovators, we’ve demonstrated that the simultaneous achievement of comprehensive excellence, broad access and public service at scale is possible, and we’re excited to continue building on that trajectory going forward.”

Times Higher Education notes, “the prestigious group (of top universities) is drawn from THE’s comprehensive and growing database, which contains hundreds of thousands of data points on more than 1,500 leading global research universities, selected for analysis on the strength of their record in international research and on their global academic reputation.”

The U.S. topped the list of countries represented in the top 200 world universities, counting 62 institutions, including ASU, among such prestigious international entries as Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley and others.

Among the trends cited by Times Higher Education in its 2018 rankings is the positive impact growing research performance has on reputation. In 2017, ASU was recognized by National Science Foundation Higher Education Research and Development (NSF/HERD) as one of the fastest-growing research enterprises in the United States, placing in the top 10 in overall research expenditures among institutions without a medical school; Health and Human Service funding — including NIH funding — among institutions without a medical school; and NASA funding.

“ASU’s place among the top 1 percent of worldwide higher education institutions is a testament to the innovative spirit, constant pursuit for excellence and a growing commitment to societal impact through our research and education endeavors,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development and chief research and innovation officer at ASU. “ASU continues to pioneer world-class basic and solutions-oriented research that addresses the needs of communities both locally and globally.”

Top photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU Now

Steve Des Georges