Poetry Friday: Brewin’ the Blues

h1 September 5th, 2008 by jules

When I worked as an educational sign language interpreter, I can’t tell you how many classes I interpreted at the college level — even the graduate and post-doctoral level (not because I’d have to kill you if I told you, but because it seems like I did a lot). One of them was a Women’s Studies course, and I remember the students had to give presentations on the life of a famous woman (I’m sure the assignment was more complicated than that, but I don’t remember the hand-flapping details of that one). One student presented on the life of Billie Holiday, and I remember thinking: Damn. She had it bad. Reeeeeal bad. Raped at the age of ten, frequent visits to a Catholic reform school and a mother who could hardly take care of her, a hard drug addiction, jailed on drug charges, relationships with abusive men, and much more.

But that’s not much to remember. Hey, you take your Latin courses, your Epidemiology, your Theatre History, your Anatomy, your Sports Psychology, and your Trig—all of which I interpreted plus some—and you forget the details. But I do remember thinking, I’ve GOT to get a good biography on Billie, whose music I’ve always lurved.

Lucky for me, the insanely talented poet and children’s book author Carole Boston Weatherford has just written what she calls a fictional verse memoir of Billie’s life, Becoming Billie Holiday (Boyds Mills Press/Wordsong, October 2008), Weatherford’s young adult book debut with illustrations from Floyd Cooper.

I’m not done with this book. For that reason—as well as the fact that, honestly, I have a work deadline looming and don’t have the time for a Poetry Friday post that even pretends to be lengthy—I’m not going to go into thoughtful analysis of this title. But I’m going to share a poem from it. Readers who pick up Weatherford’s book will note that the titles for each entry come from Holiday songs. As the review at TeenReadsToo.com notes, “{a} biography written in verse seems only appropriate for a woman who lived her life in song — whose only reliable escape was via music.” (Here is the review from The Brown Bookshelf as well.)

I love this entry, Billie’s response (as a young girl) to hearing the blues:

“I Hear Music: The Blues Are Brewin'”

I was no stranger to hard work,
and Miss Alice had plenty of it
in her good-time house.
I kept busy with errands and chores—

washing basins and toilets,
changing towels, putting out
Lifebuoy soap, and peeking through
a keyhole now and then.

I got paid in tips
but would have worked for free
to wind up her Victrola
and hear music fill the room.

As Bessie Smith belted out
bar after bar, bending notes
to moods, I mouthed the words
till I knew her blues by heart.

The jazz bug bit me good
when Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five
swaggered through “West End Blues”
and turned music on its ear.

I had never heard
singing without a single word.
Scat! Dig that!
Those blues sure were brewin’.

And dig this: Here’s Louis + Billie brewin’ those blues (though I wish it didn’t end abruptly)…

And just ’cause this is so stunning and moving I almost can’t stand it, Billie performing “Strange Fruit”:

And bonus: Check out Frank O’Hara’s haunting “The Day the Lady Died.”

The incomparable and honorable Elaine Magliaro is handling the round-up today over at Wild Rose Reader.

10 comments to “Poetry Friday: Brewin’ the Blues”

  1. Ah, the “pastoral scenes of the gallant South.” What a strange moment, to have heard that piece performed. Does one applaud? Sigh?

    I’ve wanted this book from the moment I saw people’s first reviews. What an horrendous life, but what music she made of it anyway. Such a sad story…

  2. Thanks for featuring this book — definitely looks like a must-read. I lurv her music, too!

  3. All told, this is a powerful tribute to a powerfully-talented woman. Thanks, Jules.

  4. the hand-flapping details of that one,/i>


    “Strange Fruit” was one of her real gut-grabber signature numbers. Good article about it on Wikipedia. Once again, thanks for the way 7-Imp consistently introduces me to supremely interesting books (even when they’re *coughcough* cutting corners to meet deadlines).

  5. Whoops. Sorry about the munged HTML there. I didn’t mean for it to be that emphatic. 🙂

  6. Sigh, JES. If only blogging were a full-time job that paid, I’d be talking about way more books with glee and in way more depth. As it stands now and with more work on my plate, I eek out posts when I can.

    Hope you like it. Let me know if you read it. I myself am not done yet.

    Oh and I saw that Wikipedia entry for “Strange Fruit” last night. I love that story about the first time she performed it and the stunned silence that followed.

  7. Stunned silence. When was the last time you heard a singer produce stunned silence? I don’t feel worthy to squeak after that performance, so count me in the silence, too.

    I love the cover of the book. And the format, with titles of poems woven from songs, sounds fascinating.

  8. Billy gives me chills. So much power! Great entry.

  9. This book is sitting in the pile on the piano, waiting to be read. Moving it to the top of the pile right now!

  10. Oh my god. I haven’t heard this song before. Wow.

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