The Rhythm Becomes a Thing of the Spirit: On ‘Religion Around Billie Holiday’ by Tracy Fessenden

August 14, 2018 | 2 books mentioned 4 min read

Billie Holiday appeared on the cover of the July 1949 issue of Ebony magazine; inside her essay “I’m Cured for Good Now” was a short but heartfelt testament of her recent struggles. She’d pled guilty to drug charges “on the promise of treatment for addiction” and was confined to the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Virginia. Her intake form listed her occupation as singer, and her religion as Catholic.

In the essay—likely ghostwritten by one of the magazine’s staff writers—Holiday said her “priest was extremely helpful to me in those first weeks and helped me chart the course I should travel in order to build my life upon new strong foundations.” She was “determined to remake my entire life.” This spiritual route was an inevitable one for Holiday. In Religion Around Billie Holiday, a focused, enlightening examination of the gifted singer, Tracy Fessenden demonstrates that Holiday’s Catholicism was complex and formative.

Fessenden is clear that her book “is not a brief for Holiday’s piety or impiety… It is not a study of sacred themes in her work, for indeed Holiday recorded almost nothing that could be called religious.” Instead she focuses “on the environing religious conditions to which her genius responded, and in which her life and sound took form.” This is a welcome approach. Holiday’s talent has earned her status as a legend, and we often seek to remake legends in our own image.

coverWhen Fessenden writes that “at various moments,” Holiday “may or may not have been a believing Catholic, a practicing Catholic, a lapsed or cafeteria or recovering Catholic,” she is not being evasive. Lady Sings the Blues, her 1956 autobiography, has been plagued by claims of inaccuracies and exaggerations. Fessenden notes that “Publicity photographs show Holiday at the typewriter, or in reading glasses, examining proofs—Doubleday insisted she initial every page—but Holiday would later claim she hadn’t so much as read the book.”

The autobiography was co-authored by William Dufty and went “from conception to press in three months.” Discerning what is Dufty and what is Holiday, then, is no easy task. Rather than engage in the folly of explicating Holiday’s personal and private beliefs, Fessenden methodically documents her life in Catholic institutions, and within Catholic culture. Here the word “around” within the title is essential: “To consider religion around is to pay attention to ambient feeling and mood, to energies, pressures, frequencies, powers.” Her conclusion: Holiday “was indisputably a trained Catholic, and this training shaped her moves within what horizons of possibility were hers to navigate over the whole of her life.”

Sadie Fagan, Holiday’s mother, was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls in Baltimore when she was 13. Holiday described her mother as a “Mass every Sunday” Catholic “with her candles and creeping up to the altar.” Holiday herself was sent to Good Shepherd twice, in 1925 and 1927, after attending kindergarten at St. Frances Academy for Colored Girls. Fessenden does not whitewash those parochial years as anything near perfect, noting that certain, more lurid details have been shown to be apocryphal (and are likely vestiges of the convent exposé genre).

To claim that Holiday was a raw talent, someone uncontrollable and nearly miraculous, is to diminish her selfhood: “As much as it discounts a taxing apprenticeship on the streets of a jazz-loving city, the myth of Holiday’s untutored genius also neglects her musical training in the institution where being a street kid landed her.” At Good Shepherd, Holiday “attended a compulsory Catholic Mass every day and sang every day from the forms set forth in the Liber Usualis, the common book of Gregorian chant used in the Mass, in daily and seasonal devotions, and in all feasts and celebrations in the liturgical year.”

Holiday’s years at Good Shepherd followed Pope Pius X’s Tra Le Sollecitudini, which offered new guidance on liturgical music, including the “freshly revived Gregorian chant.” Dom Joseph Gajard, the choirmaster of Solesmes Abbey, said the new approach to the chant was such that “the rhythm, of material, becomes a thing of the spirit.” These “combined apprenticeships, convent and street, went to Billie Holiday’s distinctive undemonstrative cool, her soft parlando delivery of straight-up talk turned to song.”

The influence went even beyond her music. The girls at Good Shepherd had been sent “by legal authority to the Sisters in order to remove them from evil surroundings and bad parents.” It was a place of asylum, a “setting devoted to the structuring or restructuring of a young woman’s life along a particular narrative arc.” The positives and negatives of such an approach are worthy of another book, but Fessenden’s focus is on influence: “If the stories you hear and the examples you are given make injured and suffering girls both romantic and valuable, then your idea of self, your subjectivity, will gather substance from that fact.”

Holiday held on to that Catholicism as much as she held on to her rosary, “wrapped around her hand,” when she spoke to the jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams at a funeral. She held on to that faith when was driving with the jazz singer Thelma Carpenter, and the car’s brakes failed on the highway in Newark. Carpenter said, “I figured I’d hug the highway and we sort of prayed real good and finally we made it.” Holiday consoled her by turning the dying words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux into witness: “She let some of those rosebuds fall down on us.”

Williams and Carpenter were both fellow Catholics, which is a cultural note that Fessenden perfectly captures: Catholicism is a shared, visceral experience of community and ritual. “Billie Holiday’s Catholicism,” Fessenden writes, “like Louis Armstrong’s, was casual and attenuated, lived in ways that prompted neither avowal nor rebellion. But Catholicism puts them both into a larger musical conversation than the relay between rural South and urban North, between spirituals and swing.”

Around 1953, Billie Holiday returned to Good Shephard for a copy of her baptismal certificate. She showed John Levy, then her manager and boyfriend, the chapel in which she was baptized, as well as the dormitory rooms. The sisters asked her to sing, and she did. Her song “My Man” includes the haunting lines “All my life is just despair / but I don’t care.” I wonder what Holiday might have been thinking when those words settled into the walls.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Ember Days, a collection of stories. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and twin daughters. Follow him @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at www.nickripatrazone.com.

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