Music for a Holy War Holiday
During World War II, Billie Holiday's music was often played to young soldiers who were destined to die for their country. Billie's sexy voice, it was believed, brought to momentary life the soothing image of their lovers in Kansas, Ohio, Iowa, and other great states. This is how Billie's erotic voice functioned in the Army context: The young man, who is doomed to be cut down by machine-gun fire in the sweltering jungles of the East, or the black forests of Europe, enjoys, during his last night in the universe, an aural representation of the woman who loves him, dreams of him, and would (were she with him at that very moment) surrender all to him in the way Billie Holiday surrenders all to "mon homme."
But this use of Billie Holiday's music was not the most meaningful or fair to her art. True, many soldiers just wanted to be aroused and escape for a few minutes into the frail realm of the senses, but others listened to Billie not for aural pleasure (which reduced her to nothing more than an aural prostitute), but for philosophical consolation. Billie Holiday, who is considered to be the first popular jazz singer, was also the first popular Heideggerian, who, at the start of World War II, introduced all the themes of Being and Time (in a word, existentialism) to a mass audience.
"I'd work for you, I'd even slave for you/I'd be a beggar or a knave for you/And if that isn't love it'll have to do/Until the real thing comes along."--"Until the Real Thing Comes Along" (written by Cahn, Chaplin, Holiner, Nichols, and Freeman; recorded by Billie Holiday on February 10, 1942).
The elite French intellectuals (Sartre, Camus, and so on), who introduced existentialism to a larger, but still confined, educated world after World War II, were far behind Billie Holiday, who expressed the same concerns (anxiety, dread, fate, time) through the form of the American popular song.
Musician/critic Benny Green writes this about Billie's existential version of "Speak Low": "['Speak Low'], a song of rare sensitivity in its approach to the transience of love, takes on a further dimension when Billie sings it, becoming an authentic statement by the middle-aged on the brevity of youth. Each of its phrases, 'everything ends, the curtain descends,' 'love is pure gold and time a thief,' 'our summer days wither away,' 'our moment is swift,' and, above all, the reiteration of the phrase 'too soon,' spring to life as they do under the touch of no other singer." Nor philosopher, for that matter.
"My love, don't explain/What is there to gain?/Skip that lipstick/Don't explain."--"Don't Explain" (written by Billie Holiday).
Billie Holiday was a fatalist, constantly aware and burdened by the blunt facts of the human condition: We are doomed to hate, doomed to love, doomed to fight wars, doomed to die. During the booming '90s, we shunned her music because all was alive and green with money. But in the fateful 21st century, we must return to her denuded, cloud-dark world.
We have been thrown into a world whose future has dangerous teeth, and the world we've just left--the world before September 11--is now a sealed, bright bubble of time that's swiftly setting in the distance. (That is where the sun has gone.) And in the starless night of our new era, we should express-mail to the ones we love, be they at the Air Force Base in Misawa or a flat in London, a Christmas package that contains these moody CDs by Billie Holiday: Love Songs, The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 8: 1940-1942 and Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years.
There is nothing wrong with feeling dread, or sending the one you love the dark, existential music of Billie Holiday, because, though we live alone and die alone, we can at least share this horrible fate with others. As Billie Holiday sang in "Gloomy Sunday," "Death is no dream, for in death I'm caressing you."