The Real Lady Sings The Blues – Billie Holiday

The Real Lady Sings the Kind of Blues I Don’t Like

by Iryna Byelyayeva

The first album that I bought blind and felt really disappointed with was a 1973 compilation of Billie Holiday songs called The Real Lady Sings The Blues (not to be confused with the actually very good album Lady Sings The Blues (1956)).

I was standing in a record store with The Real Lady and Let It Be (1970) in front of me. On that day, I just needed to invest in a woman I hoped I would admire and be inspired by instead of adding to my Beatles collection—which I still think is fair enough, sometimes bringing home an album you know nothing about is exactly what your mind and heart need. But this particular album is just not what I need.

I don’t have anything against Billie Holiday or the genre she’s working with. I love Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Cry Me a River’ and I adore Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is?’ The slow jazz piano and light drumming that work like poetry, stopping and starting with the singer, is indescribably euphoric. I love how much this music relies on the emotion of the delivery by the singer; it’s like theatre.

My inability to simply enjoy the mood this music creates and not focus on the lyrics is exactly why I can’t seem to ever get through The Real Lady. Practically every song is about Miss Holiday desperately needing a man. This compilation must have been put together by either someone going through a really dark time (with I’m imagining whiskey and cigarettes involved in poetically copious amounts) or someone completely unqualified.

It jars with me. It really does upset my listening when all the songs are about how this woman is incomplete, how this woman can’t do anything and would do anything to get that man back. The man who is apparently always bringing her down.

It’s a popular theme in this genre—the ‘oh I hate him/her and yet I love him/her so’, the ‘why does my baby treat me so mean’ kind of love. Maybe I’m in the wrong era. Maybe I’m not old enough and have never truly had my heart broken or fallen in love with the wrong person. Maybe it’s me. But good golly miss molly I cannot listen to forty minutes of a woman crooning about how life is wrong without a man who doesn’t want her anyway.

This is not to say that Billie Holiday is a bad influence or that she’s man-crazy. She’s adhering to the rules of a particular style of music enjoyed by a particular community (a very emotional one, by the sounds of it). She also has a mammoth repertoire and sang songs about lots of different things. Luckless love is not her only tune.

At a time of my life when I was younger and very fresh and excited to finally be forming my own identity and learning from women this particular part of Billie Holiday is not what I needed to hear. The first time I listened to this album I began to feel incredibly upset and lonely. I remember it was a sunny day outside and yet I felt like something had gone horribly wrong.

The music we listen to and what it says is important. It forms our understanding of our surroundings and the situations we find ourselves in. It helps us understand our own emotional responses—there’s a reason why some songs bring out so much pain or happiness in us while others don’t strike a chord.

It’s taken me years to finally give Billie Holiday another try. Our first impressions were not their finest. And really, this is probably exactly what’s wrong with compilation albums in the first place. They can be so one-sided. There’s more to the enigmatic Miss Holiday than pining and there’s more to me as a listener than assuming someone’s selection is the ultimate one.

To whoever made this album: you were wrong.

Iryna is a creative lady living in Melbourne, Australia. She is the editor of The Wall Mag and gets published here and there. She can be followed on twitter @irynabyel


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