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Book Review

Becoming Billie Holiday


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Becoming Billie Holiday
Carole Boston Weatherford
Hardcover; 120 pages
ISBN: 159078507X
Wordsong Press

Award-winning poet and professor Carole Boston Weatherford's latest, excellent book, Becoming Billie Holiday—a fictional verse memoir, as Weatherford describes it—reaches out and grabs the reader's attention as if Holiday herself was on stage and her entire life was unfolding before your very eyes. Weatherford's wonderful poems, which have titles from Holiday's songbook, are so vivid and touching that they resemble vignettes or snippets of a life that had a right to sing the blues.

Keen on historical balance, the author paints a concise, up-and-down journey that traces Holiday's life from her beginnings in Baltimore to her rise to fame in New York City (born in 1915, Holiday died in 1959). Although it may be called a children's book, or a text for 9th grade-plus, it should be read by all who are impressed by a tear-jerking story of a survivor par excellence.

Weatherford rightly deems Holiday her "muse." Her writing verges on the eerie and she is seemingly possessed by the ghost of Eleanora Fagan, which was the singer's name before she adopted the last name of her father, Clarence Holiday, a guitarist who played in the popular Fletcher Henderson Orchestra during the 1920s and the 1930s. Clarence never married Holiday's mother, Sarah, also known as Sadie, and for the most part, disowned his daughter. One of the saddest and most poignant poems is "You Let Me Down," in which Holiday supposedly talks about an occasion when she and her mother didn't have rent money and she asked her father for it at the Roseland Ballroom. The poem's ending sounds sadder than a baby's funeral: "He handed me (Billie) seven crumpled bills and told me to scram. He didn't have to ask twice; his money cheapened his bond. Besides, I would've paid for a chance to call him 'Daddy.'"

But another poem, "I Cried For You," may be the saddest of them all. The author recalls Holiday's father's funeral and the fact that Holiday's mother arrived late—"Mom rented a Cadillac, got lost and arrived after the benediction. Any hope I had of knowing a father's love was buried six feet down." These are lines that should be heartbreaking to anyone, yet Weatherford's writing flows in such an eloquent way that the sorrow is momentary. All that really matters is the next poem. This book is a quick read and a page turner. So much so that you when you are finished, you are wanting more. It's the kind of book that could easily be turned into a one-act play or a movie.

Becoming Billie Holiday also includes the exquisite, well-placed, sepia-colored artwork of the painter/illustrator Floyd Cooper, whose classy work could constitute a fine book of its own. This was a collaboration made in heaven and is a perfect fit. It is also quite obvious that Weatherford has done a great deal of research and she has been scholarly enough to include biographies, references and further reading and listening pointers in the back of the book. She also wrote a revealing and touching afterword.

Weatherford deserves all the awards and recognition of her talent that she has received. Becoming Billie Holiday is a very good introduction to Holiday's life, for those who want to learn about the singer beyond the sensationalism and the bad reputation she received due to drugs, alcohol and life in the fast lane. It is clearly and definitely Pulitzer Prize material and is, without a doubt, just like its namesake, a lasting, genuine, one and only, pure American classic.

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