April 7, 2021

Billie Holiday Meets Wordsworth — A Birthday Doubleheader

By Stuart Mitchner

The greatest art never loses its mystery. The better we know hers, the more dreamlike and sensational it seems.

—Gary Giddins on Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

It’s Opening Day at the Great American Ballpark. So begins a fresh, new, hopefully complete season after the travesty of 2020. At first glance there was a touch of poetry in that combination, the idea of a sports venue that hadn’t been branded by a corporation; alas, the home field of the Cincinnati Reds bears the name of The Great American Insurance Company.

But then the visiting St. Louis Cardinals, the team I’ve followed almost all my life, play their home games on the site of a slave market in a stadium built and named for a beer baron.    

I’m not complaining, not after watching Major League baseball played with real people in the stands. Never mind that the crowd amounts to only 20 percent of capacity, these living breathing yelling drinking eating fans are a joy to behold after last year’s cardboard facsimiles, with crowd noise Muzak piped in at peak moments in the action.

I’d like to think the upside of that surreal season was that it refreshed our appreciation of the game, the moral being “You don’t know what you’ve got until you almost lose it.”   

The same story was played out at the same time when America almost lost itself; now democracy is starting a new season, with the MLB commissioner pulling this year’s All Star Game out of Atlanta as a rebuke to Georgia’s recently passed voter suppression bill. Remember the way the Republican secretary of state stood fast against the gangster tactics of an unhinged president? Remember the 1919 Black Sox scandal?  It’s as if a right-handed reliever named Raffensperger refused to throw the game, striking out the side in the bottom of the ninth, thus validating the playing-by-the-rules ideal shared by baseball fans bound by a love of the game, whatever their team or party. Except that fans of the Great Lie booed, threw things, and stormed the field of broken dreams screaming “Kill the umpire!” 

A Birthday Duet

Besides baseball, this week’s mixed bag features the poet William Wordsworth, born April 7, 1770, and the singer Billie Holiday, born April 7, 1915. When I teased my wife with the prospect of a “Billie Holiday Sings Wordsworth” column, I was met with the expected look of horrified disbelief. But really, it’s not as strange as it sounds once you take poetry off the page, put it in play, and add a touch of dreamlike mystery in the person of Dorothy Wordsworth. Who better than Billie Holiday to sing the words of a poet whose most moving early work was inspired by his free-spirited sister? Recall what Coleridge said on first meeting Dorothy when she was 27, “a woman indeed! — in mind & heart.” And Thomas DeQuincey, who after picturing her by way of her brother’s poem “Beggars” (“Her face was of Egyptian brown”), claimed “Rarely in a woman of English birth, had I seen a more determinate gipsy tan,” her eyes “wild and startling and hurried in their motion” while “some subtle fire of impassioned intellect burned within.”

Writing “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” a poem that seems to flow off the page into life, Wordsworth says that he couldn’t have done it without his sister, his “dearest friend,” in whose voice he finds the language of his youthful heart, reading his youthful pleasures in “the shooting lights” of her “wild eyes.”


Listen to Billie Holiday’s 1944 Commodore sessions (CMD boxed set 1997), keeping in mind what Gary Giddins in Visions of Jazz calls her ability to “push song into the realm of unmitigated intimacy,” the way she could sing “around a melody” and “her uncanny harmonic sense,” as her discoverer John Hammond put it, not to mention the genius of her phrasing, her otherworldly sense of timing, the way she renders, lives, flows within lines like “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces ever more.” Then think what she could do with this passage from “Tintern Abbey” composed by a poet who sees for miles when Tin Pan Alley songsters can’t see past the walls of the Brill Building — a “sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean and the living air, / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: / A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought / And rolls through all things.”

Of course it would help to find some mute inglorious Schubert or Gershwin to write a suitably intricate melody, plus a lyricist to finesse words like “interfused,” but there’s no doubting Holiday’s power to adapt to multisyllabic challenges when you hear what she does in “Yesterdays” — “happy sweet sequestered days” when “joyous free in flame and life then sooth was mine” — and you begin to realize she’s making her own poetry on the spot, with no lyric too devious or difficult for her to have her shape-shifting way with.

“He Ain’t Got Rhythm”

It’s so easy to be hard on Wordsworth. For instance Bertrand Russell: “In his youth Wordsworth sympathized with the French Revolution, went to France, wrote good poetry, and had a ‘natural’ daughter. At this period he was called ‘a bad man.’ Then he became ‘good,’ abandoned his daughter, adopted correct principles, and wrote bad poetry.” True, some of that’s his own fault, his priggishness, his ego. But did he really deserve DeQuincey’s unsparing caricature of him as, “upon the whole, not a well-made man,” one “pointedly condemned by all female connoisseurs in legs.” Still, I can’t help seeing him (it’s so easy to be hard) as the lonely human subject of a music video for the ages, filmed to Billie singing Irving Berlin’s “He Ain’t Got Rhythm,” from 1937, a session marked by Lester Young’s first appearance on record with Lady Day.

Every night he sits in the house alone
He ain’t got rhythm
Every night he sits there and wears a frown
He attracted some attention
When he found the fourth dimension
But he ain’t got rhythm
So no one’s with him
The loneliest man in town.

Let It Flow

The great poet who saw “into the life of things” with “an eye made quiet by the power of harmony and the deep power of joy” has all the movement and rhythm he needs in “Tintern Abbey.” Again imagine Billie singing, humming, nodding, smiling along (no line breaks, let it flow): “These forms of beauty have not been to me as is a landscape to a blind man’s eye, but oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din of towns and cities, I have owed to them, in hours of weariness, sensations sweet, felt in the blood, and felt along the heart … that blessed mood in which the burthen of the mystery, in which the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world is lighten’d: — that serene and blessed mood, in which the affections gently lead us on.”

Hemingway Pitching

Take poetry off the page into the life of things and you can see it in baseball. I know I’ll see it when the Cardinals open at home this Thursday. I can already hear the cheer that will greet superstar Nolan Arenado (his name a poem in itself), who hit his first home run as a Cardinal in Saturday’s loss to the Reds.

And how would Ernest Hemingway pitch the great Arenado? I’m thinking of Hemingway after watching an episode of the new Ken Burns/Lynn Novick series on PBS. I’ve always enjoyed reading Hemingway’s insights on the game and the way he identified with it as a writer. When he comes off the plane in Lillian Ross’s May 1950 New Yorker profile, he’s pitching. About his newest, then-not- yet published novel, Across the River and Into the Trees, he says he’s not trying for a no-hit game, figuring on winning “maybe twelve to nothing or maybe twelve to eleven.” Referring to the “considerable rewriting” he had to do, he notes that they can’t “yank” a novelist “like they can a pitcher,” because a novelist “has to go the full nine, even if it kills him.” As for critics: “It is like being a third baseman and protesting because they hit line drives to you. Line drives are regrettable, but to be expected.” Ultimately he sees himself  as a pitcher who never struck out anybody, because “I knew I had only so many fast balls in that arm …. Would make them pop to short instead, or fly out, or hit it on the ground.” Referring to French competitors, he mentions “Mr. Flaubert, who always threw them perfectly straight, hard, high, and inside. Then Mr. Baudelaire, that I learned my knuckle ball from, and Mr. Rimbaud, who never threw a fast ball in his life.”

Note: The image is the cover of Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944) on Columbia/Legacy. I haven’t seen the new film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and I doubt that I will. From what I’ve read, Andra Day gives a praiseworthy performance in a flawed project. There’s no substitute for watching and listening to the real Lady Day.