Billie Holiday and the influence of Baltimore’s House of the Good Shepherd on her singing

August 22nd, 2019

 

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Billie Holiday, 1949

photo by Carl Van Vechten, from the Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress (via Wikimedia Commons)

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…..Earlier this year I had the privilege of hosting a conversation among three of the country’s most prominent religious scholars, Tracy Fessenden (Arizona State), M. Cooper Hariss  (University of Indiana) and Wallace Best (Princeton), who discussed how the world of religion – within their own worlds and in the world surrounding them – influenced the creative lives of Billie Holiday, Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes.

…..The scholars spoke of these three revered, iconic, and inspirational figures in a way that Harriss said helps us “to imagine not only new ways to understand our cultural figures, but also new ways of understanding religion and the world.”

….In a brilliant August 20, 2019 essay posted on the NPR website titled “Billie Full of Grace,” Professor Fessenden, author of Religion Around Billie Holiday, writes about the effect the convent reformatory Billie Holiday attended as a young woman – Baltimore’s House of the Good Shepherd – had on her life, and on her singing.

…..She writes; “Whatever assaults and privations were dealt to her there, the House of the Good Shepherd was where Billie Holiday learned to arrange the jagged pieces of her life into a coherent persona, where her battered spirit was made the subject of confessional performance and where, in the course of this project of self-fashioning, she received dedicated practice and instruction in singing.”

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To read Professor Fessenden’s  entire essay, click here.

To read the conversation among Professors Fessenden, Harriss and Best, click here.

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(Listen to Billie Holiday sing “Sailboat in the Moonlight,” a 1937 recording featuring Lester Young on tenor, James Sherman on piano, Buck Clayton on trumpet, Edmond Hall on clarinet, Freddy Green on drums, and Walter Page on bass)

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