Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford, Art by Floyd Cooper. Wordsong Press. 116 pgs.
Award –winning, Baltimore native, High Point, North Carolina-based poet and professor, Carole Boston Weatherford’s latest, excellent book of poems , Becoming Billie Holiday, seems to reach out and grab the reader’s attention as if the jazz vocalist called Lady Day was on stage and her entire life was before your very eyes. Weatherford’s wonderful, well-written poems, which have titles from Billie’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 the vocalist’s life from her beginnings in Baltimore to her rise to fame in New York City. 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 calls her book “a fictional verse memoir” and rightly deems Billie Holiday her “muse.” Her writing is almost eerie and one could say that the poet is possessed by the ghost of Eleanora Fagan , which was Billie Holiday’s name before the singer 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 Billie’s mother, Sarah, also known as “Sadie,” and for the most part, disowned Billie. One of the saddest and most poignant poems is “You Let Me Down,” when Billie talks about once when she and her mother didn’t have rent money, she asked him 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.’”
Another poem called “I Cried For You” may be the saddest of all. The author recalls Billie’s father’s funeral and the fact that Miss Sadie 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 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 was scholarly enough to include biographies, references and further reading and listening in the back of the book. She also wrote a revealing and touching afterword. Weatherford deserves all the awards and recognition for her talent . Becoming Billie is a very good introduction to the life of Billie Holiday, as well as those who want to know more about the singer without the sensationalism, and the bad reputation she received due to drugs, alcohol and life in the fast lane. It is clearly and most definitely Pulitzer Prize material and is, without a doubt, just like its namesake, a lasting, genuine , one and only, pure American classic!
Larry Reni Thomas
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