When I ride the bus, I do so with a soundtrack, partly to make the scenes out the window seem like the opening credits of a movie, and partly to drown out the other people on the bus, who often sound like a particularly tacky episode of Dr. Phil (“Well, I’m on federal probation right now………I got lucky, the same people who adopted my son adopted my daughter…….”).
Billy Joel, Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell, and Madeline Peyroux are high on my usual list of choices – along with Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, which is the Duke’s response to the works of Mr. Shakespeare, so if you have both working eyes and ears you have no excuse to be ignorant of it.
I love Jazz, myself, and not that “smooth jazz”-elevator-music-Kenny-G-crap, but real jazz, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (although I tend to think of him as Satchmo “Louis Armstrong”), Billy Strayhorn, Wynton Marsalis, Benny Goodman, Thelonius Monk – that’s what I’m talking about.
Jazz is perhaps the only truly American art form, rather like Mormonism is the only truly American religion – although I imagine that tap dancers will take me to task on the first count and Scientologists on the second.
Also, “jazz” is just a great word, incorporating both the letter J and the letter Z, which, if you’ve ever played the alphabet game on road trips, you know are two of the hardest letters to find.
So, a few days ago, in search of a soundtrack for my current bus ride, I clicked to Billie Holiday on my iPod. I love Lady Day, and have from the first time I heard “Strange Fruit” played on NPR on a Sunday afternoon (does anything beat Sunday afternoon jazz?)
Nobody sings the blues like she does; actually, she began to depress me a little this afternoon as I concentrated on the lyrics of “Don’t Explain”.
Hush now, don’t explain
Just say you’ll remain
Unless you’re mad, don’t explain
My love, don’t explain
What is there to gain
Skip that lipstick
You know that I love you
And what loving does
All my thoughts are real
For I’m so completely yours
Try to hear folks chatter
And I know you cheat
Right or wrong, don’t matter
When you’re with me, sweet
Hush now, don’t explain
You’re my love and pain
My life’s your love
Yes. That’s right. Billie’s man is cheating on her, she knows it, and she isn’t going to do anything about it because she loves him so much. A lot of Billie’s songs are in this vein of low-self-esteem, like “He’s Funny That Way”, in which centers on how her man is a saint for staying with a loser like her, and about how he’d be better off without her, but he’d be heartbroken if she left, so she guesses she’ll stay.
But these songs aren’t just depressing, just a recitation of problems you may or may not have, if they were, there wouldn’t be a point in listening. There is, if you were wondering, a current popular genre of music, known as Emo, which is a continual recitation of problems, and there is absolutely no comparison. A guitar and depressing lyrics do not the blues make.
I tell you a tale of songs that reach deep into you and tug, fly to your heart and pierce it. Even if you haven’t ever forgiven a cheater because you loved him too much, you feel Billie’s pain, you identify with every note.
Even instrumental jazz and blues, the wah-wah of a trumpet, the reedy warmth of a tenor sax, the clear tone of a piano, it makes you see colors, does what great art does: makes you feel.
Others outside the genre of jazz have done it, of course – Joni Mitchell, who I’d classify as folk, hypnotizes me in her song “Blue”, from the eponymous album, when she simply sings “I love you,” but sings it with such impossible sadness, over such dissonant chords, that it almost makes me cry. Then there’s Tori Amos, who I don’t even know how to classify, and who, in her song “Mother”, from the album Little Earthquakes, begs for somebody to “leave the light on/just in, just in case I like the dancing/ I can remember where I come from.” Immediately after the emotional crescendo of the song, Amos returns to the chorus, and, as though unable to collect herself, hits the second note flat, almost in a vocal wincing of pressure applied to an old bruise.
I mused over this on the bus, thinking about the blues, and all they led to in American music. I thought that they, like Jazz itself, are quintessentially American, the classic masterpieces of the genre rising from our national mood of the 1930s and 1940s, confronting the terrible beauty of our own sorrow during the Great Depression and rising tensions in Europe that would eventually lead to World War II.
Maybe not. Because that was when I remembered Edith.
My friend Kikki, the Belgian/Frenchie, was the first to introduce me to Edith Piaf, a French singer of enormous renown, a national icon. “She didn’t really do that well in America,” Kikki told me, “because she couldn’t actually sing that well. But the French loved her, they say that when she opened her mouth -” here Kikki gestured mutely for a moment, trying hard to express the sentiments of a whole nation, trying to explain a feeling she couldn’t even explain entirely to herself. “When she opened her mouth, what you heard was the voice, the sound of Paris. Her La Vie En Rose made people weep” – here she offered an embarrassed smile – “including my grandmother, every time she hears it.”
I know Kikki’s – and France’s – feelings for Edith are close to, if not exactly the same, as my feelings for Billie. Edith’s lyrics tend to be even less relatable than Billie’s, such as “Bravo Pour Le Clown.” I found this song rather unremarkable to begin with, because I don’t speak French. The French lyrics go like this:
Le cirque est déserté
Le rire est inutile
Mon clown est enfermé
Dans un certain asile
Succès de camisole
Bravos de cabanon
Des mains devenues folles
Lui battent leur chanson
Je suis roi et je règne
Bravo ! Bravo !
J’ai des rires qui saignent
Bravo ! Bravo !
Venez, que l’on m’acclame
J’ai fait mon numéro
Tout en jetant ma femme
Du haut du chapiteau
Bravo ! Bravo ! Bravo ! Bravo !
I understand the concept of the words “Bravo Pour Le Clown”, even not speaking the language – bravo for the clown. Got it. I understand, this must be a song about a clown in a circus, despite the distinctly un-jaunty tone of the tune.
But while at Kikki’s house, reading the back of the original LP, I read the English translation, and surprised Kikki and her mom with my outburst of “Holy CRAP!” “What?” They asked with a remarkable amount of politeness. “This is a song about a clown who kills his wife!” They told me they knew that.
Here’s a rough translation of the above lyrics:
The circus is deserted
The laughter is useless
My clown is locked up
In a certain asylum
Success of nightshirt
Cheers of cottage
Hands become insane
He beat their song
I am a king and I reign
I have laughter which bleeds
Come, that one acclaims me
I made my number
While throwing my wife
Top of the capital
Cheer! Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!
Edith and Billie, I discovered, had a lot more in common than you might think. Both were born in 1915, both died fairly young (Billie at 44 and Edith making it almost to 48) and both sang the blues – although the French might call them “le bleus” – to dull pain in their personal lives.
Edith, abandoned by her parents at a young age, was raised by her grandmother, a woman employed as a cook in a brothel, where, apparently, the working girls doted on Edith and helped her Grandmere look after her. Billie, estranged from her father and raised by her single mother, worked in a brothel – not as a cook, if you get my drift – after being raped in her early life. Edith, on the other hand, avoided prostituting for a pimp boyfriend by giving him a cut of the money she made from gigs.
Both dealt with serious drug problems throughout their lives, both alcoholics, Piaf addicted to morphine, Holiday to heroin. Billie died of chronic liver disease related to her drinking, Edith of liver cancer.
But they share even more in common than their tragic personal lives – both women stand in testament to music that can transcend all around it. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone to disagree – neither Edith Piaf nor Billie Holiday had traditionally “good” voices. In today’s culture of American Idol divas, we tend to value those who have been blessed with good vocal chords; why, if that doesn’t equal talent, what does?
We are a society obsessed with measurement, intent upon getting our money’s worth, we have forgotten the value of that which is unquantifiable. Excited by the flash and show of today’s popular vocalists, we’ve left behind those who make us feel, identify, relate, laugh, cry.
Maybe one day we’ll all remember that hitting a high note isn’t as important as the right note inside of us.