Tag Archives: Frank O Hara

Strange Fruit (updated)

4 Jan

Video accompanying Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Earlier this year crooner Jose James released a recording of Billy Holiday songs—which, of course,  includes the anthemic bolero, Strange Fruit (which everyone knows was written by a Jewish fellow*. One is tempted to opine that no one can sing the song like Lady Day (a meaningless tautology) Nina Simone and Jose James, among others, prove otherwise.

James has also recorded three live versions, one of which at the Alhambra in Paris and one in Argentina (which should tell you something about the universality of that canzone

In Argentina

In  a studio

Strange Fruit live in Paris 

A whole concert of Billie Holiday recorded live in Belgium

The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
                                                       I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
 #############

*Lewis Allan, the stage name for Abel Meeropol

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Lady Day, Everything Happens For A Reason,Not

3 May
Billie Holiday (photo: Not credited)

Billie Holiday (photo: Not credited)

Like many young middle-class Jewish boys I was enchanted by jazz singer Billie Holiday and appropriately disillusioned by her indelible anthem of distress and despair,Strange Fruit, at an early age. Though admittedly, my sequestration in the Chicago’s 50th Ward (appropriately known a the Golden Ghetto) would gainsay any contact with ‘race’ music .Or at least make it unlikely. On the other hand, I began reading downbeat, the authoritative jazz magazine, as an adolescent. Ms. Holiday was more to my taste than the obvious blandness of Perry Como , Pat Boone ,Doris Day and Julie Andrews.

Also at an early age, I  found  the seemingly profound observation (or at least considered profound by those who utter it ) “Everything happens for a reason”, how shall I put it, poppycock. Now, all this personal history not with standing, I am moved to contemplate Billy Holiday in the wake of , in the context of the rash of police violence bestowed upon black American men and boys.

John Szwed  weighs in with*Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth *. the first new biography of the legendary  and famously troubled singer since  Stuart Nicholson’s 1997   Billie Holiday**

Billie Holiday by Stuart Nicholson

Billie Holiday by Stuart Nicholson

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth:   by John Szwed

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth:
by John Szwed

In addition to the new biography two very talented singers, Cassandra Wilson and Jose James have released all Holiday recordings

Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday by José James

Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday by
José James

Nostalgia by Annie Lennox

Nostalgia by Annie Lennox

Irrepressible chanteuse Annie Lennox who can sing with the best of them, has a version of Strange Fruit on Nostalgia, her latest recording and here she opines on the song’s significance.

Years after I had discovered Ms.Holiday, I came across a poem by Frank O’Hara

<

p style=”text-align:center;”>The Day Lady Died BY FRANK O’HARA

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

*

When Billie Holiday stepped into Columbia’s studios in November 1933, it marked the beginning of what is arguably the most remarkable and influential career in ?twentieth-century popular music. Her voice weathered countless shifts in public taste, and new reincarnations of her continue to arrive, most recently in the form of singers like Amy Winehouse and Adele.

Most of the writing on Holiday has focused on the tragic details of her life—her prostitution at the age of fourteen, her heroin addiction and alcoholism, her series of abusive relationships—or tried to correct the many fabrications of her autobiography.  But now, Billie Holiday stays close to the music, to her performance style, and to the self she created and put into print, on record and on stage.

Drawing on a vast amount of new material that has surfaced in the last decade, critically acclaimed jazz writer John Szwed considers how her life inflected her art, her influences, her uncanny voice and rhythmic genius, a number of her signature songs, and her legacy.

* *Basing his sensitive, perceptive biography on interviews with those who knew the great jazz singer (1915-1959) and on extensive research in court records, police files and newspaper accounts, Nicholson (Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz) chronicles Holiday’s tragic life. Raised in speakeasies and brothels, she saw singing as a way out of a tawdry world, but her promising beginning was soon sidetracked by addiction to alcohol, drugs and abusive men. By the time she was 23, her brilliant career began to go downhill, and it would later be seriously marred by arrests and jail terms for narcotics possession. Insecure and abnormally dependent on others, Holiday always put herself at the mercy of self-serving people, and she died lonely, depressed and virtually penniless, a victim of her own self-destructiveness and the many people who had exploited her. Stressing throughout his book the interaction between Holiday’s life and her art, Nicholson laments that her image eventually overshadowed her music. He successfully portrays both the genius and the tragedy of the legendary Lady Day.(From Publisher’s Weekly)

For What Its Worth

3 Jul
Frank O'Hara in 1965 (Mario Schifano / Wikimedia)

Frank O’Hara in 1965 (Mario Schifano / Wikimedia)

City Lights, the now venerable, former bastion of the advance guard in literature, has reissued Frank O Hara’s Lunch Poems. In reference to this (dare I USE THIS WORD) IMPORTANT happenstance I noted one headline referred to the poems as “21st century poetry written in 1964”. Now I know less than “shit from shinola”, as they say in the gentler precincts of Chicago( I even contributed an awful personal statement on poetics in an issue of The Drunken Boat) but that book is worth noting.

Sometime in my crazy making romantic youth(years coinciding with Watergate, Gerald Ford, energy crisis panic,long gas lines, the downfall of the shah of Iran, Henry Kissinger’s glory days the a malaise afoot in the land) I glommed on to O Hara. Lady Day was the first poem that ever moved me:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Lunch Poems by Frank O"Hara

Lunch Poems by Frank O”Hara

Lunch Poems

And then “To The Harbormaster”

To the Harbormaster
BY FRANK O’HARA
I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

Brad Gooch wrote a splendid and perhaps the only biography of O’Hara that worth reading.I spoke with Gooch when I came out and that chat could be on the internet somewhere(its 20 years old)

City Poet by Brad Gooch [image purloned form the internet

City Poet by Brad Gooch [image purloined from the internet

Currently reading Wiliiam Giraldi’s forthcoming novel (WW Norton)