This month, New York Times best-selling author Carole Boston Weatherford launched a blog tour for her award-winning book, Becoming Billie Holiday (Wordsong, 2008). In her fictional verse memoir, beautifully illustrated in sepia tones by Floyd Cooper, Weatherford traces the transformation of Eleanora Fagan from Baltimore child into Harlem crooner Billie Holiday.
Weatherford, a Baltimore native, calls Holiday her muse. She tells her story in 97 first-person poems titled after Lady Day’s songs. We’re honored to have Weatherford stop here at The Brown Bookshelf.
How did Billie Holiday become your muse?
My father introduced me to Billie’s music and took me to see the biopic Lady Sings the Blues. Her music and life story resonated with me. Billie became my muse rather unobtrusively. She had made cameos in about five of my adult poems before I realized that she was my inspiration.
What called you to tell her story?
I believe that Billie herself enlisted me to write this book. When I had all but abandoned the idea, a chance encounter with a young Billie Holiday fan in front of the singer’s likeness at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum convinced me to proceed.
Please tell us about your research and writing process? Did you listen to her music as you wrote? Was writing this book a special experience because of your connection with Holiday?
I always envisioned this book as a sequence of narrative poems written in Billie’s voice. So for starters, I listened to her early music. Then, I read several biographies and determined that the poems would be titled after her songs. The poems poured at a rate of two or three a day. In retrospect, the creative process was almost magical. This book is my love song to Billie.
What do you want young people to take away from Becoming Billie Holiday?
I want to introduce Billie to a new generation of fans. I hope readers will empathize with her and be moved to listen to her music. I think her story speaks to today’s teens because she was orphaned half the time and essentially raised herself on the streets. Yet, she discovered her gift. I hope that aspect of her story will inspire young adults to cultivate their talents.
Musings from the Author
Like too many youth today, Billie was a troubled child who lacked adequate adult supervision. Nowadays, she might have been called a “bad girl.” She was sent to reform school-House of the Good Shepherd-twice: first for truancy and, the second time, at age 11 as a state witness for rape. After her second stint with the nuns, she dropped out of fifth grade.
With her father absent and her mother out of town as a live-in maid, Billie had no one to nurture her. That makes her fame all the more remarkable. Her honest voice still touches listeners today.
From “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”
An idle mind is the devil’s workshop,
the nuns said, and confession
is good for the soul.
Once, in the five-and-dime store,
a pair of silk stockings called my name:
Eleanora, wanna dance?
When the clerk wasn’t looking,
I balled up those stockings,
stuffed them in my pocket and waltzed
outdoors with my heart pounding.
That wasn’t the only time I stole.
Like Billie, jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong did time in reform school-at age 11, after firing a rifle at a New Years Eve celebration. Another parallel: He was a grade-school dropout who heard jazz in bars and brothels. Billie and Louis performed together in the film that takes its name from his hometown-New Orleans.
“Farewell to Storyville” www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLHCR0OTqhs
Want to hear more about Becoming Billie Holiday? Visit the website:
You can also check out these podcasts:
WBGO-FM (Newark, NJ): www.wbgo.org/realfiles/jrnl2008/081219/article2.ram
WICN-FM (Worcester, MA): www.wicn.org/audio/inquiry-carole-boston-weatherford-becoming-billie-holiday
And read an excerpt here:
About Carole Boston Weatherford:
Weatherford has authored more than 30 books of poetry, nonfiction and children’s literature, including Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, winner of an NAACP Image Award, a Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration. Birmingham, 1963 won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and the Jefferson Cup. Among her recent titles is Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane, winner of a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor.
Kelly Starling Lyons is the author of picture book, One Million Men and Me (Just Us Books, 2007), and chapter book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal (Just Us Books, 2004). She has two forthcoming picture books with G.P. Putnam’s Sons.