April is National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. What better time to read Becoming Billie Holiday, a fictional verse memoir by Carole Boston Weatherford with sepia-toned illustrations by Floyd Cooper. The book, Carole's 32nd, recently won a Coretta Scott King Author Honor from the American Library Association.
Legendary Billie Holiday was born in 1915 as Eleanora Fagan. She endured pain, poverty and run-ins with the law. Fortunately, Eleanora had a voice and commenced her singing career as a teen. By age 25, she had fronted the era's hottest bands and recorded her signature song "Strange Fruit." In this collection of 97 poems, Becoming Billie Holiday, New York Times best-selling author Carole Boston Weatherford traces Eleanora's metamorphosis into Billie Holiday, from her Baltimore beginnings to her Harlem heyday.
Like Billie, Weatherford grew up in Baltimore. And thanks to her father's musical tastes, she, like Billie, was introduced to jazz as a young child
Here is one of the poems from Weatherford's award winning book (Boyds Mills Press/Wordsong, October 2008):
I Hear Music: The Blues Are Brewin'
I was no stranger to hard work
And Miss Alice had plenty of it
In her good-time house.
I kept busy with errands and chores—
washing basins and toilets,
changing towels, putting out
Lifebuoy soap and peeking through
a keyhole now and then.
I got paid in tips,
but would have worked for free
to wind up her Victrola
and hear music fill the room.
As Bessie Smith belted out
bar after bar, bending notes
to moods, I mouthed the words
till I knew her blues by heart.
The jazz bug bit me good
when Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
swaggered through "West End Blues,"
and turned music on its ear.
I had never heard
singing without a single word.
Scat! Dig that!
Those blues were surely brewin'.
You can hear podcasts of the book at:
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