Coursework II: Baltimore’s Billie Holiday

“ ‘I’m from Baltimore, I don’t know from nothing.’:  Billie Holiday’s Baltimore”

AS 60.630

This course will use the tools of the historical archive, autobiography, memoir, biography, narrative, poetry, film and music to etch a social history of Billie Holiday (1915-1959) in Baltimore, between roughly 1900 and 1960.  Holiday’s remarkable and unique art has earned her the title of the premier jazz singer of all-time.  Her voice and experience was strongly connected to Baltimore City, its pattern of black migration, its musical culture, urban density, as well as its narcotics and violent crime.  Although she was born in Philadelphia, she deliberately falsely claimed in her candid memoir, “I was finally able to prove I’d been born in Baltimore.”  As revealing as her willed connection to a particular geography of nativity was her determined claiming of vernacular knowledge outside of the arts.  Holiday also insisted, in 1956, “ask them if they think they know something about dope that Lady Day don’t know.” The Baltimore conjunction between her experience of prostitution, crime and violence and her stirring sound also begs the question of the city’s infamous participation as a major site of the global heroin trade. What was the artist’s relationship to her urban geography?  How did it change over space and time?  What dimension of shared fate did she have with the community of black domestic workers, laborers, artisans, and small business people from the first half of the twentieth century?  In what manner did Baltimore’s racial segregation and racism define her life and art?  How was her consciousness as a vocal opponent to segregation shaped by her grooming in the city?

The class will function as a laboratory divided into different research clusters to encounter specific discourses—literature, music, film, politics, history and the City of Baltimore as a twentieth century entity.  The results from our lab will be worked onto digital story maps, including bibliographies and a databank of archival materials, enabling us to broaden Holiday’s relations to the City of her origin during the twentieth century.  The final meeting of the semester is devoted to the presentation of organically arising research questions.  Among several of our main tasks will be to gather all of the census materials for Holiday’s known ancestors, to determine precisely all of her known visits to Baltimore, and to reconstruct on one map the mid-century nightlife and cabaret scene on Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue.  The research pods will then collaborate to create and load their data onto a story map on the ArcGIS database for use in a series of public presentations. As a part of a commitment to harness the tools of the humanities and digital technologies to reshape the modern university, the final projects are collective, partly determined by the researchers, and designed for public presentation.  Students will work as researchers and teachers and disseminate their findings in public arenas at the conclusion of the semester.

Research Clusters:

You will develop three broad research fields identify for the maps: (1) literature; (2) music (jazz and its precursors) and film; (3) Baltimore history and local culture.  These are broad suggestive areas of research and our goals are to locate and capture the most valuable primary archives and then create a narrative on a digital map engaging core dimensions of Billie Holidays life and art and incorporating the research findings.  We will have access to photographic archival resources at three major collections here in the city: the Afro-American newspaper’s “morgue,” the Paul Henderson Collection at the Maryland Historical Society, and Sheridan Library’s “Real Photo” postcard collection of black life.

Exhibit Labels:

During the semester we will each contribute six brief reviews of texts drawn from the various fields of research to sketch out Holiday’s life and contribution.  These reviews are designed as 300-500 word exhibition grade exhibit labels of the works listed below, augmented by a 7-10 source bibliography of reviews, critiques, commentaries, and influential source material.  (Only a sentence or two will find their way onto the final map projects.) We will share our findings in class and store them collectively in a dropbox account with our other research finds.  Again, the emphasis with all of the works is a focus on Baltimore, the jazz singer, blues and jazz music and African American communal life.