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Listening for Billie Holiday’s Catholic Roots: Lecture and Live Performances

Billie Holiday was more than a famous jazz vocalist—she was also a Catholic singer whose religious upbringing had a profound impact on American music, said a religious studies expert at a recent Fordham event.  

“Holiday’s Catholic training really went to her artistry, to her sound, to her sense of self,” said Tracy Fessenden, Ph.D., author of Religion Around Billie Holiday (Penn State University Press, 2018) and a religious studies professor at Arizona State University. “For all of the ink that has been spilled about Holiday and all of the movies that we have yet to see, we just don’t see much attention paid to her Catholicism.” 

In a lecture at the Rose Hill campus on March 29, Fessenden discussed how the singer’s Catholic childhood impacted her life and music. Fessenden’s speech was paired with performances from students in the Fordham Jazz Quintet, who sang and played songs by Holiday. Their dual presentation was co-sponsored by the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies and the Department of Music

Fessenden said that Holiday grew up in Baltimore, a port city with a strong Catholic presence dating back to the 18th century. She received her only formal vocal instruction at the Baltimore House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls, the Catholic convent where she was sent to live as a child. 

Holiday attended Mass and sang to liturgical music every day. There are hints of her Catholic upbringing in her songs, particularly in her diction, idiosyncratic stresses, and phrasing, said Fessenden She noted that Holiday’s song “God Bless The Child,” is a swing spiritual with Catholic roots that has been performed by gospel choirs across the world. Holiday also received the sacraments, prayed the rosary, and maintained a lifelong friendship with well-known priest and jazz musician Norman O’Connor, she said. 

During her presentation, Fessenden paused periodically for student performances of six Billie Holiday songs: “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Lady Sings The Blues,” “God Bless The Child,” “My Man,” “Strange Fruit,” and “Fine and Mellow.” 

Music has the power to bring people together, especially during the pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine, said Fessenden. 

“It serves as a testament to life’s ongoingness, even in ravaged places,” she said. “That use of music is very much in the spirit of Holiday.” 


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