Charlotte Krontiris

Good Morning Heartache


Illustrations by Claire Bidwell

I recently moved myself and an excess of worldly goods 1000 miles cross country. The whole affair went about as well as could be hoped for–that is to say, Budget Rental's computer system crashed nationally the morning of my truck rental, the city posted my parking permits in front of the wrong building, my gas tank would not accept gas from any station in the whole state of New York, and the last hundred and fifty miles of the trip meandered through a series of severe weather warnings. Tornadoes, naturally. When all my things were finally in my new apartment and that miserable truck was gone, I collapsed with a beer and turned on some music. Some music to relax to; something to calm my spirits and perhaps revive them. There was a lot of unpacking left to do, after all.

I picked Billie Holiday. I picked her in part because I so love her music, and in part because I have somehow collected 139 of her songs, and I knew it would be a good long while before I would have to get out of my chair again and choose another artist. The music began: a jaunty piano and a trumpet, beautifully muted, played a familiar melody. Soon Holiday took over the theme from the trumpet. At first I listened to her voice just as a sound, not minding the sense of her words. She sang with lovely open vowels, her voice vibrating lightly, drawing out her lyrics just behind the beat of the music. She sounded languid, almost drowsy. I pictured her singing the way I’d seen her in so many photographs, with her eyes half-closed and her face lifted up to the sky. To hell with moving trucks, parking permits, and tornados, I thought. Here is some real peace.

After a few bars, my attention settled on the lyrics of the song. I’d known the melody at once: it was an old Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein standard, “Why Was I Born?”. Holiday was singing the second verse now:

Why do I try
To draw you near me?
Why do I cry?
You never hear me.
I'm a poor fool but what can I do?
Oh baby,
Why was I born to love you?

As I listened, my picture of Holiday changed, a small detail but an important one. Now, instead of closing her eyes in drowsy peace, she was screwing them up in pain. I liked the other picture better; complaints of unrequited love are not very restful. I’ve had enough of poor fools for today, I thought. God knows I’m not really in the mood for more. (It is a well-known fact that the stress of moving makes some people unbecomingly pettish.) Fortunately the song was drawing to a close, and a new one soon began. It was “My Man”, one of Holiday’s early hits. The rhythm section opened with an insouciant swing (that’s more like it!), and Holiday began to croon. I hummed along, and when Holiday came to the chorus, I chimed in:

Oh my man, I love him so,
He’ll never know.
All my life is just despair,
But I don’t care.
When he takes me in his arms,
The world is bright,
All right.

What's the difference if I say
I'll go away,
When I know I'll come back
On my knees someday?
For whatever my man is,
I'm his forevermore.

So much for peace. “All my life is just despair, but I don’t care” is not a sentiment that soothes, and it is worse when you sing it yourself. I had heard the line a hundred times before, but this time the combination of lyrics and music seemed almost macabre to me. Is this what it is supposed to sound like, crawling back to your callous lover on your knees? And what is with that strange, bow-wowing trumpet at the end of the song, as if we were in a raunchy burlesque? If we are going to make music out of such despair, couldn’t we at least have the decency to do it in a cabaret?

The rest of the hour went on as it had begun. The iTunes shuffle feature, to which I had naively entrusted the music, bounced through just about every song of heartbreak and longing in my Holiday library with perverse accuracy. The music was sometimes bright and sunny, sometimes slow and mellow, but beneath the sound beat a sad, starving heart. Why did I not notice that before? I wondered. I know the words to all these songs–have I really never considered what they mean? And what am I to make of them now?


Billie Holiday made some strange music out of heartbreak. There is a corner of her work–not the whole catalogue, mind you, but a pronounced group of recordings–which make what I will lamely call “pleasant” music out of a deeply distressed experience of love.1 Love in these songs is not a joyful or fulfilled sensation, but a kind of perpetual, dismal hunger. Love is always craving the beloved, with every bit of your energy and will. “All of me, why not take all of me?” Holiday moans in one song . “Can’t you see I’m no good without you?” Her longing is irrepressible, practically a natural imperative (“Fish got to swim and birds got to fly/I got to love one man till I die”) , and it commands her whole being–“Body and Soul,” to borrow one song’s title. Alas, the craving is never satisfied, that being the nature of hunger. Instead the unfortunate lover is kept in a state of continual privation, looking for something good from his beloved but never getting it. In “Billie’s Blues” which Holiday wrote, she riffs magnificently on this sort of denial, playing between the hungering heart and the hungering stomach: “My man wouldn’t give me no breakfast/Wouldn’t give me no dinner/Squawked about my supper, then he put me outdoors!” Most lyrics aren’t so clever (Holiday was a wickedly smart songwriter), but they get the point across. Love a wretch, and you should expect to be left wanting.

And yet reciprocity isn’t really the point in these songs. The point is to want another person so much that they supply all your reason for living, your happiness and unhappiness, until it almost doesn’t matter how well you are loved in return. “You are my joy and my pain,” Holiday sings to her cheating lover in “Don’t Explain”, which she also co-wrote. “My life–yours, love. Don’t explain.”2

This sentiment–my life is yours, love–animates one of my favorite songs, “Moanin’ Low.” I originally heard “Moanin’ Low” in the movie Key Largo, a film noir from 1948. Claire Trevor’s rendition of the song as a washed-up, alcoholic singer is supposed to have won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. In that scene, Trevor’s psychopathic lover forces her to sing one of the songs from her old lounge act in exchange for a drink. Trevor sings without accompaniment. False confidence gets her through the first few bars, but her control–of the song, of herself–soon disintegrates, and the performance descends into a pathetic spectacle. Her life, such as it is, is plainly not her own; it belongs entirely to her awful lover, and to alcohol. Two different sorts of cravings, with a multiplicative effect. There is an obvious parallel between the song and its singer, and the whole scene evokes a strong feeling of pity in the viewers for both. What a terrible state to be in, we think. What utterly impossible conditions for living.

Billie Holiday recorded “Moanin’ Low” several times, the first almost a decade before Trevor’s tour de force. The recording session took place on March 31, 1937, a month after Holiday had learned that her father was dead. Clarence Holiday had also been a musician, a guitarist and banjo player, but he had never been much of a father. Billie was born when he was only 15 and her mother 13, and Holiday, Sr. skipped out soon after. When Billie was picking a stage name as a teenager she laid claim to Clarence’s paternity again, choosing his name to replace her birth name from her mother, Fagan. She plucked the name Billie from one of her favorite actresses; her birth name was Eleanora. Holiday’s nightmarish journey from Eleanora Fagan to Billie Holiday has been well-documented elsewhere–poverty, sex abuse and prostitution, stints in a reform school and in jail. If anyone could draw out the harrowing tones of “Moanin’ Low,” it was Billie Holiday.

In the March 31st session, Holiday and her musicians recorded three songs. The first was “Carelessly,” a “nice melody,” as one of Holiday’s discographers graciously put it, about regrets in love.3 The second was “How Could You,” a lover’s recrimination done up in silly strokes. “Love is just like apple pie, it’s either sweet or tart/You could be the apple of my eye/But you, you, you upset the apple cart”—my bid for worst lyrics in a love song.

The third song Holiday et al. recorded was “Moanin’ Low”. The song opens in a slow swing, with the piano and alto saxophone trading the theme back and forth across an extended introduction. The saxophone does really seem to moan at times; it gives the theme a bluesy, plaintive sound without being too dramatic. The piano sounds sparkling to me, offsetting the saxophone’s lament. The whole effect is reflective but understated. When Holiday begins to sing, it is with an openness and trueness that no other jazz singer matches. And yet, like the musicians with whom she plays, she sings with a certain restraint. She rephrases the original melody down in lower notes sometimes, delaying climactic high notes or eliminating the ascent to climax altogether. She sings:

Moanin' low, my sweet man, I love him so,
Though he's mean as can be.
He's the kind of man needs the kind
Of a woman like me.

Gonna die if my sweet man should pass me by.
If I die where'll he be?
He's the kind of a man needs the kind
Of a woman like me.

In Claire Travor’s mouth, these lyrics were piteous, almost nauseating. The desperation of the singer, her utter abasement and self-abnegation (“If I die where’ll he be” ?!) were unbearable. Indeed, the characters who watch the performance in the movie look like they would rather be anywhere but in Trevor’s audience. Holiday’s performance, by contrast, is intensely pleasurable. Her voice is warm and expressive, and it aches in a kind of way that makes you want to ache, too. But the ache never overpowers the music. The piano does not descend into baleful chords, the saxophone doesn’t mope or wail, and Holiday never, ever loses control.

What is the point of putting a song like “Moanin’ Low” in these restraints? The song has an explosive center; why diffuse it, why make it such a mellow pleasure? Why record it alongside “nice melodies” like “Carelessly” and “How Could You”? Those songs are chirpers. And then why listen to this song with your head resting against the back of a chair, your eyes closed, a cool drink in your hand and the breeze blowing through an open window over your face?

“Moanin’ Low,” like so many of the other songs I listened to in that chair, makes the hunger of the heart out to be something so dire, so absorbing, that it must stop us in our tracks and make us weep. That is what Claire Trevor’s performance expresses. But Trevor had to sing “Moanin’ Low” only once. The first time around with that song, its anguish is new and raw, and terribly potent. When Trevor’s wrecked voice sings, “Gonna die if my sweet man should pass me by,” and it seems possible that her love and grief might really kill her. But Billie Holiday sang those words a hundred times, for a hundred different audiences. And she sang dozens more songs about the same thing, over and over again, in the studio, on the stage, probably sometimes by herself just walking down the street. When Holiday sings that lyric, “Gonna die,” you know she is not going to die for love. She is going to sing another song about it.

Billie Holiday and the musicians with whom she played rescue us from the beliefs about love played out in Trevor’s performance of “Moanin’ Low.” In Holiday’s recording, heartbreak and longing are still potent, but they are no longer dire. Perhaps when someone sings a song like “Moanin’ Low” so many times, the feeling of the song changes; it is no longer a singular cry of pain, as it was for Trevor, but a standard. It is no longer about a catastrophe (“Gonna die!”), but about a kind of chronic pain. Holiday knew about cravings as well as anyone, but she must have known, too, about their inescapable dailiness, about the quotidian nature of all joy and pain, even in love. In the songs she wrote, pangs of the heart are always grounded by a sharp eye for the mundane: what we are wearing, what we are holding in our hands, what we actually said to one another when we were fighting. Who else would write a song about a mean lover that contains an entire verse describing his unusual pants (“He wears high trimmed pants/Stripes are really yellow/But when he starts in to love me/He is so fine and mellow”? Who else would use plumbing as a metaphor for unrequited love (“Love is just like a faucet/It turns on and off”)? This ruthless awareness of our ordinary lives is, for me at least, a great insight from Holiday’s music. There is no better time to listen to these songs, than when we are relaxing in the breeze; when we are unpacking our kitchens; when we are wrestling our poorly-made furniture with the wrong size screwdriver. We all have terrible, big feelings sometimes, of hunger and of love, but these feelings come to us and stay with us in the confines of our real and daily lives. What then is the point of exploding the center of a sad song? That is an only an outburst. You may go to bed sobbing like Claire Trevor, cast away over the bar at the end of her song; but you will wake up like Billie Holiday, unhappy but not really surprised to find that the sun that set over your heart the night before is rising above it again this morning. This is in fact the condition of your life. So sing along with Holiday: “Good morning heartache, here we go again.”

1 Some of the best songs from this group I mention in the text of the article, but I did not have occasion to include a few others. They are splendid songs, and I can’t bear to leave them off: “He’s Funny That Way,” “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” “When a Woman Loves a Man,” and “More Than You Know.”

2 Incidentally, “Don’t Explain” is an unusual song in Holiday’s oeuvre, in that all recorded performances are in a fairly melancholy style. One of Holiday’s great strengths as a musician was her constant experimentation with familiar standards (compare, for example, the recording of “My Man” mentioned above with this one from later in her career). Given Holiday’s love of variation, it is interesting that she appears to have hewed so closely to a single interpretation of this song.

3 Paolo Novaes, at his fantastic website His notes on more than 600 Holiday recordings are extremely informative, and he communicates a generous love for the music.

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