The Plight of Billie Holiday

Eleanora Fagan (April 7, 1915 - July 17, 1959), otherwise known as Billie Holiday, was a renowned American jazz singer whose impact on jazz music and pop singing can still be recognized today. After an extremely turbulent upbringing, Holiday started her musical career singing in New York City nightclubs until her talent was recognized by record labels, launching her into widespread popularity. Even more attention was brought to Holiday after her powerful 1939 performance of, “Strange Fruit,” which protested the lynching of black Americans and got Holiday a mention in Time Magazine.


Like many other fellow jazz musicians at the time, Holiday enjoyed using cannabis, and openly spoke out against white supremacy. Unfortunately, these aspects of Holiday’s life drew unwanted attention from the government- specifically, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Henry Anslinger. Just after her 1939 performance of, “Strange Fruit,” Holiday was approached by Federal Agents who warned her to stop singing the song. Anslinger, known as being extremely racist, frequently spread misinformation demonizing black jazz musicians and their use of cannabis- one of his more outrageous quotes is as follows, “there are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers.  Their satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use.” Given Anslinger’s opinion of minorities, jazz music, and cannabis, it’s no wonder why Holiday had such a large target on her back. Unfortunately, Holiday struggled with an ongoing heroin addiction which was used as further ammunition against her, as she was raided and arrested by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics multiple times, many of which were widely viewed as unfounded arrests.  


By 1959, Holiday was suffering from cirrhosis among other serious health concerns, however this didn’t stop Henry Anslinger or the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from targeting her. On May 31, 1959, Holiday was hospitalized for heart and liver disease, when she was arrested for drug possession by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics under Anslinger’s order. Despite her serious and immediate medical concerns, Holiday was handcuffed on her hospital bed where she lay dying as federal agents raided her room. On July 17, 1959, Eleanora Fagan passed away due to heart failure. She was still under police supervision at the time of her death.


Billie Holiday’s tragic story reminds us of the massive struggle black and minority Americans went through, and still go through each day, to enjoy a harmless plant. This story also paints a gruesome picture of America’s failed, racist war on drugs. We want to honor Billie Holiday, and other black jazz musician’s stories through our Jazz Appreciation Month blog series- take a look at our blog to learn about more influential figures in the Jazz movement.