Geoffrey Brock The President's Funeral: Mar. 19, 1959
"Motherfuckers won't let me sing for Pres,"
she whined in disbelief, slumping back down
beside us. She said it again, cussed and cried,
until we coaxed her out of that square chapel
into the nearest bar. Some claim her singing
wasn't, by then, singing at all—small range
frayed at both ends, pathetic breath control.
But her half-dozen notes were, on good nights,
enough: a trill here, a delay, a slight
slur in the right place, and the smile or tear
still came. Whatever she meant to come to you
still came. On bad nights, which was most nights then,
people who didn't love her found it hard
to listen, even to look—drunk, addict-thin,
near death herself. And if you loved her, well,
then it was harder. It was hardest for Pres.
That's why his widow wouldn't let her sing.
Consider "Without Your Love" from '37—
wives can provide some fair accompaniment,
but here was union of a higher order,
here was the purest counterpoint of souls.
You can't take that away, but you can forbid her
to serenade the body. In the bar,
she cried and cussed, repeating: "Motherfuckers
won't let me sing...." Ah, but what if they had?
For Pres, she might've summoned, from some true,
unruined place, a voice to raise the dead
and lay the living out. It would've sure
been something. There in that chapel on 52nd,
where she herself would rest in four months' time,
it might've even been everything, at least
for a brief while, if they had let Billie sing.
"The President" was Billie Holiday's nickname for Lester Young.