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Song of the Week: 'Don't Explain'

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Each week, the News & Notes staff recommends a song. Host Farai Chideya starts off with Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain." She discusses the song with Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of If You Can't Be Free Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday.


Here at NEWS & NOTES we've got our brains on music. And now we want to share some of our faves with you. So each Wednesday one of our staffers gets to feature a song. It could be bebop or hip-hop, electronica or classical.

We'll talk a little bit about the song and why we chose it, then play just enough so you'll be singing it in the shower. I get first pick, and it's Billie Holiday's wrenching "Don't Explain."

(Soundbite of song "Don't Explain")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singer): (Singing) Hush now. Don't explain. Just say you'll remain. I'm glad your back. Don't explain.

CHIDEYA: This song really strikes me to the heart. It's so plaintive and passionate, and yet somehow so morally wrong. To get a little deeper into Billie's song, I called Farah Jasmine Griffin. She's the author of "If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday."

Professor FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN (Author, "If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday"): Billie Holiday said that when she was married to Jimmy Monroe, he came home one night with lipstick on his shirt. And the song is "Don't Explain." Skip that lipstick. Don't explain. Hush now.

It's a constant request to her lover to not try to explain his infidelity and basically she's saying that she accepts it. She accepts it because being with him is so sweet; even when it's bitter, it's sweet.

(Soundbite of song "Don't Explain")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Quiet, don't explain. What is there to gain? Skip that lipstick. Don't explain.

CHIDEYA: How do you feel about this song - about it musically, but also about that sentiment, you know, it's okay, baby, you're here with me right now, it doesn't matter what's gone on before?

Prof. GRIFFIN: Well, I think I'm of two minds about it, you know. Of course, I'm of the mind that as modern women it always matters. Of course it matters that you've been unfaithful. But I think one of the things about Billie Holiday's songs is how uncomfortable they make us. Because while most people would never admit to having said something like that or certainly not to having felt that, I think that passion and love are very complicated emotions and sometimes one feels things that are not exactly correct.

CHIDEYA: How does her voice literally interact with this song? Because she has - it took me awhile to get used to her voice.

Prof. GRIFFIN: I think her voice takes some getting used to. But I think there's such a raw honesty to the way she interacts with the lyrics that it touches us emotionally in a very, very deep place.

(Soundbite of song "Don't Explain")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Cry to hear folks chatter. And I know you cheat. Right or wrong don't matter when you're with me, sweet.

CHIDEYA: Finally, there's someone who couldn't be more different vocally but who reminds me of Billy Holiday just in the rawness of the emotion that she sometimes expresses - Mary J. Blige. How do you relate someone like Billie Holiday to some of these modern R&B singers who sing about women's issues?

Prof. GRIFFIN: I think that certainly Mary J. Blige amongst contemporary singers is one of the people who maintains that kind of soulfulness and honesty of feeling and emotion. So that's the way I would connect them.

I think - for the most part I think that Billie Holiday was someone who was so deeply committed to her art and her craft, her art form, she certainly wanted to be successful, but she couldn't have imagined the kind of monetary financial success that some of our singers can imagine today.

And I think that that might in fact influence the way that they sing, the way that they choose to present a song, their willingness to take risk, or lack of willingness to take risk because they want to produce another hit. Lady Day was always taking risks because she had nothing to lose.

CHIDEYA: Why do you like this song, or do you even like this song?

Prof. GRIFFIN: I do like the song. I like the song at different times for different reasons. Sometimes I like it for the rawness of its emotion. Sometimes I like it for the depths of its lyrics, but almost always I like it because of the way she renders it and performs it.

She is a poet in her performances. I think I like Billie Holiday especially, not just this song, because she shows that one can have a very limited range but dig the depths of that range, you know, so deeply that you produce something original, exquisite, a work of genius.

CHIDEYA: Professor Griffin, thank you so much.

Prof. GRIFFIN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Farah Jasmine Griffin is professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and she's also the author of "If You Can't Be Free, Be A Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday."

Now let's hear more of Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain."

(Soundbite of song "Don't Explain")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) You know that I love you and what love endures. All my thoughts are of you for I'm so completely yours. Cry to hear folks chatter and I know you cheat. Right or wrong don't matter when you're with me, sweet. Hush now, don't explain.

CHIDEYA: That was my song of the week, Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain." Next Wednesday, our executive producer Nicole Childers picks a radio rap hit that gives you an A to Z on what it means to be hot.

(Soundbite of song "Don't Explain")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Your love, don't explain. You know that I love you and what love endures. Nothing rates above you for I'm so completely yours. Cry to hear folks chatter and I know you cheat. Right or wrong don't matter when you're with me, sweet. Hush now, don't explain.

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today and thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow, why a 150-year-old legal decision still affects race today. Legal scholars tackle the decision that helps keep slavery alive - the Dred Scott decision.

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