Margaret Innes

New Worlds: Reading, Writing and the Imagination


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Fine & Mellow – talking about love in a few words

Fine & Mellow

In 1957 Billie Holiday sang her own song Fine and Mellow on a television special, The Sound of Jazz with a line-up of some of the most outstanding jazz musicians of the time. It’s a list of a dozen names including Ben Webster, Lester Young and Doc Cheatham. Anyone can view the clip on YouTube, listen to their wonderful playing and hear the great Lady Day use her own voice like another instrument.

The lyrics are simple, deceptively so, especially the last verses.

Treat me right baby
& I’ll stay home every day
Treat me right baby
I’ll stay home night & day
But you’re so mean to me, baby
I know you’re gonna drive me away

Love is just like a faucet
It turns off and on
Love is just like a faucet
It turns off and on

Some times when you think it’s on, baby
It has turned off and gone.
I love the way the music ends so quickly after Billie Holiday has sung those last lines, just like the faucet being turned off in real life. Even as I write this, I can hear her singing them.

Nothing could be more true than those simple words. If you push a relationship way past its limits, to the point that you wear out the love of the person who makes up that other half, then one day, that’s exactly what will happen. The faucet will turn off and the person will be gone. That’s true whether that other person is a friend, or a lover, or a husband or a wife, a brother or a sister, even, in the most tragic cases, a parent and child.

If your partner doesn’t treat you right, then you have two choices. You can stay in a relationship that degrades the both of you: you for accepting the mistreatment and your partner for dishing it out. Or you can leave, however hard that is to do. But if you do stay, the faucet will have turned off anyway and the relationship will be hollow.

This isn’t why every relationship fails. In some cases people just fall out of love, even if their partner is loving and generous; in others people realise they’ve made a mistake. But how many great works of literature, novels, poems, plays, films and TV series have been written, with all their complexities of character and motivation, all their consequences played out in detail, all of which can be summed up by Billie Holiday’s handful of plain words?

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