Photo from the cover of Billie Holiday's Greatest Hits (Decca, 1995)

The Story of Billie Holiday’s Life Shouldn’t Overshadow the Power of Her Music

To say that Billie Holiday's songs remain memorable because we know she lived a hard life does her artistry a most insulting disservice.

Once upon a time, I fell in love withBillie Holiday. Or so I thought.

Somewhere along the line in my early 20s, I discovered Lady Day, an eight-song compilation of some of her recordings in the ‘30s. Three of the songs on side two – “I Must Have That Man”, “Easy Living” and “Foolin’ Myself” – featured Lester Young on tenor sax. I’d heard how the two were kindred spirits of a sort, and I immediately fell under their jointly-woven spell. Those were the songs I turned to in moments of romantic melancholy. To this day, years later, they retain a precious aura, and I save them for moments when I feel like being wrapped in something warm and comforting.

I didn’t know a lot about Holiday at the time. I remembered the 1972 movie, Lady Sings the Blues, which was supposed to have been based upon her life, but it seemed a rather joyless concoction, and I had no idea how much was real and how much was dramatized. There was also her song “God Bless the Child”, which I’d come to know by its immortal lyrics, by that time a part of black folk wisdom more than music history. But beyond that, not much. She was an artist I knew I needed to know, but I didn’t know how much there actually was to know.

Of course, that turned out to be a lot. Over the years, I filled in many of the blanks: her chemical dependencies; the importance of her song “Strange Fruit”; the three distinct phases of her recording career (as neatly marked by the labels she recorded for: Columbia in the ‘30s, Commodore and Decca in the ‘40s, Verve in the ‘50s); her sad and premature death.

Still, she existed for me as mostly a romantic figure, an idea of a soul who lived through her art. I had no clue how she made that art happen, but it seemed so natural and effortless, I imagined it just flowed through and from her, the end result of the life she’d lived. She was some other type of being: neither earthly nor angelic, more like a spirit, speaking to me and for me in those moments when feelings overcame words.

Apparently, I was not alone. It seems that millions of people who came into contact with Holiday’s music have never shaken that spell.

In the 56 years since her death, Holiday has not been allowed to rest in peace. She has been analyzed, memorialized and contextualized this way and that. She has been the subject of scholarly treatises, critical dissections, and lofty poems. Biographers have tried to make sense of the chronology of her life, but have invariably revealed as much about themselves as their subject (a common minefield of the craft, but seemingly even more common when it comes to Holiday). Numerous jazz singers have taken a stab at her oeuvre. Numerous others have tried to capture her magic by sticking a gardenia in their hair. And virtually all these efforts, even the worthiest, have had to contend with the fact that her story – the one that gave such resonance to the music we all fell in love with – overshadows any attempt to ferret out her true essence.

Check that: not her actual story, but what we understand of it. It’s as if Holiday became the embodiment of that old journalistic canard about printing the legend when the legend is a better story than the truth.

That all started with Holiday herself. Her 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (co-written with William Dufty), has been found over time to contain versions of events that don’t square with the historical account, starting with her assertion that she was born to a married couple (she wasn’t). A treasure trove of interviews by Linda Kuehl, conducted for a biography project she did not live to complete, fills in many of the blanks and offers needed context, but many of the interview subjects offer conflicting interpretations. And that aforementioned biopic now seems less an attempt at historical accuracy than part of producer Berry Gordy’s mission to make Diana Ross a global phenomenon. Ross performed well as Holiday, and the movie did help introduce Holiday to a new generation, but its central premise of Holiday being rescued from her demons by a strong, sensitive man couldn’t have been further from the truth.

So we are left to unpack as best we can all the varying aspects of her life: Holiday as a streetwise child; a daughter with a complicated relationship with her mother; a hardened young woman who found a way out as a nightclub singer; a political icon (primarily because of “Strange Fruit”); an addict (who was targeted by the feds because of that and her notoriety); an oft-battered woman; a woman whose lovers and liaisons were both male and female, if we can sort fact from rumor; a black woman who died with police hounding her to her death bed – and a woman who lived all of that and the rest of her days and nights to the fullest.

That she indeed lived through all that is remarkable. That the hardships took a toll on her life is beyond obvious. That she made such incredible music in the face of all that is a gift to us all. But that the mythology of her life is the reason her music was incredible – that’s the romantic part, and that’s where things have gotten difficult.

Farah Jasmine Griffin made some worthy strides in separating truth from legend with her 2001 exploration, If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday. She attacks from a number of angles the perceptions that have surrounded Holiday at various times. She reports how the some blacks in the ‘40s were repelled by her anything-but-ladylike behavior, and how Holiday responded by parceling out an occasional paean to the picket-fence life. She delves into the iconography that took shape over time and how the various images of Holiday became marketing memes. She does a literature review of some of the writings by other blacks about Holiday (the book’s title is taken from a Rita Dove poem). She examines how later black female singers, from Mary J. Blige to Abbey Lincoln, responded to the image of Holiday as a hapless victim who sang about and from that haplessness, and the expectation on other black female singers to do likewise.

But for all her deep research and insight, Griffin falls victim to the same over-extrapolating the facts of Holiday’s life that bedevils seemingly everyone who dares trod this path. After displaying keen skepticism about the attempts to write her into sainthood, she does exactly that at the book’s end, spinning her impressions of Holiday’s famous performance of “Fine and Mellow” on a 1957 CBS-TV jazz special into an overheated praise poem. More crucially, her central premise places yet another set of projections onto the meaning of Holiday’s life:

Her greatest legacy to everyone, but particularly to black women, is her warning to us of the pitfalls that await us and a vision of possibility in spite of the obstacles that seek to limit and in some cases destroy us.

There’s no doubt that black women and the rest of us can learn a lot about how Holiday lived her life, and all the ramifications that followed. But it’s reductive to say that an artist’s greatest legacy is how we respond to her biography, as opposed to her art itself.

We may not be able to let Holiday be free, but she cannot possibly be considered a mystery, at least where it matters most. The one area Griffin gives the shortest shrift to is the very reason we pay any attention to Holiday at all: her music. In her rush to rake a machete through the thicket of mythmaking, Griffin spent relatively little time wondering why it is, exactly, that Holiday’s songs struck so many of us so deeply. It’s true that the temptation is great to hear her music within the context of however we feel about what we know about her, but none of that would matter if the music she made didn’t matter in the first place.

Let’s face it: while Holiday originated many important songs (“God Bless the Child”, “Strange Fruit”, Lady Sings the Blues” and more), she was neither the first nor the only to sing many others that are intimately identified with her, thanks to how she sang them. “I Cover the Waterfront” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, to name just two, are part of the Great American Songbook. Some people came to see “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” as Holiday’s theme song, but Bessie Smith recorded it first. “My Man” came from the French wing of the torch song tradition. Yet Holiday brought a particular sense of skill, swing and meaning to all those and more, including even the novelty ditties she recorded. To say that her songs remain memorable because we know she lived a hard life does her artistry a most insulting disservice.

Nor can you rightly choose not to give her work its due primacy in any examination of her life because of scarcity or historical distance. Virtually every note she recorded in her 26-year career is now in print, and much of it never went away in the first place. No need to dig through any crates: you can purchase a pretty comprehensive sampling of Holiday’s work from start to finish, including all her essential records, in either digital or hard-copy formats in about 20 minutes online, and bookmark a couple of YouTube links, to boot.

Yet not until John Szwed’s Bille Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, published this spring upon the centennial of her birth, has anyone invested more effort in the former half of that construction than the latter. Szwed, no stranger to examining protean musical figures (Miles Davis, Alan Lomax, Sun Ra), does something a bit different from a standard biography. He attempts to understand Holiday the singer: how she developed and deployed her voice, her choice of material over the years, how she worked with her producers and the musicians on her recording dates. He presents a Portrait of The Artist as… a Working Artist. As far as the Billie Holiday canon goes, that’s a relatively novel concept.

Previous writings on Holiday have at least touched upon what she actually did for a living; Donald Clarke wrote in loving detail about her critical recordings in his bio Wishing on the Moon: the Life and Times of Billie Holiday, even as he otherwise went all in on the tabloidy stuff of her life. But Szwed, aside from dispatching yet again the credibility of Lady Sings the Blues (both book and film), isn’t interested in writing yet another chronology of events. He never comes right out and says it, but making two-thirds of his book about the evolution of her music all but screams, “can we please set the lurid speculation and wish fulfillment aside for a minute and examine how Billie Holiday sang?”

Such an examination properly begins with her earliest sessions. She made her first recordings as an 18-year-old with Benny Goodman’s band behind her, and her first masterpieces at the age of 20. Aside from the sheer exuberance of the music from those classic small-group recordings of the ‘30s and early ‘40s, what’s impressive is that even at a young age, the basics of Holiday’s art were firmly in place. Her uncanny, relaxed, not-always-on-the-beat-but-always-right-on-time phrasing is commonly cited, but her crisp diction less so. She had limited range as a pure vocalist, but cultivated a tone that made up in expressiveness what she lacked in belting power.

“Strange Fruit” represents a departure in format, which would characterize her work in the mid-to-late ‘40s. Holiday would be cast as the vocalist in front of the ensemble, as opposed to one member of the band with her fellow musicians surrounding her vocals with freewheeling solos and obbligatos. Several of the Decca sides also feature string sections, a move which rankled jazz purists but one Holiday herself didn’t mind.

What’s also noticeable is that her voice begins to change. You can chalk it up to the effects of the life she lived, but you shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss a less scandal-scented cause: she was getting older, and her voice was going to settle into a lower register anyway, no matter how much partying she did. This is also when the tempos of her songs began to slow from her earlier period – less gleeful, more considered. Compare, for example, her 1937 treatment of “My Man”:

With her take on it in 1948:

Her work in the ‘50s strikes a midpoint between the two prior approaches. The small-group format returns (and the strings disappear), but Holiday is still the star. The tempos are sometimes slower and the vocals less sturdy, but there is richness in the best of that work that simply couldn’t be present earlier. By now, she’d become a little older, but a lot wiser; that teenaged girl who sang like stars were in her eyes is now a woman who’s seen an awful lot of life. Here’s her first version of “I Wished on the Moon,” from 1935:

Notice the difference when she went back to it 20 years later:

Her penultimate albums, Lady in Satin (1958) and the posthumously titled Last Recordings (1959), grate the nerves of many of her fans, if not break their hearts. The devil-may-care swinger of yore is gone, and so too is the knowing chanteuse of the ‘40s. Now she is the wizened, weary voice of experience, enveloped in full string arrangements. Her voice is barely able to make it through some of the songs; she had to be propped up long enough to finish her vocals during her last session. But that tone, that sense of timing, and that ability to express every nuance of emotion and meaning she could from a lyric never left her.

Miles Davis remarked that he considered Lady in Satin among her best work, a sentiment not widely shared. But one can see his point: she inhabited those tales of longing and regret in a way she hadn’t done just a few years earlier. Actually, everyone will have a favorite Holiday era, but no one period is essentially “better” than another. Each period’s music is moving and unforgettable in its own way. Part of appreciating anyone’s art in full is appreciating the arc of the artist’s career, and when it comes to appreciating Holiday’s art that’s especially important to remember.

Holiday’s music needs no formal invitation. But it does need a bit of a roadmap, preferably one that steers clear of the messiness of the rest of her life. Szwed’s work here provides one such avenue, and helps establish that Holiday knew exactly what she was doing with a song from her first note to her last, and did it as well as her capabilities would allow. We will, most likely, continue to grapple with the meaning of her life’s events as we’ve received them, and try to parse the substantive from the sensational. But her music reigns supreme over all that — or at least it ought to, and not only when we feel like being wrapped in something warm and comforting.