“Don’t Explain” * A Billie Holiday book that compels us to listen instead.

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth

John Szwed (2015, Viking) 230 pages including endnotes and index

What is the relationship between the actual lives of musicians, the larger-than-life myths that often surround them, and the music that touches us personally as listeners? And how does a biographer make meaningful sense of these interconnections? Most musical biographies try to present a fuller picture of the artist as a human being, with all the failings, regrets, and unique qualities associated with that condition. They indulge our desire to know what made them tick, what inspired them. Such books strive to bring us close to the person who is the artist, so that we may listen with new familiarity to music of the one who moves us so deeply. Perhaps, that’s why we read this kind of book, to dispel the myths and justify our love. And then there are books about Billie Holiday, whose life, myth, and music have been attracting and eluding writers since she began making records in 1933.

If you have read any number of Holiday biographies, you have encountered the endless streams of speculations about how much of her co-authored (ghost-written?) autobiography is true or false (and did she read it?); how poorly, really, was she treated by lovers, reporters, and the judicial system?; how addicted was she—to drugs, to destructive relationships, to lying?; did she understand that the protest song that helped to make her famous, “Strange Fruit,” was about lynching?; and what percentage of her famously tragic circumstances did she bring on herself? Holiday biographers such as John Chilton, Stuart Nicholson, and Donald Clarke have gone great lengths to settle these questions. But trying to get closer to Holiday by chasing down the elusive details of the great jazz singer’s life is an awkward task, given that fact-finding requires correcting and disputing much of what is written in her famously unreliable autobiography—and unavoidable primary source—Lady Sings the Blues (1956). I am also struck by the extent to which black female performers in the public eye continue to be scrutinized for their political, commercial, and romantic decisions; their authenticity of self in relation to artistic personae; and so on (need I say Beyonce, “Formation”?)

Black feminist approaches to writing about Billie Holiday, including scholarship by Robert O’Meally, Angela Y. Davis, and Farah Jasmine Griffin, explored questions such as: what have the multiple facets and complexity of Holiday’s performance personae meant for other black female performers, as well as for black working class audiences, primarily black female audiences, in the past and present?; how did Holiday negotiate the white and black male gaze of audiences, reporters, and biographers?; and how best to make sense of the power of a song about violent abuse in a love relationship, as in “My Man”? Black feminist Holiday writing dispelled myths about Holiday that cast her as childlike and unintelligent, while conceptualizing Holiday’s own role in myth-making as a creative survival tactic, as beautifully captured by the line in Rita Dove’s poem that Griffin uses for the title of her book, If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday (2001). O’Meally’s Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (1991) and Griffin read the autobiography against the grain, listening for moments in which Holiday seems to control the narrative, factual or not, to do another kind of work. In these writings, the point is not to defend or debunk Holiday’s versions, but to explore what was meaningful about them for the artist, as well as for her fans, especially those whose freedoms were similarly obstructed.

While mesmerized by the additional data, interpretations, and voices—of fellow musicians, friends, business acquaintances, even the FBI agent tasked with monitoring her—I continue to feel frustrated by biographers who want to explain Holiday’s psyche and pin her down. As much as I want to know her, I think I am rooting for her to get away.

Books after 1990 sometimes include another contradictory archive—the hundreds of personal interviews with people who knew Holiday that were conducted by Linda Kuehl, whose own life ended before she could finish her Holiday biography. Not all authors could afford the fee charged by the private collector to study this archive, but after 2001, even biographers without access to it could read long quotations from the Kuehl interviews in Julia Blackburn’s With Billie (2005). While mesmerized by the additional data, interpretations, and voices—of fellow musicians, friends, business acquaintances, even the FBI agent tasked with monitoring her—I continue to feel frustrated by biographers who want to explain her psyche and pin her down. As much as I want to know her, I think I am rooting for her to get away.

We know this: a young girl who went by many names (Eleanora Harris, Eleanora Fagan, etc.) was born in Philadelphia in 1915, grew up in Baltimore and moved to New York with her mother in the late 1920s. Her early life was marked by the all-too-common precarious conditions facing poor black women in America: poverty, child labor, rape, incarceration. What would have been a set of sadly unremarkable hardships are reborn as the irresistible backstory of black celebrity. Better known as a cult figure than an artist, her voice is instantly recognizable, but her work is largely misunderstood as public suffering made exquisite through an uncanny ability to spin pain into song. She died young, not of a drug overdose as is commonly believed, but of cirrhosis of the liver. She is well-known for a lifetime of abusive relationships, drugs, and arrests, but none of these things would bear any interest if she had not spent 26 of her brief 44 years on the planet co-creating new musical relationships among fellow jazz musicians who respected her as an artist, making over one hundred records, and inventing what it meant to be a jazz singer. The writing that permeated her daily life was usually not her friend. Haunted by surveillance, gossip, and projections of the desires of others throughout her 20-year career, the fact that she managed to bequeath such a contradictory archival legacy is no small feat. Two months before her death, Holiday told an interviewer: “Every time I do a show I’m up against everything that’s ever been written about me. I have to fight the whole scene to get people to listen to their own ears and believe in me again.”

In the introduction to Billie Holiday: the Musician and the Myth, John Szwed tells the reader he has tried to write “a different kind of book, one that attempts to widen our sense of who Billie Holiday was, one that sets her life in the particular framework of the world in which she lived and in that specific musical time.” Though it is, indeed, different from a traditional biography, it is certainly not the first “different kind of book” about Holiday. In her 2008 dissertation, Maya Gibson discovered themes connecting a wide variety of jazz critics, black feminists, biographers, jazz historians, and jazz studies scholars. One pattern she found was that most writers tended to distinguish their own Holiday writing from those who came before, often blaming the earlier writers for perpetuating the emphasis on her tragic life; many have claimed to contribute, instead, a focus on Holiday’s music—which they are unable to sustain. Szwed, who has tackled biographies about musicians as high on the myth-and-icon meter as band-leader Sun Ra and trumpeter Miles Davis, is reflexive in the particular challenges of writing on Holiday. He tells us that he set out to “stay close to her music, to her performance style, to the self she created and put on record and onstage.” Unlike his experiences in writing about other artists, however, he found himself including more about her personal life than anticipated, in hopes of giving “her a new hearing in the court of biographical opinion.” Nevertheless, the primary focus does remain on Holiday as a musician, in connection with, as the title indicates, the “myth,” which he conceives as part of Holiday’s self-construction work as an artist, co-author, interviewee, actor, photographic subject, musician, singer, and transformer of songs.

At 230 pages, this is a brisk read for a Szwed biography. His Sun Ra and Miles Davis books weighed in at 496 each, the Alan Lomax biography slightly less, at 448. With so much already written on Holiday, and few untapped archival resources, Szwed felt that his task was different with this book. He is selective in focus, but expansive in those places where he touches down. His method for these sites is to increase the scope of the times and places in which she lived and worked, and to understand the sound-worlds in which her music first circulated. He relies on much of the previous work on Holiday, but also discovers and gains access to new materials. His incorporation of a collection of personal papers and a taped interview of William Dufty, co-author of the contested autobiography, offers a new perspective on the Dufty-Holiday collaboration, previously considered more of a one-way street. These new materials suggest a more equitable arrangement than the commonly accepted view of Dufty as the writer—so-to-speak—pasting together bits and pieces of magazine articles in which Holiday lied to reporters; and Holiday as uninvolved in the book project, but interested in the cash. It is hardly surprising that Dufty comes off rather well in this new account that draws from his personal papers (and in a book in which white progressives, from John Hammond to the patrons of Café Society receive a sympathetic ear); but so does Holiday, who emerges as an active stakeholder and director in the content, tone, and shape of the autobiography.

In his two chapters about Lady Sings the Blues, Szwed joins the school that respects Holiday’s right to refashion the fabrications of her life: not only in the autobiography, but in the magazine interviews that form its basis, and other stories she told about herself. For Szwed, Holiday’s self-construction is part of her work as an artist, and often in service of diffusing other myths and garnering a wider hearing of her music. Rather than re-hash its veracity, Szwed wonders what she “hope[d] to accomplish with the publication of the book” that is still in print after sixty years? , and presents a wide view of the historical context. Holiday did need the money; the police had revoked her cabaret card, rendering her unable to work in nightclubs in New York, and a market had emerged for confessional autobiographies of African American celebrities. Singer and actress Ethel Waters’ His Eye is on the Sparrow (1951), also published by Doubleday, bore a similar opening passage as that of Lady Sings the Blues, in which the author introduces herself as a child born into poverty and out of wedlock. But, whereas Waters’s humble beginnings set up an inspiring conversion story, Holiday’s presents a more challenging version of religiosity (she was a Catholic and considered herself religious throughout her life) and a more critical account of relentless legal and societal harassment—including the cabaret card system.

In another chapter, poignantly entitled “The Rest of the Story,” Szwed restores some of the material from earlier versions of the manuscript that had been cut by the publisher, after many of her celebrity pals (or their lawyers) had nixed the inclusion of their names, and/or stories about them. Though the inclusion of celebrity friendships and sexual encounters may seem inconsistent with Szwed’s stated emphasis on her art, these sections allow for glimpses into aspects of self-construction unavailable in a close reading of the autobiography as published. The book she wanted would have represented a far less lonely life than the one that survives in print. Holiday emerges as a strong actor, arguing for inclusion of material, objecting to cuts, supporting Szwed’s argument that “hers is not a victim’s story.”

Turning from “The Myth” to “The Musician,” Szwed contextualizes Holiday’s emergence as a jazz singer at the exact moment when it was possible to do so, and before there was any “clear idea of what a jazz singer might be.” Singers filled this bill with very different styles and sounds (listen to early recordings of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughn). But rather than dissecting or ranking these different approaches, Szwed traces common musical influences, contextualized within developments in the music industry, new technologies (microphones, radio), trends in gossip about sex lives and racial origins of performers, and power of ideas about race in American music marketing and markets.

It is almost a cliché to say that it was Holiday’s behind-the-beat phrasing that sets her apart, or that she improvised like a horn player, but Szwed develops these generalizations to help readers to hear how she builds musical time relationships with instrumentalists, against whom her phrasing never impedes, but also never flags in establishing intricate musical interconnections.

Describing sound on the printed page is a challenging task, and with a singer, perhaps even more so, if one wishes to get at the musicality, within, beneath, and beyond the lyrics. Szwed admits these, as well as the particular challenges of describing Holiday as a jazz singer—who didn’t scat, or alternate straight melody with lyrics and improvised flights of wordless syllables. Even the very timbre of her voice seemed to defy all criteria of vocal excellence. The author is very effective at describing musical events and qualities in non-specialized language. Holiday’s voice is “indelibly odd”; its qualities from register to register were more different from one another than those of most, and her range more limited. But great improvisers are not those with the biggest roaming territory and most expansive pipes, but those who do the most with, within, and against the parameters of the moment, and Szwed is very effective at calling our listening attention to a multitude of specific ways in which Holiday did this.

It is almost a cliché to say that it was Holiday’s behind-the-beat phrasing that sets her apart, or that she improvised like a horn player, but Szwed develops these generalizations to help readers to hear how she builds musical time relationships with instrumentalists, against whom her phrasing never impedes, but also never flags in establishing intricate musical interconnections. For example, he compares her ability to infuse words held over several beats with musical time, “punctuating and echoing the rhythm below,” with that of a lead trumpet player, providing a specific listening recommendation. Valuable musical entry points are too numerous to list, but include differences as well as similarities between Holiday’s and other swing musicians approaches to improvisation, and her uniquely integrated linguistic-musical interpretation which syllables to stress in lyrics.

There are many things we still can’t know about Billie Holiday, even after yet another Holiday book, whose author admits the irresistible pull of wanting to “make sense” of an artist’s life. In the end, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth is a call to listen to her music, not as illustrative of, or disconnected from her life as a human being, with more attention to how important it was to Holiday to be heard as an artist. For Szwed, what rings clear throughout an otherwise perplexing archive of a complex life, is the “consistency and taste she brought to nearly every performance” under all kinds of material, physical, and emotional circumstances. Discipline does not mean telling factually accurate stories to all people at all times. Exploring Holiday’s self-construction in the realm of myth highlights the ways in which she “fought hard to keep her music out front, and aspired to ever wider audiences.” In his efforts to keep this fight alive, Szwed shares tactics, for readers/listeners who love Billie Holiday and want to do the same.

*Listen on YouTube.

Sherrie Tucker

Sherrie Tucker, professor of American Studies at University of Kansas, is the author of Dance Floor Democracy: the Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen (Duke, 2014), Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s (Duke, 2000) and co-editor, with Nichole T. Rustin, of Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies (Duke, 2008). She is a member of two major collaborative research initiatives: International Institute of Critical Improvisation Studies and Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (for which she served as facilitator for the Improvisation, Gender, and the Body research area) both funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.