Billie Holiday: The Musician & The Myth

billie holiday myth & musicianBy John Szwed
(Windmill paperback)

Do we need another biography of Billie Holiday? Probably not, and thankfully John Szwed seems to feel the same way. He has various qualms about what has already been written about Holiday and concludes: “I don’t mean to say that existing biographies are not valuable… Nor do I think that there will never again appear a biography that offers more interesting interpretations of her life.”

So what is this book, then? Szwed again: “What I have tried to do is 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.”

The two major areas on which this book – first published last year and now in paperback – concentrates are there in the subtitle. Szwed tackles the myths first, and they are given sustenance in Holiday’s own book, the autobiographical Lady Sings The Blues, just as much as they are in biographical and journalistic writings, interviews, film-making TV and photography. He needs some space to do this and the first 100 pages of this book, while valuable and meticulously argued, become a bit of a stuck-in-the-groove riff on why this view is wrong or why that opinion is flawed. I felt myself wishing we could get on to what Billie was instead of what she was not.

But in a way, for Szwed to achieve his aim he probably had to go about it in this way, because having got all the myths sorted, he can concentrate on the positives: the singer, and the songs she sang. One of the most valuable insights he gives is into the relationship between Holiday and her fellow band members, and how it differed from so many others in her situation, namely female in a predominantly male world and whose instrument was contained within the body as opposed to held in front of it. He refers to how she would acknowledge soloists and thank her fellow musicians (that noun “musician” rather than “singer” is crucial).

The detailing of the central songs in Holiday’s repertoire, or rather the most significant songs in Szwed’s opinion, is as meticulous as the analysis of the myths. At the end, Szwed concludes: “My intention was not to deny or gainsay the tribulations and tragedy of her life, but to shift the focus to her art.”

The second half of this book certainly achieve that shift. What we have here is a beautifully nuanced portrait of one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century – and one whose place in the pantheon of those who used the instrument inside them is assured.

Categories: Book review

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