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Wednesday, November 15, 2023

November 15, 2023: AmericanStudying the Blues: Billie Holiday

[150 years ago this week, the great W.C. Handy was born. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Handy and other icons of the Blues, leading up to a special weekend post on some contemporary Blues greats!]

On AmericanStudies takeaways from the two versions of Lady Sings the Blues, and one important additional layer to both of them.

Billie Holliday (1915-1959) was only 41 years old when she published her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (ghost written by journalist William Dufty) in 1956, but she had already been performing and recording, living her fraught life in the public eye, for nearly three decades by that time. That can mean a couple very different things for an autobiography, I’d say: it can represent a chance to radically revise public perceptions; or it can offer an opportunity for the famous person to capitalize on that public interest by leaning into the more mythic images. Holliday and Dufty seem to have done more of the latter, at least as biographer John Szwed argues in his 2015 book Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, leaving out a number of more complicated and potentially controversial stories (such as Holliday’s affair with Orson Welles) that would have certainly shifted public perceptions. If so, that puts Holiday squarely in the tradition of some of America’s foundational, mythmaking autobiographers, from Ben Franklin on down the line.

What neither Ben Franklin nor most of those other autobiographers did (nor were able to do of course) was put out an album with the same title to accompany their book, however. Also released in 1956, Holiday’s album Lady Sings the Blues featured four new songs (including a title track) and new recordings of eight prior hits, including my personal favorite (and a contender for the most important American song) “Strange Fruit.” In that new title track Holiday sings that “She tells her side/Nothing to hide/Now the world will know/Just what her blues is about,” and while that might seem to contradict what I said about her autobiography, I would argue something different: that this song makes clear that it is through her music, rather than her book or perhaps even her life, that Holliday has shared “her side” and “her blues,” the most meaningful layers to her perspective and life. If so, that would make Holiday a musical version of a confessional poet (much like Sylvia Plath, who was just beginning her own publishing career around this exact moment), an artist whose identity can be found in complex but crucial ways in their works.

Every part of those works and that career and life were Holiday’s own, and a reflection of her unique and prodigious talents. But it is interesting to add into the conversation the role of other artists in helping create many of these texts, from Dufty with the autobiography to songwriters like Abel Meeropol, the Jewish teacher from the Bronx who adapted his own poem about lynching into “Strange Fruit.” I’ve written a number of times in this space about the counter-cultural origins and influences on a genre like rock ‘n roll, and of course the blues itself was one of those influences. But blues likewise developed in a cross-cultural and combinatory way, with amazing African American artists like Holiday and the rest of this week’s focal figures at the heart but with important contributions from many others as well, including lots of white artists. Highlighting those histories doesn’t take anything away from Holiday, and instead makes clear how much she was an iconic part of longstanding and ongoing trends in American music, popular culture, and society.

Next Blues icon tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Blues figures or contexts you’d highlight?

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