More than four decades after her death, Billie Holiday remains one of the most gifted artists of our time, and also one of the most elusive. Because of who she was and how she chose to live her life, Holiday has been the subject of both intense adoration and wildly distorted legends.
In an interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Columbia University Professor Farah Griffin, author of In Search of Billie Holiday: If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery, helps sort out the life of Lady Day.
The Man I Love
sketch by Jerry Jazz Musician
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
FG It changed a lot. I don’t know if I had just one hero. My dad is probably my most consistent hero more so than any number of the more well known people who came in and out. So, I would have to say my father.
JJM You chose the final line of a Rita Dove poem called “Canary” for the title of your book, If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery. Why did you choose that?
FG First of all, I have always loved that poem. Initially the working title of the book was “Lady of The Day,” which is a play on her name, and also I thought that like “flavor of the day,” there are so many different Billie Holiday’s in circulation in our culture. I read the poem again after writing the first draft of the book, and I realized that it seemed to encompass everything I was coming up with in my research – that the real Billie Holiday, in spite of all these efforts to know her, remained a mystery. There was also this sense that she escaped a certain kind of freedom except in her own music.
JJM How did your father’s death in 1972 inspire your interest in Billie Holiday?
FG My dad and I were very close. He was a jazz fanatic who introduced me to the music. When he died, I wanted to know as much as I could know about him. I imagined the things that he might have guided me to, so I listened to the music he loved. Because he frequently talked about Billie Holiday, and because the film Lady Sings the Blues came out at the same time my dad died, I started reading about her and listening to my dad’s Billie Holiday albums, while also asking my mother about her. So, I mark the beginnings of my interest in her with my father’s death.
JJM How did her music move you emotionally as a young woman?
FG I liked her music right away. It seemed to express a kind of sadness that I felt over the loss of my dad, and I kind of link them together in some ways. I was experiencing emotions that I couldn’t really articulate because I was too young to do so, and she seemed to articulate them for me. I couldn’t understand why I liked her voice, because it didn’t sound like any other voice that I considered to be a good voice. Aretha Franklin had a good voice, Sarah Vaughan’s was a good voice, but Holiday’s wasn’t, so I didn’t understand why I liked it but I knew that I did. I kept listening as much as I could and asking my mother and grandmother to get me more. Later on I discovered different versions of her. I discovered that she wasn’t always singing those sad songs, that sometimes she was funny or bubbly or hip, and that music could be all those things. So, it was a real process of discovery for me.
JJM Many of us have a one-dimensional image of Billie Holiday as living a life of pain and sadness. Was this image of Holiday more marketing than truth?
FG I don’t think it was. I think certainly after her death it was very much part of the marketing. I also think it was part of the truth – but only part of the truth. That is the thing that is most important to keep in mind, that the complexity of someone’s life isn’t defined only by those sad moments. I also don’t want to be overly optimistic and claim that her life wasn’t a life marked by sadness, because sadness was clearly part of it – but only a part. There was also joy and pleasure and all those things. Sadness wasn’t the only experience she had.
JJM Why do we as a culture seem to fixate on that aspect of her life?
FG I think there are some very complex reasons why we fixate on this non-complex version of her. One, I think that we have inherited a notion of the genius, tragic artist. The genius in turmoil, the sensitive and tragic artist, is a very romantic notion. It is part of a cultural inheritance. Two, an extension of that is the way we think of jazz musicians. We do grant them a sort of emotional complexity, and when you combine that complexity and sensitivity with a racist society that doesn’t appreciate the art the black musician produces, that feeds into this sadness aspect as well. Third, I think we are really invested in tragic women – in women who dare to be unconventional in any way have to meet a tragic end – it’s the price they have to pay. I think that is why Marilyn Monroe continues to fascinate us. I think all three of those strains are at work in the way we want to see Billie Holiday.
JJM The last song that she wrote is called “Left Alone,” which was never performed or recorded. Here is a stanza from the song:
Maybe fate has let him pass me by
Or perhaps we will meet before I die
Hearts will open, but until then,
I am left alone, all alone.
Did Billie Holiday look for personal salvation outside herself in her relationships with men?
FG From what we can tell, both from her own biographical statements and from people who knew her, I think that she probably did. But I would say that more so than looking for salvation in a man, she looked for it in her art form. Her continuing insistence, in spite of everything, to get up and try to perform everyday. Carmen McRae says she was at her happiest when she was singing, which suggests to me that the creation of her music was also a striving for a certain kind of salvation that we don’t talk about. It is easier to see it because she would use words like the song lyrics that suggest that she was looking for personal salvation in a man. In reality, I think she was also looking for it in her music.
JJMWhy did John Hammond feel recording “Strange Fruit” was “artistically the worst thing” for Billie Holiday to do?
FG I think for a couple of reasons. One, he felt like it was the beginning of her switching from the kind of jazz she had become known for singing. Her popularity was built more or less on cabaret or “torch” songs. “Strange Fruit” generated an audience desire for a certain version of Billie Holiday that was very different from the one that Hammond would have cultivated – the one we would hear in those early recordings with Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman. “Strange Fruit” is much more somber, and the political people on the left are going to take it up. It really just changes her persona and performance style, and that was detrimental to what he saw for her career path.
JJM Well, it becomes more artistic in a way
FG Exactly, and more self-consciously so. That is what Hammond would have seen as very limiting.