Get Lit: Holiday Book Shines A Light

August March
3 min read
Holiday Book Shines a Light
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John Szwed’s book about the life of jazz legend Billie Holiday dispenses with the typical biography format. The book is a collection of vignettes and essays about Holiday’s life and what was written or otherwise documented about the mystery of Lady Day.

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth focuses much of its light on the musicality and musical particulars of Holiday’s life but begins by taking apart then rebuilding the image of the musician that history has left to us.

Szwed deconstructs the myth of Billie Holiday. This is more than a lesson in historiography or revisionism. The author proposes that the written records that form the basis for our knowledge of Holiday are flawed, preventing modern day listeners or readers from realizing the truth of her musical spirit and complex life. Chief among his targets is Holiday’s own autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues.

It’s a bold presumption to make, but is borne out throughout the new book using the narrative of the artist’s life and her depiction in popular media of the day to make his case. The results are revelatory and fascinating, tinged with intensity, glory and tragedy.

Whether the inaccurate myth of Holiday is blamed on an unreliable narrator or the oppressive culture that she lived through, the re-humanization of Billie Holiday is an important step forward in clarifying the past. By introducing readers to a gifted musician unbound by cultural and personal constraints, Szwed succeeds in making an icon human again.

It follows then that the second half of the book is a completist set of essays focusing on Holiday’s musical oeuvre. While some of the chapters in this second half of the book have a studied and academic tone, others verge on poetic. Szwed concerns himself with history, but takes a decidedly wide view of his subject, ironically immersing the reader in Holiday’s milieu with detailed anecdotes and explanations.

The final portion of the book tells the story of Holiday’s death, and the complex and controversial recordings that preceded it. While not necessarily reductionist, the tone here becomes wan and resigned, foreshadowing the effects that heavy drinking and heroin use had on the singer—without letting depictions of such behavior dominate the narrative. It’s an interesting literary device that adds to the readability of the book and to the author’s credibility.

An academic writer and noted jazz performer, Szwed—who’s also covered Miles Davis and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in his studied tomes—achieves much by letting readers reimagine Billie Holiday. He does this by emphasizing her musical output, putting aside previous conclusions that have been drawn about her life.

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth places art above culture and the individual while ironically placing readers square in the middle of Holiday’s world, where they may vividly take a long, contemplative view of it.
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