Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth John Szwed, Viking 2015
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Billie Holiday sounds a bit like those boats. She drifts back from the beat and takes whatever time she needs to tell her story. It is almost her signature. But this was more than merely style. The substance of her art was the raw humanity of that voice. We’re all a bit behind the beat, as Nick Carraway reminds us. That’s what I hear in Billie Holiday.
There are two chapters about the way she sang in John Szwed’s new book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth. It was never a strong voice and her range was barely one octave. Teddy Wilson, with whom she made so many great records, said he preferred Barbara Streisand when asked about Billie later in life. Barbara Streisand! I mean, really! Billie herself was ambivalent about what she famously called her ‘old voice’. But that old voice was as much a wonder of the 20th century as F. Scott’s novel. She sang and she spoke at the same time. The French call this ‘diseuse’. Szwed claims that it is what gives her songs so much warmth.
The subtitle of the book, the musician and the myth, is appropriate. Szwed works hard to separate the two and explore the musical rather than the personal. And this isn’t easy. Her life was a sad one, a really sad one. The temptation to explain the pathos of her singing in terms of the lousy childhood, the drug addiction and so on is great. Very few writers have managed to avoid the black hole of biographical fallacy when writing about Billie. Hence, a book that looks at her music on its own terms instead of as an expression of her ‘tortured soul’ is a welcome addition to writing about Billie and about jazz in general. Writers such as Elijah Wald have recently called out the standard ‘blues’ biography as a racist white fantasy. This book avoids the overemphasis on ‘otherness’ and is far more informative for it.
As if to make this plain, the first section deals with the ‘myth’ and, specifically, the autobiography Holiday produced in 1957. Lady Sings the Blues was much read at the time but is a book that has always been considered fictitious. He points out that she was forced to suppress the sections that dealt with many of her friendships and romantic relationships. Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead, Elizabeth Bishop, and several other notables threatened legal action if they were mentioned. Billie’s problems with heroin and her troubles with the law were both well known by the 1950s. No one wanted to be publicly associated with her. The book then became a hodgepodge of stories that emphasized her troubled life. Szwed suggests that the book isn’t fictitious, just incomplete. Like all biographical writing, it reflects the values of the period in which it was written. There is a glut of rock and roll memoirs on the shelves in bookstores at the moment. The selling point is, of course, the opportunity to hear the ‘true’ story from the horse’s mouth. Billie’s autobiography is a reminder that the ‘truth’ is no simple matter.
The second section, The Musician, begins with a chapter called ‘The Prehistory of a Singer’. In setting the stage for her career, Szwed reaches back to the minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th century. There is no more complex period in American music with regard to race. And it lays the foundations for all the complexity to come. If you feel like sending yourself down a moral rabbit hole in regard to the music you revere, read Love and Theft by Eric Lott or Where Dead Voices Gather by Nick Tosches. In this book, Szwed notes that Billie herself had to ‘black up’ occasionally in her early days. Confused? Welcome to American music!
This chapter also highlights her high level of musicality. A classical musician who spent an afternoon with her at the piano thought that she was the most intelligent listener he’d ever encountered. She didn’t read music and did not write songs as such (discussed in another chapter) but like so many of the great jazz artists, she had an intensely musical aura. Watch the clip below. Emotional? Sure. Physical? Yes. Spiritual? Absolutely.
Billie’s first two recordings were with Benny Goodman. She also worked with the Basie band and there found a musical soul mate in saxophone genius, Lester Young. He named her Lady Day, she called him Prez, as in President of the Sax. But her most dramatic association was with Artie Shaw. There is a movie waiting to be made about their tour of the American south in the late 1930s. Black singers with white bands weren’t that unusual but they didn’t normally head to Georgia or Alabama together. Billie had to be escorted everywhere by the toughest members of the band. Shaw insisted she be treated equally in hotels, restaurants, and at the venues they played. This caused no end of trouble and eventually Holiday simply quit. She cited the fact that getting a sandwich or going to the bathroom always turned into a ‘major NAACP production’ on the tour.
There should be a warning on the cover of this book: Beware – you will feel compelled to read passages aloud to family, friends, and total strangers. It’s that sort of book. Fascinating facts and compelling stories fall off the page. You will also need access to her recordings. Szwed covers a lot of songs here and I’m pretty sure you will want to hear all of them. A top read for fans and novices alike.
Teasers: Strange Fruit – the whole damn story! The time Rita Hayworth got really angry with Orson Welles! Tallulah Bankhead’s throwdown to Peggy Lee! Billie Holiday, babysitter!
Watch this. Billie and Lester Young together again after years apart. They were both gone within 18 months. Heartbreaking clip.