Cover image for If you can't be free, be a mystery : in search of Billie Holiday
If you can't be free, be a mystery : in search of Billie Holiday
Griffin, Farah Jasmine.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Free Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
xv, 240 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ML420.H58 G7 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
ML420.H58 G7 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Non circulating
ML420.H58 G7 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
ML420.H58 G7 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Black History Non-Circ
ML420.H58 G7 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Singer, composer, actress, lover, wife, writer, pleasure seeker, drug addict, icon, commodity, myth and mystery: Billie Holiday is still one of the most famous jazz vocalists of all time. But Holiday's image -- the gifted torch singer with insatiable appetites for food, sex, alcohol and drugs -- is not the full story. Farah Jasmine Griffin's enchanting investigation of Holiday, her world and how she is remembered, at last fully liberates Lady Day from the tragic songstress myth. Griffin argues that the stereotype of a black woman who can always take center stage to command an audience because of her incredible ability to feel, but not to think, continues to hide the real Holiday from public view. Instead of a mindless "natural" with incredible talent but no discipline, Griffin's Holiday is a jazz virtuoso whose passion and technique made every song she sang forever hers. Instead of being helpless against the racism, sexism and poverty that dominated her life, Holiday is an artist, willing to pay a tremendous price to change the sound of jazz forever. And far from being a victim of overwhelming obstacles, Lady Day is an independent spirit whose greatest legacy is that all hurdles can be overcome, whatever the odds. Holiday's voice has permeated American music from Frank Sinatra to Macy Gray. But, until now, Holiday's influence has never been reconciled with her image. Farah Jasmine Griffin unravels the threads that make up the Holiday mystique and weaves together a new, true Lady Day that jazz fans will both love and respect.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Jazz singer Billie Holiday's as-told-to autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (1956), and the Diana Ross movie based on it emphasized her abuse of drugs and by lovers and managers. Griffin places her in the musical and political context of her time and explores the myths she and others manufactured about her life. A tough and talented woman, Holiday struggled mightily with racism and sexism. Spurning paths black women of her time were expected to walk, she refused to be a maid and soon rejected the life of prostitution she entered very early. For Griffin as for other black feminist writers and activists, Holiday is a literary and artistic ancestor, and they have reclaimed her, revising the image of her as a tragic, sensual, intellectually limited woman who, it was said, didn't understand her most famous song, "Strange Fruit," which protested lynching. Hence, Griffin can cite Holiday's influence on many black women writers, poets, and singers, from Abbey Lincoln to Rita Dove, who have participated in black women's struggles to define themselves. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

This rumination on the famous jazz singer is a mix of hagiography, music appreciation and criticism of past biographers, yet on its own terms, it works. Griffin (Who Set You Flowin'?: The African-American Migration Narrative), associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, sets out to examine the mythic figure Holiday created over the years, but she states from the outset that her book is not meant to be a formal biography or musical study. She is, though, determined not to see Holiday as a tragic victim. Probably the best-known book about Holiday is her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, written "with" William Dufty (Griffin claims that Dufty actually created the book from talks and previously published interviews with Holiday). Griffin repeatedly points out errors in that work (e.g., it opens claiming that when Holiday was born, her mother was only 13, when in fact she was 19) and speculates as to why such errors might have been made intentionally (e.g., to portray her mother not as promiscuous but rather as the young victim of an older man). Griffin writes in a pleasant, easy tone, and many of her observations about the litany of notorious stereotypes applied to Holiday are astute, but the book suffers from a tendency to circle back over the same themes rather than expanding upon them. On several occasions, for example, Griffin compares Holiday to other artists, like Bessie Smith, L'il Kim and Mary J. Blige, only to decide that none can compete with Holiday; but then Griffin's trajectory changes again, and she devotes "the last chapter of this book... to Abbey Lincoln," whom she believes belongs in the same "pantheon" as Holiday and offers an alternative extension of her legacy. While this book sometimes wanders, in doing so it mimics the very music and elusive character it is describing; and while she has not organized her arguments in a superior fashion, Griffin engages readers throughout with her consistently intriguing observations. Agent, Loretta Barrett. (May 14) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Readers should note that this is not a straightforward biography of Holiday (1915-59); it is more an invitation to discover a view of the singer grounded not in attention-grabbing headlines and sensationalism but in reality and, perhaps most importantly, in how Holiday's music spoke to listeners and celebrated and reflected their lives. Emotionally and intellectually, Griffin (English, Univ. of Pennsylvania; Who Set You Flowin'; Stranger in the Village) demonstrates a true fealty to Holiday's artistic achievements. Using several facets, including social and political commentary, poetry, and personal experiences, she reveals Holiday as a real person rather than a mixture of the myths and images created by managers, critics, and others who held sway over her, often not having Holiday's best interests at heart. While Griffin's book isn't the last word on Holiday, it does prove to be an excellent antidote to the often ridiculous material that has been written about Lady Day over the years. For music and African American collections. William G. Kenz, Minnesota State Univ., Moorhead (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Portrait of a Lady: A Note on the Photographs
Overture: A Mourning Song
Part 1 Founding Myths Lady of the Day Lady-like White Lady
Lady Day on Holiday Lady Di Ebony Lady and the Politics of Respectability Ebony Lady
Lady in G-flat European Holiday
Part 2 Alternative Myths Lady's Men and a Woman's Day Neither Nor but Both Longing for Lady Holiday Sales Dark Lady of the Sonnets
Abbey Lincoln: The Dawn of a New Day Caged Bird Angry Bird
Bird Alone Coda: A Morning Song
Further Reading and Listening