THERE SHE STANDS in the spotlight on a dark stage, an elegant woman wearing a white gown and a white gardenia in her hair. Depending on the year, Eleanora Fagan is either young and fresh and radiant, a teenager adopting the stage name Billie Holiday but conveying the emotions of a much older woman. Or many years have passed and she has become that older woman, gaunt with the wear of heroine, heartbreak, and prison, but still projecting dignity and authority. Or perhaps she is somewhere along the spectrum between ingénue and doyenne.
If we picture her as a young woman, she is already possessed of that powerful instrument — a reedy, some might say bleating voice, yet so rhythmically adventuresome that it completely redefined jazz and pop vocals for decades to come. She would not have had a microphone, but would have sung unamplified, her notes mingling with the cigarette smoke in some Harlem jazz club as she moves among the tables and addresses each patron in turn. By the height of the Depression, however, technology had developed to the extent that even a small nightclub catering to African Americans would have had a microphone, and few singers adapted to the new contraption as confidently as Holiday. She stands onstage behind that metal pole, softening her voice with the confidence that each gin drinker and sloshed gawker tonight can hear every sigh, every bent note, every dramatic pause.
“The microphone had begun to function like a close-up lens in motion pictures, focusing and amplifying emotions and small vocal gestures, making histrionics, high volume, and grand stagecraft unnecessary,” writes John Szwed in his new book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth. “The performance was not in the words that were spoken or sung, but in the character that was developed, and character began with basics such as breathing.” A professor of music at Columbia who has written monographic books on Alan Lomax and Miles Davis, Szwed describes Holiday as a method actor: she burrowed to the core of the song, determined what type of person might be voicing such sentiments in what kind of situation, and let that guide her interpretation of it.
Whatever that song may be, two things occur: first, she owns it completely. Holiday’s interpretations tend to be so imaginative and so nuanced that the song takes on the impression of truth, as though she is confessing some personal pain or joy. Second, we own the singer. Fans of Billie Holiday are seldom merely fans, but followers who believe she speaks directly to and for them. Such extreme identification between audience and artist has given way to many misinterpretations of her music, such that her artistry is understood to extend directly from her autobiography. She made such pained music because she lived such a pained life. Szwed, to his immense credit, attempts to rescue Holiday the artist from this facile equation: “Suffering and pain,” he explains, “are neither necessary nor sufficient to produce a great artist. Holiday was the singer she was because she knew how to rise above the easy pathos of so many of the songs that came her way and to bring a dignity, depth, and grandeur to her performances that went far beyond simply displaying the bruises she suffered.”
Holiday herself chronicled those bruises in her 1956 memoir, Lady Sings the Blues, co-authored with William Dufty. Tracing her life from Baltimore to New York City to Los Angeles, the bestseller grimly recounts her addiction to heroine, her many incarcerations, and her repeated attempts to get clean. There is a series of abusive husbands and conniving managers, along with fans and hangers-on both obscure and famous. Some episodes she exaggerated for dramatic effect; a few she made up whole cloth; others she omitted altogether. She becomes an unreliable narrator penning a “form of autobiographical fiction,” Szwed writes.
Holiday’s own changes or omissions were perhaps a means of preventing readers from knowing too much, of distancing herself to keep from being too closely identified with how others saw her, and especially from what the press had written about her. She chose not to see herself as others did, and what might appear to be a private communication between the writer and the reader is ultimately as illusory as believing a singer is communicating directly to a listener in her audience.
In other words, she approached her life the way she approached a song — as a text to be deciphered, interpreted, and presented to an audience that she knew had certain expectations of her. Even in her autobiography, she played a character, one that resembled her but was not her. Szwed spends nearly half of The Musician and the Myth engaging closely with Lady Sings the Blues and the writing process that produced it, documenting the exchanges between Holiday and Dufty and between the co-authors and the publishers. A careful critic who is reluctant to impose his own interpretations or concerns onto his subject, he wisely refrains from surmising any motive that cannot be verified with documents or first-hand accounts. Even if it means Holiday remains somewhat distant as a protagonist, it’s a refreshing tack that allows her to tell pieces of her own story, if not the entire thing.
While this deep analysis may fascinate Holiday’s fans, it may prove impenetrable for readers who possess only a passing familiarity with the facts of her life. Newcomers are advised to seek out a reputable compilation (the new Centennial Collection from Columbia/Legacy is a fine overview of her career), then to read Lady Sings the Blues, and finally to approach Szwed’s book as a series of annotated footnotes or a long-form review. His research is exhaustive and discerning, his analyses sound, his prose clear and direct, yet The Musician and the Myth is organized so haphazardly and so aimlessly that it obscures any larger point he wants to make about Holiday. We are left with a million arguments and ideas that must be pieced together into a larger portrait of the musician.
After dispensing with her biography, Szwed moves backward to contextualize Holiday as a musician, specifically as a jazz singer. He puts her in the context of African-American music, all the way back to nineteenth-century minstrelsy, offering a capsule history of popular music in America that occasionally lapses into cataloging. Here is where his writing is most illuminating and persuasive. “The concept of a jazz vocalist did not exist when Billie stumbled her way into a career as a singer,” he writes. “A singer’s having a career of her or his own — independent of a band, a musical theater, or a vaudeville company — was only just beginning to be possible. Still, there was then no clear idea of what a jazz singer might be.”
Szwed describes the way she lets certain notes fall or the way she uses vibrato to heighten the drama of a song. He extols her “deadpan understatement” and praises the restraint she exhibits in her interpretations, both of which defined a conversational style that was new at the time and able to convey intimacy and humanity. “Her voice is so unique that some of her vocal techniques fall outside the standard techniques of musicology and beg for new terms to express them: falling behind the beat, floating, breathing where it’s not expected, scooping up notes and letting them fall.” Szwed demonstrates these points with close readings of one or two songs, tracking the meter and tracing her cadence across several lines of lyrics. He’s the rare writer who sounds most engaging when he’s most technical, and these passages should make even the hardiest Holiday fan hear her music with new ears.
And yet, too rarely does Szwed dive into Holiday’s oeuvre to examine any specific demonstration of her technique and how it created fresh characters for familiar songs. He writes too broadly of her catalog, making general statements but largely avoiding any opportunity to put his exacting interpretive strategies into play. During passages when he should be engaging closely with her music, he saddles the reader with the burden of discernment, interjecting tedious parenthetical asides asking us to compare different versions of the same song. Perhaps those differences will be self-evident to an attentive listener, but it reads as a critic shirking his responsibility. No reader who invests time and money in a book should have to encounter this passage:
(Compare the versions of “All of Me” as recorded on January 21, 1941, April 22, 1946, and January 2, 1954; or those of “Yesterdays” recorded April 20, 1939, July 27, 1952, and November 10, 1956; or of “My Man” recorded November 1, 1937, December 10, 1948, July 27, 1952, and July 6, 1957.)
One of the reasons Holiday remains so popular is the air of inscrutability that clings to her so many decades after her heyday, reminding us that she always remains just beyond our reach. All we can do is imagine her on that stage. So let’s place here there once more. The year is 1939, when she was in her mid-twenties, or it might be 1944, near the start of the war that would temporarily halt the production of vinyl records. She is singing “Them There Eyes,” a song penned by the team of Maceo Pinkard, Doris Tauber, and William Tracey. It was a hit for Louis Armstrong in 1931, but Holiday’s 1939 version arguably remains definitive.
Tonight she plays up the colloquialism of the phrasing, its sweetly skewed grammar adding pep to the jaunty melody. The lyrics of the song seem to celebrate the idea of romance, but Holiday isn’t having it. There is hesitation in her cadence to offset the brightness in her tone, perhaps even a hint of suspicion, as though she (or, more accurately, the character she is playing in the song) is bracing herself for the heartbreak that inevitably follows elation: those beautiful eyes “make me feel so happy, they make me feel so blue.”
Holiday recorded the song numerous times and performed it countless more. “She’d perform ‘Them There Eyes’ […] as if she’d be asking a question,” Szwed writes. “At other times, it would be an exclamation. She said the words differently with each interpretation.” Think of an actor on the stage, embodying a character that doesn’t exist in the wings or beyond the theater.
The singers we see in performance are not the real persons. Like actors, singers create their identities as artists through words and music. Singers act as singers when the perform, but behave differently in daily life […] The emotions that are expressed in performance need not be authentic, but only have to appear to be so, and can never be assessed via a backstage view of the performance. All we can know for certain is the performance itself.
For too long, Szwed argues, we have too neatly conflated Holiday the woman with Holiday the singer, as though her musical performances enact a kind of autobiography. To say that the woman we are seeing onstage is a role for her to play shouldn’t diminish its effect or its accomplishment, but rather should make us appreciate all the more the skill involved in playing it. Szwed usefully complicates our understanding of the artist, even if The Myth and the Musician reads as somehow incomplete, full of intriguing critical arguments but with no thesis to guide them and too few case studies to illuminate them.
A Tennessee native, Stephen M. Deusner is a freelance writer currently based in Indiana.