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.
"This beautifully written study of Lady Day is unique in its quiet but unrelenting drive to uncover the myths of Billie Holiday (along with the motives of the myth - makers) and to explore ways that Lady lives?especially for contemporary black women artists - both as a warning and as a revered ancestor and inspiration. Using an exciting new array of sources, and rereading ones we thought we already knew, Grin explores Holiday as national and international icon and as highly personal heroic presence. Along the way, we get to know Professor Griffin herself as one of Lady's most brilliant daughters, not just a survivor but a triumphant intellectual with a poet's ear."
Robert G. O'Meally author of Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday
Praise for If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery
"With If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery Farah Jasmine Griffin has given us a work of extraordinary originality and passion. By confronting the myths that surround one of the world's greatest artists, Griffin reveals a great deal about our need to revel in the tragedy and mystery that Billie Holiday's image conjures. This brilliantly conceived and beautifully written book is a pathbreaking study that adds flesh to Holiday's icon and explores the ingenious art behind her complex life."
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, author of
I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.
"This book contains writing as haunting and evocative as Billie Holiday's voice; Griffin is attentive both to Holiday's actual biography and to her biographers and memorialists, as she explores in rich detail Holiday's musical genius and her ongoing influence, particularly on young women singers today. A dazzling combination of intellectual rigor and imaginative sensibility."
ANN DOUGLAS, author of Terrible Honesty:
Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s
"Farah Griffin has written a deeply personal meditation on the mysteries of Lady Day. At the same time, she has produced a rich reading of the narrative of that life that our collective imagination has been writing for these many years. She is fascinating, evocative and rewarding. Nobody - bet on it - will ever write about Billie Holiday the same way again."
JOHN E SZWED, author of Terrible Honesty:
A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving jazz
"What a lovely book! Farah Jasmine Griffin's clear - eyed but affectionate study reveals the many versions of the jazz singer Billie Holiday. Acknowledging the power of the tragic, mythic Holiday, Griffin prefers to place her beside the marvelous Abbey Lincoln and to celebrate Holiday's artistic genius."
NELL IRVIN PAINTER, author of
Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol, and Edwards
Professor of American History at Princeton University
"If You Can't Be Free is worth the price of 1,000 jazz biographies. Farah Griffin's lyrical meditations on Lady Day brilliantly reveal how the world heard, saw and loved Billie Holiday, and how she struggled to live her life trapped in the box of other people's perceptions. By allowing us to see her subject through the eyes and ears of other artists, writers, critics, lovers, friends, and enemies, Griffin gives us a new Holiday and a new world."
ROBIN D. G. KELLEY, author of Race Rebels: Culture, Politics,
and the Black Working Class