Billie Holiday performs on stage at the Sugar Hill nightclub in Newark, N.J. Farah Jasmine Griffin’s 2001 book posed a challenge to biographers and helped reimagine Holiday’s legacy.
Biographies of musicians tend to be either hagiographic or hyper-factual, either shoring up the myths that celebrity produces or burying insight beneath a pile of mundane details. Farah Jasmine Griffin’s If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday posed a challenge to biographers — to confront the idealization, desire and judgment that contributes to an artist’s legend and expose how such “images and myths…seem to swallow up individuals who are too complex to be explained by them, yet cannot escape their powerful hold.” By 2001, when Griffin’s book was published, Holiday had come to embody so many different things: racial pride and resistance; feminine melancholy and tragic weakness; dignity damaged by demons from without and within. Fearlessly and with great compassion, Griffin traced the life stories of those assumptions about Holiday and illuminated the actual artist and woman obscured by them, setting a new standard for writing about musicians’ lives. In the reflection below, Griffin considers her lifelong connection to Holiday, what brought her to the singer as a subject, and how her understanding of Lady Day has changed in the decades since her book was published. — Ann Powers
In all honesty, when, as a child, I discovered Billie Holiday, I was looking for my father. After his death, I sought him in all the things I knew he loved, especially books and music. I listened. I read. In Lady’s voice I heard something beyond what I sought of him: I heard the seeking itself. In her voice there was the longing, the yearning that I felt but had not the words to express. To long for something you will never have, to aspire for a destination you will never reach – that is what I heard in Billie Holiday’s voice. In her sound there is a quiet depth, an interiority that is nonetheless reaching, aspiring. Where will she land? It is always someplace unexpected, perhaps not where she was headed, but, oh the journey there, and the place itself is beautiful; not because it satiates, but precisely because it doesn’t.
When, as an adult, I wrote about her in If You Can’t Be Free, Be A Mystery, she was the object of my desire and longing. I wanted desperately to treat her well, to refuse previous portrayals that lingered too long on the tragedy and too little on the genius. I turned away from the torch songs, the ones that are quite literally about longing, to the hip, sassy, flirtatious ones: the buoyant “No Regrets” and “Them There Eyes” of her youth; the grown woman versions of “Billie’s Blues,” “Fine and Mellow,” or the defiant, “Strange Fruit.” Listen closely to the version of “No Regrets” recorded in 1936 and you hear a woman who hasn’t lived long enough to have regrets anyway. In these songs there is a biography, one that acknowledges the struggle that was her life, but that reminds us of the many ways she fought, defiantly, and at times with militancy: “Before I be your dog / I’ll see you in your grave.” She did not shout or yell; she didn’t need to. The clarity, the full on stare of those statements and those to whom they are directed know better than to cross her.
But to attend to Lady closely is to be haunted by her voice, to always return to it. Listen and you will hear her everywhere: in restaurants, bars, soundtracks and in the voices of emerging jazz and pop artists. And, that haunting suggests, you haven’t finished, you need to listen more: Did you hear what you thought you heard? Listen again: Seek out later versions and contexts of the tune you thought you knew. Joni Mitchell, who claims Billie Holiday as one of her most formative influences, shares this insight about Lady Day: “Billie Holiday makes you hear the content and intent of every word she sings — even at the expense of her pitch or tone. Billie is the one that touches me deepest.” Like Morrison’s Beloved, she touches us deep “on the inside.” Her voice is an invitation to listen to your own interior voices as well.
In the years following the publication of my book about her, I returned to Lady only sporadically. I had ingested so much of her, I felt I needed to breathe, I needed to exhale her. When I did return, it was to “You’re My Thrill.” Mitchell recorded this one in tribute to Billie on her own album of standards. There is a raw eroticism to 1949’s “You’re My Thrill,” a wanting and desire so intense as to frighten. Is this all-encompassing desire only for a lover? Might it also be for the momentary bliss, the all too brief, ever-evasive peace brought on by heroin? (“Where’s my will, why this strange desire?”) I want here to at least acknowledge that possibility.
In truth, I initially turned to Billie Holiday, and continued to turn to her, because of what I heard in her but also because I had questions about addiction. I knew and loved people who struggled with various forms of substance abuse. It was the mid-’70s and heroin was back with a vengeance in my working-class black community; it would soon be supplanted by crack. I had family members who fell prey to both. In the days before Narcan and safe spaces to shoot up and calls for the humane care of addicts; in the days before the face of opioid addiction was white, addicts were hunted, arrested, stigmatized and treated like s***. And in our family, in our community, their struggles were known but whispered about. No one wanted to bring attention to them, least of all the addicts themselves. This was especially the case with heroin addiction. We neither named nor talked about it. It was a loud secret. There it was, out there, waiting. Was it waiting for me?
In the loud silence, in the quest and questioning, Lady provides answers. Later, because I did not want to join the chorus of those who seemed overly consumed with Lady the junkie, I focused my attention on how poorly she was treated by the authorities and the tabloids. Indeed. She had suffered the same fate of other poor black addicts, perhaps more so because of her fame. She was arrested on her death bed for possession and use. Her secret was open.
Billie Holiday neither denied nor evaded the fact of her addiction. In all of her adult life, there are two constants: her music and her habit. And she spoke openly of each. She spoke about the difficult dance of kicking the habit, only to pick it up again. But she does more than that. In a first person piece, attributed to her but said to have been written by William Dufty (who also wrote Lady Sings the Blues), she talks matter-of-factly about her addiction, without shame. “MAYBE I NEEDED HEROIN TO LIVE” she exclaims in the tabloid piece, recently republished in the very valuable Billie Holiday: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. I didn’t deal with this version of Holiday in my own book. I don’t recall consciously choosing not to, but this Holiday is a Holiday of refusal, refusing even my own attempts to present an alternative version of her life. This one isn’t the kick ass, genius woman instead of the tragic addict. This one is the kick ass, genius, black woman who makes no excuses for her addiction. Who explains the logic and the why of it. Who is neither apologetic nor ashamed. She notes her parents, neither of whom ever indulged in drug use, died at much younger age than she: “Heroin not only kept me alive – maybe it also kept me from killing.” Who am I to say this isn’t true?
Holiday closes the interview with, “I hold no regrets and I carry no shame.” I didn’t read this when I was first searching for answers in her life and her voice. I wish I had. There is a finality here. This is a destination, an unexpected landing: to come to the end with neither regret nor shame.