If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday

Farah Jasmine Griffin, Author Free Press $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-684-86808-0
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)
Reviewed on: 05/01/2001
Release date: 05/01/2001
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