Masterplots II: African American Literature Lady Sings the Blues Analysis
Lady Sings the Blues is a patchwork quilt of anecdotes with no consistent thesis holding it together. One of the major themes has to do with the difficulties of being a black jazz artist in America. White musicians such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, as well as a host of others, were able to capitalize on an art form invented by African Americans and with roots in Africa. Black musicians were barred from many clubs and theaters because of racial prejudice. They found it nearly impossible to tour the United States, and in the 1930’s and 1940’s, touring the country was a prerequisite to financial success. Holiday describes this phenomenon with ironic humor rather than the bitterness that was expressed by many black jazz musicians in the 1960’s and later decades.
Another important theme concerns drugs. Few people have had more experience with illicit drugs than Holiday, and she presents drug addiction as the worst form of hell on earth. The tragedy of this great artist is that her career was cut short by drugs, and the strongest moral to be drawn from her life is that using drugs is equivalent to committing suicide. She says explicitly:If you think dope is for kicks and for thrills, you’re out of your mind. There are more kicks to be had in a good case of paralytic polio or by living in an iron lung. If you think you need stuff to play music or sing, you’re crazy. It can fix you so you can’t play nothing or sing nothing. The only thing that can happen to you is sooner or later you’ll get busted, and once that happens, you’ll never live it down. Just look at me.
She also believed that the American government’s policy toward drug addicts was medieval:Imagine if the government chased sick people with diabetes, put a tax on insulin and drove it into the black market, told doctors they couldn’t treat them, and then...
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Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series Lady Sings the Blues Analysis
Although Lady Sings the Blues was not written specifically for a young adult audience, readers of this age group are drawn to the book for its subject matter and its candid approach. Holiday’s bravado is often tempered by a confessional tone, not unlike the confessional women poets who were to begin publishing shortly after her death. Her honesty is alarming as she describes the feelings associated with her drug addiction or her relationships with abusive men. She is at one in the situation and, because the book is written in the past tense, objective enough to question her behavior and to shed light on what she has done.
In her writing, Holiday attempts to demystify the world of a celebrity while maintaining her sense of gratitude for her fame. There is an urgency in her delivery of Lady Sings the Blues which suggests that she is staying close to the facts when she describes her escapades. She has little shame when admitting, for example, her days of prostitution. She also has the clarity to see her drug addiction as a sickness in an era where rehabilitation centers were not as accepted as they later would become. By seeing herself as an observer of her own actions, Holiday seems to reach a point of acceptance that allows her to be truthful. She is frank about the times that she or her records failed and gleefully makes note of her successes.
Holiday changed her name from Eleanora for her career, and she later earned the nicknames “Duchess” and “Lady Day.” She is not shy in describing the...
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Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Lady Sings the Blues sold many copies in the United States and abroad because of Billie Holiday’s fame as a singer. The book received mixed reviews. Gilbert Millstein’s review in The New York Times, for example, was extremely favorable. Millstein said that the personality of Billie Holiday emerged whole—“colloquial, bitter, generous, loving, foolish and tragic.” On the other hand, Ralph J. Gleason was extremely unsympathetic and even antagonistic in his 1956 review of the book in the San Francisco Chronicle. Holiday had recently received much adverse publicity in that city following a drug arrest. According to Gleason, Lady Sings the Blues is “a story packed with self-pity and biased by Miss Holiday’s view that she was blameless in everything that happened to her and was the unending victim of prejudice.”
It is unfortunately true that few great artists are fully appreciated until after their deaths, and Holiday’s autobiography was published while she still had three painful years left to live. Since her death, biographers and musicologists have tended to treat her book with respect, although they generally concur that it glosses over many unpleasant facts and usually tries to present the singer in the best possible light.
The anecdotes about sexual promiscuity and drug use were shocking at the time. The New Yorker called the book “as bitter and uncompromising an autobiography as has been...
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Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues is suitable for students who are interested in the history of jazz or African-American women and in the psychology of addiction. The simple, straightforward language, which is sprinkled with obscenities and nonstandard grammar, is amazing for its complexity and multiple levels of experience. Like William S. Burroughs’ novel Junkie (1953), which was written a few years earlier, Lady Sings the Blues takes an unflinching look at the use and abuse of heroin.
As a political writer, Holiday is quite prophetic in describing drug addiction as a social problem. Seeing addicts as “sick,” she contrasts them with diabetics, who are not arrested for buying drugs that will help them control their disease. She also presents strong commentary on the judicial system of the 1940’s and 1950’s and its lack of sensitivity to addicts—calling, more often than not, for jail sentences rather than rehabilitation.
Holiday’s autobiography also comments on what it was like for an African-American woman to travel in different parts of the United States and in Europe, where she found the racism to be so much less significant. She contrasts European attitudes with the times that she had to enter the back doors of the American clubs in which she sang.
Lady Sings the Blues was made into a motion picture in 1972. For her performance in this slightly fictionalized version of Holiday’s autobiography, singer Diana Ross received an Academy Award nomination and introduced a new generation to Holiday’s story.