Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Lady Sings the Blues is a very loosely constructed autobiography arranged in chronological order but leaving many gaps. It is based on Billie Holiday’s reminiscences as told to collaborator William Dufty, and as such is largely anecdotal. Holiday had a highly sociable, extroverted nature, and all her reminiscences are about the people she knew. Although her anecdotes are about other people, they reveal her own affectionate, generous, emotional personality. She did not relate to people in an impersonal manner: She either loved or hated them. Although she is considered to be one of the greatest and most influential jazz artists of all time, she devotes little attention to discussing technical aspects of her own music or that of her contemporaries. She is not a critic but an artist.

The book is divided into twenty-four short chapters, many of which bear the titles of popular songs. Readers familiar with Holiday’s beautiful renditions of such songs as “Good Morning, Heartache,” “Travelin’ Light,” “I Must Have That Man,” and “God Bless the Child” can imagine her inimitable voice singing a background accompaniment to the text.

The early chapters deal with Holiday’s impoverished childhood in Baltimore, Maryland. Her mother was a housemaid and her father, who was seldom at home, was a musician. Her great-great-grandmother had been a slave and had borne sixteen children by her white master, so Holiday was one-eighth white.

Holiday’s introduction to sex was early and traumatic. She was raped at the age of ten, and by the age of thirteen she was working as a prostitute. Her attitude toward prostitution was pragmatic: She preferred it to the alternative of hard, underpaid domestic labor. She had acquired a love for music from her talented father, but she did not realize that she had musical talent until someone asked her to sing at a nightclub. Although her vocal range was limited, she put her heart and soul into everything she sang. She had unerring timing, a sensual voice, and a unique ability to improvise variations on melodies the way a jazz musician would.

Musicians respected Holiday as much more than a vocalist. She truly understood music and could communicate back and forth with musicians while they were performing. She became famous as a New York City cabaret entertainer and soon attracted the notice of such influential white bandleaders as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, racial segregation was so rigorous that there was little social contact between African Americans and whites except in nightclubs.

Holiday went on the road with Artie Shaw. Her main impressions of that period were of the prejudice she encountered everywhere she went....

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Lady Sings the Blues Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Billie Holiday’s autobiography Lady Sings the Blues begins with the words “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.” From there, in the same matter-of-fact tone, the author delivers factual accounts from her life. The style of Holiday’s writing is at odds with the book’s content, which at times ranges from shocking to disturbing; she is a master of understatement. The twenty-four chapters of narration bring the reader up to 1956, only three years before the author’s death as the result of a drug overdose. The last chapter is called “God Bless the Child,” and the lyrics to that hit song are also included earlier in the book. Holiday’s own mother died when she was thirty-eight, and toward the latter part of the book, the author predicts that she herself will not live much past forty.

Holiday speaks with frankness, and sometimes even humor, about her traumatic childhood. Sadie Fagan left her daughter for domestic work in New York City. Holiday was initially reared in Baltimore by her cousin Ida, who beat her. Holiday was also raped at a young age by a trumpet player on the floor of her grandmother’s parlor. Following her mother to New York, Holiday worked as a cleaning lady in a brothel and, for a short time, as a prostitute before her singing career was launched at Pod and Jerry’s, a club in New York City.

Holiday toured with several big bands...

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Lady Sings the Blues Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Chilton, John. Billie’s Blues: Billie Holiday Story, 1933-1959. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975. The focus of this biography is on Holiday’s development as an artist. The author personally interviewed or communicated with dozens of people and examined much of the material available in magazine and newspaper files. An excellent source of periodical references containing four chapters discussing her many recordings.

De Veaux, Alexis. Don’t Explain: A Song of Billie Holiday. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. A fictional biography of Holiday that parallels the events described in Lady Sings the Blues. The entire story is told in poetic black English. It highlights the origin of the song “Don’t Explain,” which was created by Holiday while she was grieving over a faithless lover.

Kliment, Bud. Billie Holiday: Singer. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. This biography is part of the “Black Americans of Achievement” series. Kliment emphasizes the negative effects of racism on Holiday’s life but also candidly discusses her self-destructive tendencies. Contains many excellent photographs.

Mezzrow, Milton. Really the Blues. New York: Random House, 1946. This highly entertaining book is a minor classic written by a musician who was active in the jazz world during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Mezzrow vividly describes the precarious lives of jazz musicians and discusses in knowledgeable terms the many different types of blues.

O’Meally, Robert. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. New York: Arcade, 1991. This biography focuses on Holiday’s development as a creative artist. Richly illustrated with photographs of Holiday from childhood to just before her death as well as photographs of all the people who were important in her life.

White, John. Billie Holiday: Her Life and Times. New York: Universe Books, 1987. This biography, first published in England, presents a different perspective by focusing on Holiday’s early years in Baltimore and her pioneering role as the first black woman to sing with an all-white orchestra in segregated regions. The last chapter contains an illuminating evaluation of all of her recordings.