Form and Content
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....
(The entire section is 1123 words.)