Lady Sings The Blues: The 50th Anniversary Edition

Suzanne Lorge By

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Lady Sings The Blues: The 50th Anniversary Edition
Billie Holiday with William Dufty
Softcover; 231 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7679-2386-6
Harlem Moon/Broadway Books

In 1956 Billie Holiday sat down with ghostwriter William Dufty and recounted the story of her life. At times during the 224-page narrative Holiday seems compelled to justify the telling of her tale and issues rueful warnings about the dangers of drug use, as if her artistry were not enough to warrant interest in her as a person, as if the public shame of her various addictions nullified her public accomplishments.

While certain facts of Holiday's personal account of her childhood remain contested—her mother's age and her biological father's identity, for instance—there is no contest over Holiday's contribution to the jazz vocal tradition. What's curious about her autobiography is how little she talks about the actual craft of singing; every discussion about music segues into an anecdote about one of the many sadists, racists, and opportunists that populate her story.

In telling her story Holiday usually opts for self-effacement over victimization, however. She draws only an indirect line between the wretchedness of her early life and her later self-medication; in between pleas for greater compassion for addicts she blames herself for not being strong enough to resist the poison. Her apologies most often give way to a muted rage at the injustices and abuses she suffered in her segregated, impoverished world; arguably, it was this struggle between her assertion and her passivity that made her music so revolutionary, and that in turn render her words so interesting.

From the unwritten epilogue to Holiday's autobiography we know, 50 years later, how Holiday turned that muted rage most tragically against herself. Holiday died in 1959—three years after the original publication of her book—of cirrhosis of the liver at age 44. Ultimately the lesson we take away from her story is not the intended "just say no, but that sometimes, against the odds, beauty grows to magnificent heights with the least bit of sun.

Harlem Moon Classics, a division of Random House, re-released the Holiday autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues, in late July. Expanding on the original, the publisher has added a foreword and a complete listing of Holiday's discography, both by writer David Ritz. Also accompanying this 50th anniversary edition is a 10-track tribute CD of songs that Holiday either wrote or popularized, now recorded by some of today's top R&B and jazz artists. Fifty years of social and technological change are evident in the skilled arrangements and slick production of the CD; while the tunes stand on their own merit and the performances are above reproach, absent is Holiday's insistent, painful howl for release.

There is no fault in this: Perhaps we did learn something after all from Holiday the first time.

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