billie holiday and lady sings the blues -- 3/31/22

Today's encore selection -- from Billie Holiday by John Szwed. Legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday's autobiography is considered an American classic. Co-written with author and journalist William Dufty at a point when much had already been written about her, it is titled Lady Sings the Blues:

"When Dufty asked her if she had ever read anything written about her that was accurate, she recalled 'The Hard Life of Billie Holiday' -- an article based on an interview she had done with journalist Frank Harriott for PM newspaper in 1945. Dufty discovered that the material in it was rich enough to be the basis for the first three chapters of the book, often using what had been written verbatim or changing it slightly to standardize the narrative. When she read what she had said ten years before, it set Billie to recalling things long forgotten. Dufty went on to find other interviews she had done for PM, Metronome, Down Beat, and elsewhere that he could draw on.

"Portrait of Billie Holiday and Mister, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947".

"The opening line of the book, 'Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married,' was reshaped from the 1945 PM article. In it Billie was asked to talk about her life, and she began by saying that she was born in Baltimore in 1915 of parents who were 'just a couple of kids.' When asked what she meant by that, she replied:

"'Mom was 13 ... and Pop was 15.' She paused. 'Mom's and Pop's parents just about had a fit when it happened. They'd never heard of things like that going on in our part of Baltimore. But they were poor kids, Mom and Pop, and when you're poor you grow up fast.'

"Billie turned her eyes to us, smiled, and her frown disappeared. She lighted a Chesterfield, and began speaking rapidly, between short, reflective pauses.

"'Mom and Pop didn't get married till I was three years old,' she said ...

"The British magazine the New Statesman later reprinted those sentences and offered prizes for the best 'similarly explosive first or last sentences from a real or imagined biography.' Over a hundred readers gave it a try, but the New Statesman awarded only consolation prizes and declared that the contest was more difficult than they had imagined:

"'Miss Holiday's explosiveness ... is no simple formula. In 23 superbly chosen words, she has established her background, recorded at least five relevant facts, illustrated (by her method of doing so) one facet of her own character and made firm friends with the reader by a breathtaking and slightly naughty denouement. Too many of her imitators felt that vulgarity or sheer improbability were satisfactory substitutes for the artfully conjured impudence and shock which characterized the original.'"



John Szwed


Billie Holiday: The Musician & The Myth


William Heinemann


Copyright John Szwed 2015


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