Feminist Book Review: Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday

For this week’s post, I wanted to write about a book I recently finished. I picked up Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday, written by Robert O’Meally, for my Women’s and Gender Studies 300 course. For those of you who don’t know (and/or are looking for a class next semester) WMST 300 is a study of the women of blues and jazz music. A key figure in those genres is the great Billie Holiday, an artist known unfortunately as much for her music as her tumultuous personal life.

Billie Holiday was born in 1915. From a young age, music was her life. Holiday was also a “wild child”, who frequently skipped school, was arrested at age 10, and spent time as a juvenile prostitute. Later in life, Holiday faced issues of abusive and exploitative partners and heroine addiction. Though these elements shaped Holiday’s life and work, many biographies spend too much time on Holiday’s personal life and neglect her contributions as a great jazz artist.

One of the best aspects of Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday, is that the author provides amazing support and focus on Holiday’s artistic abilities. She was a performer who could take trivial and meaningless music, and through her voice and improvisation skills, turn it into amazing art. Holiday is known for appropriating meanings, turning sad songs into happy ones, and giving inconsequential music deeper meaning.

Perhaps the most notable Holiday songs was Strange Fruit, an anti-lynching protest. I’ve provided the link below because I believe it really captures the power of Holiday’s performance.

I was very pleased at the job that Robert O’Meally was able to accomplish in this book. Though he addresses Holiday’s personal life, he does not let these details overwhelm her work. He also provides support through firsthand accounts that show how conscious Billie was when selecting music and working to appropriate meaning. This book really shows that Billie Holiday was fully conscious of what she was doing in terms of song selection, changing lyrics, improvisation, and use of vocals. This information is important because it furthers her credibility as one of the great jazz artists.

Finally, I enjoyed the photographs that were selected for the book. With a title that acknowledges Holiday’s many faces, it is important for readers to really view how true that statement is. Firsthand accounts mention that Holiday “loved to laugh without holding back and that for many of her recording sessions, from the thirties to fifties, she was bubbling over with the joy of being with friends and improvising beautiful music with them.” The photographs in the book support these accounts and allow readers to further understand the complex woman that was Billie Holiday.

Overall, I’d highly recommend Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. The book is a relatively light an enjoyable read, yet still contains an enormous amount of substance. The biographical account is able to paint a picture of Holiday as not only a strong and complicated woman, but also supports her status as a genius artist who forever influenced jazz music.

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