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If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday Paperback – April 30, 2002

3.3 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This rumination on the famous jazz singer is a mix of hagiography, music appreciation and criticism of past biographers, yet on its own terms, it works. Griffin (Who Set You Flowin'?: The African-American Migration Narrative), associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, sets out to examine the mythic figure Holiday created over the years, but she states from the outset that her book is not meant to be a formal biography or musical study. She is, though, determined not to see Holiday as a tragic victim. Probably the best-known book about Holiday is her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, written "with" William Dufty (Griffin claims that Dufty actually created the book from talks and previously published interviews with Holiday). Griffin repeatedly points out errors in that work (e.g., it opens claiming that when Holiday was born, her mother was only 13, when in fact she was 19) and speculates as to why such errors might have been made intentionally (e.g., to portray her mother not as promiscuous but rather as the young victim of an older man). Griffin writes in a pleasant, easy tone, and many of her observations about the litany of notorious stereotypes applied to Holiday are astute, but the book suffers from a tendency to circle back over the same themes rather than expanding upon them. On several occasions, for example, Griffin compares Holiday to other artists, like Bessie Smith, L'il Kim and Mary J. Blige, only to decide that none can compete with Holiday; but then Griffin's trajectory changes again, and she devotes "the last chapter of this book... to Abbey Lincoln," whom she believes belongs in the same "pantheon" as Holiday and offers an alternative extension of her legacy. While this book sometimes wanders, in doing so it mimics the very music and elusive character it is describing; and while she has not organized her arguments in a superior fashion, Griffin engages readers throughout with her consistently intriguing observations. Agent, Loretta Barrett.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Readers should note that this is not a straightforward biography of Holiday (1915-59); it is more an invitation to discover a view of the singer grounded not in attention-grabbing headlines and sensationalism but in reality and, perhaps most importantly, in how Holiday's music spoke to listeners and celebrated and reflected their lives. Emotionally and intellectually, Griffin (English, Univ. of Pennsylvania; Who Set You Flowin'; Stranger in the Village) demonstrates a true fealty to Holiday's artistic achievements. Using several facets, including social and political commentary, poetry, and personal experiences, she reveals Holiday as a real person rather than a mixture of the myths and images created by managers, critics, and others who held sway over her, often not having Holiday's best interests at heart. While Griffin's book isn't the last word on Holiday, it does prove to be an excellent antidote to the often ridiculous material that has been written about Lady Day over the years. For music and African American collections. William G. Kenz, Minnesota State Univ., Moorhead
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: One World/Ballantine; 1st edition (April 30, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345449738
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345449733
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,038,237 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book drips with passion and admiration for the great Billie Holiday. I loved reading about not just the tragedy of her death but the joys of her living. She was a huge influence on American culture and a giant that many greats so eagerly stand on. I fell in love with Miss Holiday all over again and the poetic flow of the narrative. Thank you for sharing your labor of love and admiration!
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Format: Hardcover
This book promises much but delivers little....which is a great pity since it could have been a much better book than it is. Part of the problem lies in the fact that it is not well written and is in severe need of editing. The book is repetitive in the extreme (see p. 181 for a glaring example - where we are told in two CONSECUTIVE sentences that Abbey Lincoln was under consideration to play Billie Holiday in a filmed version of Lady Sings The Blues). Other examples involve being told something, and then two or three pages later the same information is repeated. This is sloppy and shows that the author (or her editors) did not bother to proofread the manuscript in any meaningful way.
The other problem with the book is that it offers little in the way of insight. Sure the author has some ideas - but they are not enough to stretch out over the length of a book. It might have made an interesting presentation at a conference where it could have been presented as a 20 minute talk, but over the length of a book it becomes tiresome. Billie Holiday deserves better than this. Sorry to be so negative, but i bought this book with a great sense of anticipation and felt really let down by it. A real case of the critic not being up to the level of her subject.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a brilliant analysis, rumination, meditation, on Billie Holiday. I believe the previous reviewers who did not agree with me missed Professor Griffin's use of jazz phrasing within the prose of her work, the reworking and repetition of themes to provide new insight. It is a technique that perhaps would only be understandable to a jazz lover, but it is part of the creative wisdom of this piece. This is the best work on Billie Holiday that I have ever read and I highly recommend it. And incidentally, Dr. Griffin is one of the most respected scholars of African American and American Studies, so she should never be compared to a first year graduate student. I suggest readers check out her other work as well.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is exactly the type of book I usually like -- a mixture of personal narrative, history, analysis, art -- but it just did not work for me this time. One learns a great deal about Billie Holiday and her place in jazz history, but that is often overshadowed by meandering commentary by Farah Jasmine Griffin (whose book on John Coltrane and Miles Davis is one of the best I have ever read). A straight biography of this mysterious singer probably would have been better.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a must read. The author makes it personal and yet not too indulgent, historically accurate and interesting. I deeply enjoyed the read. It made me happy to see Lady Day from this perspective. She is an excellent writer.
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Format: Paperback
Griffin's opening chapter is interesting and effectively presented, and by itself would make an adequate article on Holiday's life. There's not enough content here to warrant a book, and, in fact, it reads more like a first-year graduate student's paper than a text polished for publication. It seems that Griffin favored the copy and paste method here, repeating herself, literally, at times, in subsequent chapters, word for word, from previous chapters. This was not done to lend the text a wondeful insularity or elipticalness...I think she was just confused as to what to say and where to go. That Griffin adores Holiday is clear, but her worship of this Jazz Diva doesn't translate well into postmodern theory, and the pomo buzzwords Griffin sprinkles throughout the text seem to hinder her own understanding of and relationship with Holiday and to her music...Ultimately, the author ends up sounding disingenous and uncertain and not quite cognizant of the social politics she purports to examine and explain. Still, the glimpses we do get of Holiday stand out and shine marvelously.
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Format: Paperback
...if this were a graduate term paper. It contains very poignant analysis of the common-day misconceptions about Billie Holiday, but isn't very persuasive in "setting the record straight." Whatever Griffin's goal, the book reads much more like a college paper, repeating itself at times and the thesis is pretty worn out by the end of the book. What I actually enjoyed the most about the book were the photos of Holiday. I would have appreciated more historical insight into Billie's life, and perhaps even more of a biographical approach. Nevertheless, if you're looking for a well-rounded representation of Holiday, this book definitely delivers.
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