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