Here’s how this week’s arts and culture column begins:

Jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-1959) continues to fascinate. Her life and work—the way she moved through the world—embodied myriad contradictions

The outlines of her story are well-known: born in Philadelphia to an absent father, shuttled off first to relatives Baltimore, then to Harlem and a mother who ran a “good-time” house. The victim of attempted rape at 11, turning tricks by 14. The fame, the adulation, the boozing, the men, the heroin addiction, the arrests, prison time, and FBI profile. The death in a hospital from cirrhosis, chained to a bed.

A new documentary, Billie, directed by James Erskine, is based on the voluminous notes, transcripts and recorded interviews left behind by journalist and fan Linda Kuehl. After spending upwards of eight years in the 1970s talking to Holiday’s childhood friends, fellow musicians, business managers, and lovers, Kuehl died in 1978, an apparent suicide.

The best part of the film, to my mind, consists in Holiday’s performances: The regal bearing, even when singing of the men who abuse her. The heart-stopping phrasing, the slightly tilted head, the between-the-beat silences, the eyes that challenge and plead, mourn and defy, all at once. Her incredible sense of self, a kind of contained built-on-solid rock integrity that no outside force—no man, no Jim Crow law, no trauma even—could touch or defile.



  1. Ron Lewberg says: Reply

    I’m looking forward to watching the new documentary of her life. I have a very eclectic love of music and she’s one of my favorites. It’s always good to remind ourselves that whatever kind of past we’ve lived, forgiveness and salvation are always within our reach because of Jesus.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Right, Rn, and she absolutely did what she was put on earth to do. She was faithful to her calling, no matter the cost. Which to my mind is a straight ticket to heaven. Because that kind of fidelity requires love. Not sentimental, easy, love but nailed-to-the-cross love…which came out in every note she sang…

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