African American Studies Billie Holiday
John Szwed
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0006


Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, 7 April 1915; died in New York City, 7 April 1959) is considered by many to be the most important of all jazz singers. By age twenty she was recording songs that are still fully with us today, eighty years later, a feat matched only by Frank Sinatra. Despite a tumultuous, tragic life, she evolved into a singer with a distinctive voice and an uncanny way of phrasing a song and changing its rhythm. These elements, together with her freedom in transforming melodies and the authenticity and raw emotion she bought to a lyric, were new to singing, and they constitute an artistic approach in which she is still unmatched. Those who have chosen to write about her have discovered that there are many Billie Holidays: there are number of legends about her, many versions of how she sang, different stories of her marital and extramarital affairs, and endless fantasies about who was the real Billie Holiday. Even her photos show such different moods, settings, dress, and physical condition that she is sometimes unrecognizable. In her brief forty-four years she managed to gather a dizzying number of personae. Many of the stories that we have about her are contradictory, incomplete, or questionable. Most of the writing about her, and the image of her in popular culture, are based on the tragic details of her life—her miserable childhood in and out of institutions, her arrests for prostitution and drug use, her abusive relationships, her rapid physical deterioration, and her early death. In the realm of popular music a powerful urge exists to treat all songs as autobiographical, and since most love songs are unrelentingly melancholy, they are invariably seen as emerging from the pain of one or another single singer. Through all of this, the real woman and the artist that is Billie Holiday have often been overshadowed by the image of a damaged diva.

Autobiography, Biographies, And Biographical Articles

More than forty books have been written about Holiday, and more information about her remains to be discovered. A good deal of what we know comes from her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, though scattered through it are elements of fantasy, wishes, and inaccurate dates and names. The book has served as a source of controversy for years because of these perceived errors of fact (some of which have turned out to be correct as time and new research uncovers them), and disputes continue over whether she or her co-writer was responsible for them. She gave very few interviews, had only a few confidants, and, with the police and the FBI trailing her for years, she was suspicious of most of those she met. In spite of the very public nature of her performances and her problems with the law, elements of mystery persist, and so Billie Holiday remains a vital subject for new writers.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.