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Julia Blackburn: With Billie – A New Look at the Unforgettable Lady Day

As much as I like the people I like, I’ve never been all that interested in reading about their life. It’s not always possible and sometimes it’s not even a good idea to do so, but I prefer to separate the artist from their work in the sense that, whatever inspired them to create the work, it should have no baring on how I engage it. Billie Holiday has been my favorite Jazz vocalist since…I don’t even know–it’s not like she ever had competition as far as I’m concerned, but this is the first time I’ve ever made a point to learn about her life.

Julia Blackburn structured the collection of interviews, information, implications, and inferences–mostly instigated and compiled by the late Linda Kuehl–that became With Billie in a very forgiving chronology. Most chapters focus on an interview or collection of them with one figure–sometimes two–from Billie’s life. Going back and forth in time as people recall their various encounters and relationships with Billie. Blackburn interjects speculation, bridges a few gaps, notes conflicting information, and occasionally clarifies ambiguities, but otherwise lets the interviewees speak for themselves. The book is definitely more that just a presentation of someone else’s work. Blackburn added to Kuehl’s work with her own efforts and she definitely has a voice which is apparent from the beginning when she tells of her first time hearing Billie. She also let her personality come though in passages like this one in a chapter about Billie’s relationship with happiness:

In 1776 the Declaration of Independence stated that all men were created equal and every American was promised ‘certain unalienable Rights’. These included the right to ‘the pursuit of happiness’, as if happiness were a wild animal lurking in the woods and bushes of life, and you and everyone else must go out and follow its trail, dogs on the scent, guns at the ready.

I liked Blackburn’s candid delivery of certain aspects of the stories she was relayed, how plainly she arrived at the fact of someone’s death or other event that is more often than not preceded by a momentum that almost gives it away. I mentioned that she offered speculation, but it might be better categorized as daydreaming. She liked to suppose about what some of those retold moments were like. Filling in the atmosphere. But never too much, never so much as to obscure the fact that is was an assumed sense of nostalgia.

I never meditated on it, but I was always aware that Billie’s life was not some glamorous, swinging fairy tale; however, this book illustrates how un-glamorous it really was. There were bright, brilliant moments with Billie and her music, but…the people… I want to blame a lot of it on the times, the desperation that was prevalent, but people are trash and it’s crazy to see how one person can, nearly without fail, surround themselves with such base individuals. Even the people who didn’t set out to hurt her didn’t really help her either. Her life was a tragedy, a rolling tide of sparkle and fade. She seemed to be at once fully aware of the nonsense and utterly helpless to do anything about it. A tragedy.

Can you enjoy a book like this? I’m not sure, but With Billie was a heartbreaking, yet intriguing read that I’m glad I took the time to get into.

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