Publications Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’s Internet Archive

Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 175 Contents

Socialist Review, May 1994

Mike Hobart


Black Pride


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Wishing on the Moon: the Life and Times of Billie Holiday
Donald Clarke
Viking £16.99

Billie Holiday is one of the great voices of the 20th century. She has profoundly influenced popular song and was the first person to take advantage of the microphone. Carelessly described as a blues singer, whose later life of drug addiction and disastrous sexual relationships has been well chronicled, she was in fact a great musician who used her voice like an instrument.

Yet, like the music she played, her achievements have never been fully recognised. Her life is best known through the film Lady Sings The Blues based on a ghosted and sensationalised autobiography which she is reputed never to have read. Donald Clarke wants to set the record straight.

One of the great strengths of the book is the author’s deep love and knowledge of the music. This is combined with a clear understanding of its origins in the African American experience. As a result he can firmly point the finger at a racist American music industry as responsible for Billie Holiday’s life without insulting her by presenting her as a passive victim.

The book begins by explaining the uniqueness of African American culture, its origins in slavery and its maintenance by near segregationist racism. Racism is present every minute of every day, and through interviews and documentation, appears on every page of the book. Thus, although Billie Holiday was not a ‘political person’, life as a black American forced her to make political decisions. ‘To be black in America is like having shoes that are too tight. Whether you are militant or want to keep your head down, your feet hurt.’

The indignities of Billie’s life included darkening her skin colour because she looked too white to sing with a black band. As a result Billie felt safer with the people she knew, the circle of musicians and hustlers that worked the jazz clubs of New York.

Moreover Billie did not keep her head down. As one interviewee said, ‘Billie was living “black is beautiful” before it was fashionable. Her stature showed the pride in being black.’

Clarke also shows how racism was combined with constant interference and suppression by the music industry. Song writers refused to let her record their songs because she ‘didn’t sing them properly.’

The pressures on Billie were vastly increased by the fact that she was a woman. She rejected the traditional models of female performers, insisting on presenting herself on stage with dignity, and demanding respect from her customers for what she knew she was good at, singing.

Clarke shows how Billie’s later life was a product of a viciously racist society and a music industry narrowly pursuing what it thought was profitable music.

After being convicted of drug possession, the state stepped in with the most cruel blow of all. They withdrew Billie’s cabaret card, thus preventing her from working in the only place she felt at home in, the New York jazz scene. They would not leave her alone even as she was dying. The police literally waited by her bedside to re-arrest her should she pull out of a coma.

There are some reservations with the book. Some of his opinions, for example on welfare dependency, are decidedly dodgy. There are a lot of personal and personnel details, which are inevitable in a book of this kind. But the book achieves its purpose. It sets the record straight, and reading it filled me with a deep anger.

America provided the circumstances which produced one of the greatest female vocal artists of the 20th century, then systematically tried to destroy her.

That they could only destroy the person is Billie Holiday’s personal victory, and why her musical legacy is an inspiration to us all.

Socialist Review Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 16 April 2017