Religion Around Billie Holiday

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Tracy Fessenden
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , April
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Editor Peter Ivan Kaufman has brought together an idiosyncratic coterie of artists for his “Religion Around” series. The first two volumes, written by Kaufman himself and W. Clark Gilpin, examine the presence of religion in the cultural milieu encompassing, respectively, William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Now, in a monograph penned by Tracy Fessenden, the presence of religion in jazz vocalist Billie Holiday’s cultural atmosphere takes center stage. The linkage between the three volumes is a common approach: rather than construct standard biographies, each individual serves as a focal point for a review of the broad sociocultural context influencing their creative production. This method has its virtues, chief of which is that it frees each author from the confines of linearity and allows them to view each artist’s moment as a prismatic lens through which the world around them can be better seen. The downside of this method, however, is that the artist occasionally fades from view, and is then reintroduced in the text in a manner that can’t help but be forced and at times jarring for the reader.

Fessenden’s Religion Around Billie Holiday suffers on occasion from this methodological problem. Lengthy sections detailing the relationship between Louis Armstrong and his manager Joe Glaser or the conventions of sensationalized anti-Catholic literature read as digressions rather than information essential to understanding the connection between religion and Holiday’s music. When Holiday remains present, however, the text exemplifies the possibilities of the “Around” method. Fessenden’s prose, frequently influenced by the sonority of Holiday’s recordings, shines when describing the Catholicity of her confessions in Lady Sings the Blues or the “church-like” tone of 1957’s broadcast The Sound of Jazz. Throughout the book Fessenden rightly signals the significance of Holiday as a performer in both jazz history and the history of American popular culture, particularly through her discussion of Holiday’s performance of “Strange Fruit” and of her recordings of songs like “God Bless the Child” and “I Love You Porgy.”

The book is organized into five chapters, each highlighting a different aspect of American culture through the lens of Holiday’s life and work. The first chapter sets the stage for Holiday through a discussion of race and gender during the first decades of the 20th century. John H. Hammond, the producer and talent scout responsible for discovering Holiday and numerous other jazz luminaries, appears frequently, particularly regarding his 1938 Carnegie Hall showcase “From Spirituals to Swing.” Chapter two uses Holiday’s 1956 autobiography Lady Sings the Blues to discuss her relationship with narcotics, fame, and the Catholic Church. Holiday did two stints with the Sisters of the House of the Good Shepherd in Baltimore, once in 1925 and again in 1926. Though her time in the convent was brief (she was committed punitively by the state of Maryland), it was, according to Fessenden, influential. Though she only attended mass intermittently throughout the rest of her life, until her death in 1959, Holiday considered herself a Catholic. The third chapter uses Orson Welles’s 1947 film New Orleans, and its failed precursor The Story of Jazz, to highlight the religious and racial currents flowing through the history of jazz music in America. In the film, Holiday plays a maid who teaches the white, classically-trained Miralee (played by Dorothy Patrick) to sing the blues. Fessenden points to the ways this film and its production demonstrate the presence of religious voices, echoing from sources like the Black Church, the Afro-Catholic Carnival celebration, and hoodoo, that impacted the conventions of jazz performance. In chapter four, Fessenden uses Holiday to triangulate the relationship between blackness, Jewishness, and Americanness in the history of jazz. These connections can most clearly be seen in the production and performance of “Strange Fruit.” Based on the poem “Bitter Fruit” by Jewish-American writer Abel Meeropol, Holiday became known for performing the song, a lament describing the aftermath of a lynching, before the mostly white audience at Café Society in New York during the 1930s. The final chapter uses a discussion of medieval mysticism in the Catholic tradition to outline the way Holiday conceived of herself as an artist, and the ways Holiday has been remembered as a performer and as a personality shaping the definition of jazz. Holiday suffered for her craft, but she was also immensely talented, an observation which Fessenden takes pains to separate from the racist overtones it can at times suggest.

Fessenden identifies Religion Around Billie Holiday as a work which uses the lived religion tradition in religious studies to draw out its insights. As such, Fessenden’s efforts are a commendable addition to the expanding literature concerning religion and artistic or aesthetic production, particularly as it exists in the United States. A tighter focus on Holiday could have elevated the work, however, by allowing it to describe not just the presence, but the effect of Holiday’s music on the religious soundscape of America. As an example, “Strange Fruit” is quoted in James Cone’s recent work of theology The Cross and the Lynching Tree and is a recurring reference on Kanye West’s rap album Yeezus. A more directed interrogation of Holiday and her performance and promotion of the song could have perhaps better illuminated the stylistic elements that have allowed “Strange Fruit” to endure as a work with a distinctly religious resonance in American culture.

This criticism aside, Fessenden’s work has significant value, particularly for the scholar invested in lived religion or the history of religion, jazz, and American popular culture. The work is a valuable addition to the “Religion Around” series as well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adam Sweatman is a doctoral candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tracy Fessenden is the Steve and Margaret Forster Professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University and the author of Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.