My breath caught the first time I listened to the lyrics of “Strange Fruit”.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the polar trees
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
There’s something about the quietness of the music, the way that Billie Holiday purrs out the lyrics, and the starkness of the scenes that make it one of the most powerful songs ever recorded.
I didn’t think much about Holiday’s personal life until I read Chasing the Scream. The way Hari describes her drug use and the US government’s pursuit made me want to put down his book and pick up hers. Except that her autobiography is, apparently, mostly fiction. She didn’t write it. She claimed she’d never read it. So I opted for Wishing on the Moon by Donald Clarke instead.
There are at least three types of biographies:
- life-altering biographies or memoirs that blow your mind, usually because they are written by a genius about a genius, capturing both a specific moment in history and a unique personality
- biographies written with painstaking detail intended for scholarly researchers, written by scholarly researchers, or part of some other academic pursuit, usually important but sometimes boring as all get-out
- trashy corporate-commissioned biographies that hype a currently-popular star, usually sold in checkout aisles and always poorly written (I never read those)
The reviews of Wishing on the Moon were so hot and Hari’s brief portrait so vivid that I was hoping for #1, the life-altering biography with a blend of music and personal life. Not quite.
Biographers have to choose what to focus on, what tone to take, and how much to impose a narrative on someone’s life. Clarke opted for a dispassionate approach, rarely imposing any narrative at all, rarely suggesting what Billie could be thinking or feeling, and for most of the book allowing interview subjects to speak for themselves. It amounts to a very detailed, interesting, but incredibly lengthy account of what she did, when, and with whom from the time she was born until the time she died.
Because so much of Billie's story is told in people’s own words, it’s way longer than it needs to be. There’s almost no filter on what was included, so information about a back-up guitar player who played on one tour is related with as much detail as her drug conviction or death. And because different people have different perspectives, there are varied and sometimes contradictory stories about what happened. By the end of the book, it’s not clear what to think about Billie and her life, what was pivotal and what merely happened. A little summarization can be a beautiful thing.
And yet …. While the very thing that made Hari’s portrait so engaging - passion and a clear narrative - is missing from Clarke’s book, I’m not totally convinced now that Hari’s story is actually accurate. The way he condenses Billie’s life suggests that she got into drugs, got busted by cops determined to entrap her to fulfil a drug-war agenda at all costs, then couldn’t perform ever again thus robbing history of a great talent. Clarke’s detailed chronology shows this wasn’t the case at all. Which says something interesting, I think, about the difference between good writing and good biography.