Soulful jazz singer Billie Holiday is remembered today for her unique sound, troubled personal history, and a catalogue that includes such resonant songs as “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child.” Holiday and her music were also strongly shaped by religion, often in surprising ways. Religion Around Billie Holiday examines the spiritual and religious forces that left their mark on the performer during her short but influential life.
Mixing elements of biography with the history of race and American music, Tracy Fessenden explores the multiple religious influences on Holiday’s life and sound, including her time spent as a child in a Baltimore convent, the echoes of black Southern churches in the blues she encountered in brothels, the secular riffs on ancestral faith in the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, and the Jewish songwriting culture of Tin Pan Alley. Fessenden looks at the vernacular devotions scholars call lived religion⎯the Catholicism of the streets, the Jewishness of the stage, the Pentecostalism of the roadhouse or the concert arena⎯alongside more formal religious articulations in institutions, doctrine, and ritual performance.
Insightful and compelling, Fessenden’s study brings unexpected materials and archival voices to bear on the shaping of Billie Holiday’s exquisite craft and indelible persona. Religion Around Billie Holiday illuminates the power and durability of religion in the making of an American musical icon.