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On Ming Smith

Adam Shatz, 2 March 2023

... compares herself to a blues or jazz musician. ‘If people could feel what I feel when I hear a Billie Holiday song,’ she says, ‘that’s what I would want them to feel when they look at my work.’ There’s sometimes a melancholy in her photographs of Black life, but it’s offset by the same ironical awareness that infuses the blues. Smith has ...

At the Movies

Michael Wood: ‘The United States v. Billie Holiday’, 18 March 2021

... Lee Daniels’s​ The United States v. Billie Holiday (on Sky Cinema) hesitates a little about what kind of movie it is. Is it about the war on drugs, with Holiday’s career as an important instance in its history? Or is it about Holiday, with the war on drugs as part of the background? When we read a title card at the beginning of the film telling us that in 1937 the US Senate failed to pass an anti-lynching bill, and then another at the end stating that a similar bill considered in 2020 ‘has yet to pass’, Holiday’s repeated singing of ‘Strange Fruit’ feels like a political rather than a musical event, and we are clearly in the first movie ...

Her Haunted Heart

John Lahr: Billie Holiday, 20 December 2018

Lady Sings the Blues 
by Billie Holiday.
Penguin, 179 pp., £9.99, November 2018, 978 0 241 35129 1
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... been told​ that nobody sings the word “hunger” like I do. Or the word “love”,’ Billie Holiday says in her memoir Lady Sings the Blues (written in 1956 with William Dufty and now reissued). Like Kafka’s hunger artist, Holiday let song make a spectacle of her deprivation. ‘I don’t need a ...

My god wears a durag

Ian Penman: Better than Beyoncé, 6 January 2022

Why Solange Matters 
by Stephanie Phillips.
Faber, 256 pp., £9.99, May 2021, 978 0 571 36898 3
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... around Solange’s unusually direct gaze. It’s a gaze we may have seen before in photos of Billie Holiday and Zora Neale Hurston. (It also calls up echoes from much further back, in 15th-century portraiture.) A gaze that refuses the swerve of amelioration; a gaze that makes us feel we are being surveyed. In her videos Solange is often accompanied ...

To Live like a Bird

Mark Rudman, 1 June 2000

Approximately Nowhere 
by Michael Hofmann.
Faber, 77 pp., £7.99, April 1999, 0 571 19524 5
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... O’Hara and the gang could go downtown to the Blue Note and hear John Coltrane or uptown to hear Billie Holiday. This kind of nostalgia can be tiresome: better for each generation to invent a new idea of the new – to enlarge the temple. In his poems, Hofmann has found a way to do this. In each, no matter how short, one feels the pull of three places ...

The White Tree

Colin Dayan: The Jena Six, 1 November 2007

... bodies swinging in the southern breeze,/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,’ as Billie Holiday sang – are part of a history that is erased with every new administration, with every Martin Luther King Day. But the return to chain gangs in the summer of 1995, the hitching of prisoners to posts in Alabama, the purging of books, both ...


Ian Penman, 2 July 2015

Sinatra: London 
Universal, 3 CDs and 1 DVD, £40, November 2014Show More
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... and sustain and linger – were Tommy Dorsey (‘the General Motors of the band business’), Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby. Anyone surprised by the inclusion of the latter should do a bit of digging: Crosby is a fascinating character. As well as a subtly revolutionary singer he was a technophile obsessed with recording techniques, and with how best ...

On Roy DeCarava

Gazelle Mba, 7 April 2022

... his death in 2009, DeCarava took plenty of pictures of the already famous: jazz musicians like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Scott’s hands. Sarah Vaughan turns and flashes a smile at the camera; Ornette Coleman looks mean and impressive. But there are also the photos of the unknown and unnamed: a garment worker tugging a covered ...

At the Movies

Michael Wood: ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’, 20 December 2018

... The other memory is a song, and we hear it as the credits roll at the end. The singer is Billie Holiday, and the song is ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’. ‘We lived our little drama,’ the song begins. ‘We kissed in a field of white/And stars fell on Alabama/Last night.’ There are too many ironies and undercurrents for me even to begin to list ...

At the Movies

Michael Wood: ‘True Grit’, 3 February 2011

True Grit 
directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.
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... Pastoral scene of the gallant South’, Billie Holiday sang, evoking a landscape of lynched bodies. This was the ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’. Certainly a dark version of pastoral but well within the mode’s capacities. If traditional pastoral often idealises the simple life, it never quite chases the shadows of cruelty and corruption away, and what William Empson called the trick of simplification was always the thing ...

Queening It

Jenny Diski: Nina Simone, 25 June 2009

Nina Simone: The Biography 
by David Brun-Lambert.
Aurum, 346 pp., £20, February 2009, 978 1 84513 430 3
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... comebacks, more wilderness years and sad endings. We might as well be talking about Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Maria Callas, Janis Joplin, Karen Carpenter or Judy Garland, and several of them get namechecked here – Callas and Holiday repeatedly. All those women artists wracked and torn, felled by life’s ...


Eric Hobsbawm: My Days as a Jazz Critic, 27 May 2010

... not include jazz. As ‘Francis Newton’ (named after a Communist jazz trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’), I wrote a column every month or so for the New Statesman for about ten years. It was a good time to be writing about jazz. Not only did my column allow me an occasional respite from the personal and political ...

You have to take it

Joanne O’Leary: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Style, 17 November 2022

A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick 
by Cathy Curtis.
Norton, 400 pp., £25, January, 978 1 324 00552 0
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The Uncollected Essays 
by Elizabeth Hardwick, edited by Alex Andriesse.
NYRB, 304 pp., £15.99, May, 978 1 68137 623 3
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... kind of style’. Hedda Gabler is at her best ‘when she shows nothing beyond her style’. Billie Holiday somehow ‘retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style’. Hardwick’s own reputation rests on that slippery word ‘style’. Who else would have written of Gertrude Stein:There is nothing hothouse in this peculiar American ...

Freddie Gray

Adam Shatz, 21 May 2015

... crimes as daring to look at a white woman. Black bodies no longer swing in the Southern breeze, as Billie Holiday sang. Instead, they are victims of chokeholds, bullets and other ‘restraining’ measures inflicted by the police, and not only below the Mason-Dixon line. Police killings of young black men, along with the mass incarceration of poor blacks ...

Wobble in My Mind

Colm Tóibín: Lizzie, Cal and Caroline, 7 May 2020

The Dolphin Letters, 1970-79: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell and Their Circle 
edited by Saskia Hamilton.
Faber, 560 pp., £35, January, 978 0 571 35741 3
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The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1972-73 
by Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton.
Farrar, Straus, 224 pp., £11.99, December 2019, 978 0 374 53827 9
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... Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick – both aged 53, married for 21 years – had just been on holiday together in Italy with their 13-year-old daughter, Harriet. Hardwick and Harriet had come home to New York, where Hardwick taught at Barnard College; Lowell had gone to Oxford to take up a fellowship at All Souls. He was considering an offer from the ...

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