If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery
With so many bone-dry books on jazz printed daily, Farah Jasmine Griffin’s paean to Billie Holiday arrives like the aroma of gardenia. Griffin, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, makes no claim that her book If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery is the work of a musicologist or a musician. She is neither. She is a highly intelligent, articulate and, most of all, passionate lover of jazz—someone who also happens to be a black woman and thus connects with Holiday in various and profound ways. She explores those connections in this highly personal view of Holiday, and what it means “to be talented, black, sensual and complex.” She finds in Holiday not only a spiritual soul mate—someone too often judged by everything but her talent—but also a model for her own art as a writer. “Listening to her pare down a lyric and melody to the barest minimum free of pretension, making it impossible not to confront its meaning, became a model for me of a way of doing intellectual work.”
The basis of Holiday’s talent was her integrity—her refusal to be a maid or a whore in a white man’s world. She instead decides to become a singer. The title—If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery, is a line from a Rita Dove poem. “Choosing to be a mystery is the one way to maintain a semblance of control,” Griffin writes, “to keep your inner self to yourself. This is an act of agency for the unfree.”
Of course, Holiday’s story isn’t one of strict heroism; it is also one of tragedy. She was a victim of brutal men, both black and white. To find a woman who transcends that victimization, Griffin turns to Abbey Lincoln, a woman who chooses “self-care over self-destruction.” Lincoln made the decision to “stop singing songs about no-good men who didn’t know how to treat women. I discovered that you become what you sing. You can’t repeat lyrics night after night as though they were prayer without having them come true in your own life.”
Art, to Griffin, is more than beauty. It is truth, too. Her book provides a wonderful instruction in what it means to be moved emotionally and intellectually by great music and the artists who make it.