Tracy Fessenden

Nov 14, 2018

Religion Around Billie Holiday

Penn State University Press 2018

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Billie Holiday is one of the most iconic jazz performers of all time. Her voice is certainly unmistakable but for many her religious sensibilities may be invisible. In Religion Around Billie Holiday (Penn State University Press, 2018), Tracy Fessenden, Professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, delineates the religious worlds that shaped Holiday and her music. Fessenden takes the reader through Holiday’s short but full life by placing it within the contexts of Catholicism, black vernacular music, Jazz compositions, and the culture of American celebrity. She shows how race, gender, and religious conditions guided her sound and formed the prism through which her genius shone. In our conversation we discussed Holiday’s early Catholic formation, the Jewishness of the American songbook, Afro-Protestant notions of redemption, confessional performance, the eclectic religious orbits of her jazz contemporaries, Strange Fruit and the vigilante faith of some Southerners, the cinematic representation of a musician’s life, and the mytho-poetic nature of Holiday’s iconicity.

Kristian Petersen is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Old Dominion University. He is the author of Interpreting Islam in China: Pilgrimage, Scripture, and Language in the Han Kitab (Oxford University Press, 2017). He is currently working on a monograph entitled The Cinematic Lives of Muslims, and is the editor of the forthcoming volumes Muslims in the Movies: A Global Anthology (ILEX Foundation) and New Approaches to Islam in Film (Routledge). You can find out more about his work on his website, follow him on Twitter @BabaKristian, or email him at

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