Sound & Solidarity: Lessons from Billie Holiday in the time of COVID-19


Sarah Lords

From opera collectively sung on the balconies of apartments in Rome to New York DJs broadcasting live sets via Zoom, one theme remains constant: music holds the power to connect and soothe us in this time of anxiety.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many are using music as a tool to support mental and emotional wellness, leaning into its near-mystical capability to give voice to the sentiments that words often fail to express, stabilizing us amid the uncertainty of current events.

Among the most iconic musicians to master this ability—the ability to capture and convey emotion through song—is American jazz singer, Billie Holiday.

Holiday’s talent for transposing raw emotion into spellbinding sound has been the source of fascination and study for many music scholars, but Tracy Fessenden, the Center’s director of strategic initiatives and Steve and Margaret Forster Professor of Religious Studies, considers Holiday’s work through a unique lens: the religious/spiritual dimension of her legacy.

Watch this interview with Tracy Fessenden and Sarah Lords as they discuss:

• What makes Billie Holiday’s music timeless and enduring (00:55)
• Lessons Holiday can teach us as we live in the time of COVID-19 (02:49)
• Recommendations on tracks for the present moment (04:46)
• The religious dimensions of Holiday’s music (06:28)
• What music offers us in our time of isolation (11:11)