Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What's in a song?: "God Bless the Child"

Billie Holiday / God Bless This Child

Recently, I heard the timeless classic "God Bless the Child" while I was listening to Eclectic 24, KCRW.com's all-music channel. And, it got me to think: "What's in a song?"

On May 9, 1941, the American jazz singer Billie Holiday recorded "God Bless the Child," a song she co-wrote with pianist Arthur Herzog Jr. in 1939. Holiday's version of the song, her most popular, would later be covered by many notable singers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder. It earned a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1976, and it was also included in the 1993 movie 'Shindler's List'. "God Bless the Child" was recognized in a list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. 

So, what's in a song like "God Bless the Child"?

In Holiday's autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, she suggested that an argument she had with her mother, Sadie, over money led to the creation of the song "God Bless the Child." It was during this argument with her mother, who was desperate to find money to open a quaint after-hours joint, that Billie Holiday (1915-1959) said the line "God bless the child that's got her own."

"God Bless the Child" is a fairly simple melody that's written in the style of an old-time spiritual. According to the jazz historian Chris Tyle, "Billie’s lyrics tell the story of how everyone is your friend when you have money but that 'empty pockets don’t ever make the grade.' Others, including family, may have it but won’t help you out when you need it."

In his 1990 book Jazz Singing, the author Will Friedwald, writing about the song, labeled it as "sacred and profane" as it references the Bible while indicating that religion seems to have no effect in making people treat each other better.

The lyrics to "God Bless the Child" refer to an unspecified Biblical verse:

"Them that's got shall get, them that don't shall lose, so the Bible says, and it still is news. ..." This likely refers to Matthew 25:29 (* - "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.") or Luke 8:18 (* - "Take heed therefore how ye hear: for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have.")
* - King James Bible Version

Today, "God Bless the Child" remains an enduring masterpiece.

I welcome your thoughts about what's in this song, its lyrics, its relationship to the Bible, and its effect upon you.

God Bless the Child
Lyrics by Billie Holliday and Arthur Herzog Jr. 

Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don't ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own

Money, you've got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you're gone, spending ends
They don't come no more
Rich relations give
Crust of bread and such
You can help yourself
But don't take too much
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own
He just worry 'bout nothin'
Cause he's got his own

1 comment:

  1. I've often been somewhat intrigued and miffed by the lyrics of this song. What I've taken from this song is that you can't really count on others and it is written out of a negative but true experience in life. You can only count on yourself, so do for yourself. But be aware, that there are those in the world that will not be there for you during times of need, will use you for what you have and will not be sympathetic or understanding when you don't have 'it' to give.