In our Jazz Vespers service last night, Danielle Olmostead accompanied by the Bob Watts Trio sang Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child”.

I spoke about Billie Holiday’s song in my comments at the service. Here is what I said:

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In 1939 Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr. wrote a song called “God Bless the Child.” Holiday first recorded the song on May 9, 1941. It went on to be enormously successful winning a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 1976 and being named in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

It is a sad and curious song.

God Bless The Child

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

In her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues Holiday suggests that the song arose out of a fight with her mother about money in which Billie said, “God bless the child that’s got his own”.

The song aches with bitterness, resentment, and powerlessness.

Ironically, the opening line appears to be an allusion to Luke 8:11-18, particularly verse 18.

Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.

This verse occurs as part of the explanation Jesus provided his disciples to help them understand the “Parable of the Sower”. The point of the parable is that God has liberally spread the seed of divinity in life. To the degree that we ignore or deny this divine dimension, we will lose touch with it and its influence in our lives will be diminished. If we nourish the consciousness of the seed of the divine in our lives and in the world, our awareness of God’s presence and work will grow and bear fruit.

Tragically it would appear, Billie Holiday did not fully grasp this aspect of the biblical story to which she alluded in her song “God Bless the Child”.

Billie Holiday died on July 17, 1959 of pulmonary edema & heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver. She died  alone in a hospital room under police guard because she was under arrest for drug possession.

She was 44 years old; she had 70¢ in her bank account.

In a culture that seems still to believe so deeply in the power of accumulating financial wealth and celebrity status, Billie Holiday’s short life is a tragic reminder that acquiring fame and fortune is unlikely to satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart.

God does “bless the child” every child without exception. But the child needs to learn to see the blessing, even when it does not provide the money she may think she desires. The blessing God provides may not be manifest in the form of material abundance. It may seem as small and as secret as a seed hidden in the depths of the earth. But, as that seed is nourished, it will grow into the flower of faith and bear the fruit of peace and strength that has the capacity to sustain the human spirit for the often difficult journey of life.

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