BILLIE HOLIDAY / “God Bless The Child”
How would you feel if you were poor and broke and you went to your Mama to borrow a few dollars, and your Mama told you: No!??!
We know how Billie felt. Legend tells us, just such an incident was the inspiration for one of the all-time great musical/philosophical reflections on African-American life.
The song has spawn so many covers that it must be approaching epidemic status. Although over a half century old, it still resonates today. “Mama may have and Papa may… but…” That’s a big-ass ‘but’ ain’t it?
On the other hand, what would you do? If it were your child and she was a junkie and you wanted her to clean up and get well? She wasn’t asking to come back home (thank you, Jesus!), just asking for a little money, BUT (there’s that word again) you know if you give her the money, she’s just going to go out, score some drugs and get high. Are you helping her to survive by giving her $5 or $10 or, are you really just helping to hasten her death? It’s got to be an excruciating decision.
On the flip side, the greatness and genius of Billie was to take a tormenting moment and transform it into art, achingly great art. Billie Holiday is due our eternal thanks for fingering her personal pain and producing a cautionary song that speaks a simple, albeit profound, truth to all of us.
I don’t know, but I can imagine, that this is a song either consciously or subconsciously influenced by existentialism. I remember reading Richard Wright’s titan-sized novel, The Outsider. I know that France and the French intellectuals of the post A-bomb era were very, very influential in progressive social circles and in jazz circles. I am not accusing Billie of reading Sartre’s “Being And Nothingness.” I’m just saying that the concept of the individual being utterly alone in working out her or his own salvation, undoubtedly struck a resonant chord in the psyche of post-WW2 Black artists, a significant number of whom either lived in France or visited and worked there quite often.
Think about it.
How could we come marching back from war in the European theatres—from fighting the Germans, from witnessing the horrors of Nazism, including the concentration camps and the discrimination against the Jews—come back from Europe where Blacks were lionized and openly embraced, come back to Jim Crow America where returning soldiers were being lynched, sometimes while they were still in uniform. How could we not think we were unblessed?
But regardless of the veracity of that thought, there is no debate about whether this song is a classic. We can however debate which version of the song is classic. I’ve chosen a late-period Billie Holiday version and a solo instrumental by iconoclast Eric Dolphy.
Billie is not just the composer, Billie Holiday is considered the voice of personal pain in terms of emotional turmoil. No one does sadness more triumphantly than Billie Holiday. By the Fifties, her emaciated voice was a mere ghost of its former glory, BUT what she didn’t have in vocal range she made up for in emotional depth. Billie Holiday could make a snake cry and a bird give up flying—for at least as long as she was singing. Billie had the power to mesmerize.
Eric Dolphy is from a different generation. A generation that took no prisoners. That had no intention of conforming to anything. A cohart and comrade of both Charlie Mingus and John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy was intent on nothing less than musical revolution. His was not just the sound of surprise; these bad mofos were creating a musical revolution, consciously so, unapologetically so. Yet, an oppositional temperament alone is not sufficient to produce great art, you must also have genius within your chosen discipline.
What Eric Dolphy brought to the table was an undeniable mastery of instrumental music. Whether or not you dug what he was doing, you could never doubt that he knew what he was doing, never doubt that he could handle his instrument better than most anyone you could name. Beyond technical mastery of one instrument—he made his primary mark as an alto saxophonist—Dolphy also commanded the highest respect as a flautist and forced damn near everybody to bow down to him as a god of the bass clarinet, an instrument notorious for being fiendishly difficult to play, not to mention near impossible to master.
Dolphy twirled that hard-ass horn like he was a limber-limbed teenager swishing a hoola-hoop. And then there is one more thing: not only could he cover (and extend) the entire range of the horn, not only could he master the fingering and play without squeaking while keeping it in tune, BUT he could do it all alone without any accompaniment other than the fertility of his imagination and the prowess of his technique.
This concert document from Copenhagen in 1961 Is the pinnacle of bass clarinet recordings. Nobody, absolutely not any other musician, nobody has even come close to this, with the possible exception of David Murray but only in terms of technique. For Dolphy to reach back down into the well of tradition and dredge up “God Bless The Child,” and radicalize it with a solo interpretation is stunning. Who would have thought? It takes a genius, like an Eric Dolphy or a John Coltrane, to make a futuristic statement by reinterpreting the past.
We should all thank whatever gods there be for the musical contributions of Billie Holiday and Eric Dolphy. We have them. They are our blessing.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Carriage For Two
Billie’s tune is a classic among classics. What can I say, really? As for Eric Dolphy’s version, I love his tone and control. I don’t know anything about bass clarinet that Kalamu hasn’t mentioned above, but what Dolphy’s doing sounds anything but easy. I have to say though, I’m listening to Dolphy play with more fascination than enjoyment: he’s doing too much of what they used to call ‘bothering the melody’ for me to actually like it.
Speaking of not actually liking things, I know Kalamu thinks that I sometimes pick tracks just to work on his nerves (I don’t—but see this week’s Troubleman selection for an example), the truth is, while our musical tastes overlap in some places—a lot of places, actually—they diverge in other places, most obviously in the case of anything that anyone at anytime might have labeled ‘alternative.’ (I think you can figure for yourself which of us likes that sort of thing and which detests it.)
That said, the first thing I thought of when I saw Kalamu’s write-up for “God Bless The Child” was “Carriage For Two”—a tune by former Bristol badboy Adrian ‘Tricky’ Thawes. (The ‘former’ refers to both his stomping grounds and his habits. These days, as he told VH1 from his West Orange, New Jersey home, “I’m skipping around my house and drinking lemonade.”) “Carriage”—which dates back to 1998—isn’t quite a cover of “God Bless The Child,” but in both lyric and mood, it borrows liberally.
Billie’s tune, as Kalamu said, was born out of her own torment; out of her desperation at being broke and strung out and denied by her own parents. Tricky’s song expresses the same sentiment, except in reverse. It’s a dark lullaby/dedication to his newly-born daughter—a promise that he’ll do everything he can to see that she never has to suffer Billie’s fate.
I’ve got me a little black girlLater, echoing a famous line from “Summertime”—another jazz standard based on words to a child—Tricky repeats, “Your father’s rich” and it sounds more like a warning than a benefit. (Particularly given that Tricky actually is rich and therefore knows that money alone ensures nothing.) The balance of the song is Martina’s, Tricky’s lead vocalist and his daughter’s mother. Listening to Martina sing Billie’s lyrics, I think about how it must feel to bring a baby girl into a situation that you know will be anything but easy. Both parents entertainers. One black, one white. Both famous—along with all the trappings and distractions of said fame. The personal relationship already falling apart due at least in part to the stress of the professional one. It can’t be a comfortable feeling. “It’s summertime,” Tricky murmurs into the fadeout. “And the living is easy.” But he doesn’t sound convinced.
And this black girl’s beautiful
I try to do what’s dutiful
Teach her to lead…
—Mtume ya Salaam
Welcome to the twilight zone
Brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, you have just witnessed a miracle of modern music. Dolphy is alternative music. Tricky is alternative music. Just depends on the references, depends on who is listening and what the listener’s proclivities are.
Please don’t choose sides. Enjoy what you enjoy and respect other people when they want to listen to whatever they want to listen to… that said, Mtume, call home. That shit Tricky is doing is just that. Period. It’s not about being alternative. There are a few things Tricky has yet to master, such as a trio of musical elements called melody, harmony and rhythm.
I really, really like some stuff that has nothing to do with the traditions of the aforementioned triad, but when I listen to some truly alternative music, I know I’m listening to some way out shit and I don’t try to force it into a category where it doesn’t fit. The only relationship Tricky bears to Billie is that both of them are examples of recordings and Tricky used some of the words Billie wrote, but beyond that, hey, we’re deep into the twilight zone.
Mtume, I know you wonder where I find some of the jazz and stuff I listen to, but guess what son? Your tastes ain’t screwed too tight either when you start dropping that Tricky stuff. This is beyond toe-may-toes / too-Ma-toze.
Paging Dr. Sterling. Paging Dr. Rod Sterling. An inmate is holding a doctor hostage, but we can’t tell which one is crazy and which one is educated. They both sound out to lunch. (And for those of you who don’t get the joke, Out to Lunch is a noted album by Eric Dolphy, the title of which is a inside joke based on what squares thought about avant garde jazz music.)
We sent Tricky to pick up some Chinese—it’s almost time for breakfast and the boy ain’t back yet—that’s how far out he is. Forget about Rod Sterling, somebody call Sun Ra!
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, January 22nd, 2006 at 2:22 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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