Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless the Child’ Gave Blacks Their Own Mournful But Hopeful ‘Over the Rainbow’

A columnist writes that "God Bless the Child" is at least as historically important as "Strange Fruit" to the Black community, with its bracing mixture of hard-scrabble practicality and hope.

Billie Holiday
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Of all the words of wisdom my mother has passed on to me, the earliest ones I remember have been the most useful. She told me I could achieve any goal I set for myself, but being Black, I would have to work harder than most.

My mom inspired my DIY work ethic, and Billie Holiday’s inspired her to write her best-known song, the classic “God Bless the Child.” The jazz and blues legend also known as Lady Day shared its origin story in her 1956 autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues,” published three years before her death from complications of cirrhosis of the liver at age 44. She got the idea for the song after approaching her mother for a loan. When the woman who had given birth to her and who had often benefited from her daughter’s financial assistance refused, Holiday shouted back: “God bless the child that’s got his own.”

She turned the throwaway line into a frequently covered classic for the ages that offered Blacks their own “Over the Rainbow,” with a grayer-than-silver lining. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1976 and included on the Recording Industry Association of America and National Endowment for the Arts’ “Songs of the Century” list at No. 58 (“Over the Rainbow” ranked at No. 1). A 20-year-old Aretha Franklin recorded it in 1962, and the jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears remade it on their 1969 self-titled second LP, which won the Grammy for album of the year.

Holiday’s original recording of “God Bless the Child” was released in 1942, two years after the singer’s previous single, “Strange Fruit.” The earlier song, written by Abel Meeropol, presented an indelible lyrical depiction of lynching, a White terrorist practice common in the South from the days before the Civil War that left the bodies of Black people (usually men) dangling from trees like fruit after they were hanged. An overtly racial political statement from a Russian-American Jew at a time when jazz and classic pop singers were sticking largely to love songs from the Great American Songbook, “Strange Fruit,” a gorgeous, plaintive lament, remains an uneasy listen.

“Strange Fruit” is the Holiday classic at the center of “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday,” the biopic from director Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “Empire”) that will debut on Hulu February 26. The Golden Globe-nominated drama focuses on the FBI’s pursuit of Holiday over the protest song about racial inequality that became her best-selling single and a polarizing staple of her live performances. According to Daniels, “Strange Fruit” single-handedly kicked off the civil rights movement. Since the feds couldn’t legally quash Holiday for singing the song, they used her history with drugs to try to silence her.

“God Bless the Child,” though less spectral and overtly political than “Strange Fruit,” is drenched in similar sonic and lyrical melancholy. Composed by a Black American for Black Americans, it celebrates and permeates Black consciousness today in a way that sets it apart from every other song from the era. Despite its bitter origins, it’s also a song of hope that encourages ambition and self-determination in spite of its mournful tone. You’ve got everything you need to make it on your own, Holiday seems to be singing, predating Nike’s “Just do it” by five decades.

It’s a continuation of a Black musical tradition that either revolved around religious themes or incorporated them into songs. Western religion promises God will take care of our problems and deliver us from evil, but Holiday suggests God will act in our favor only if, first, we act for ourselves. Suggesting Blacks could indeed do for themselves was a revolutionary message at a time when Jim Crow laws were designed to hold them back and keep them down.

Although “God Bless the Child” was recorded in 1941, a year before its release as a single, Holiday had written it with Arthur Herzog Jr. in 1939, the year the film “The Wizard of Oz” was released. It’s a bold, bracing counterpoint to “Over the Rainbow,” the “Oz” standard composed by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. Holiday’s signature song offers a similar intersection of sadness and hope, but while “God Bless the Child” feels tailored to the Black experience, I’ve never been able to relate to Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow.” (Patti LaBelle’s soulful R&B version remains definitive for many Black Americans.) It never moved me the way I imagine it has inspired billions of white kids.

The tone of each song reflects the widely divergent life circumstances of the audiences for which they were intended. The hope in “Over the Rainbow” is warm and nurturing. It was an anthem of great expectations for whites who were already blessed by the system and promised the American dream. Any message of ambition and hope I’ve found in “God Bless the Child,” in comparison, is served ice-cold, dripping with bitterness and subtle disdain for a religion that doesn’t always practice the goodwill it preaches. The duality was par for course for Black audiences at the time. Technically free for nearly 80 years, they were taught by the Black spirituals they revered that great expectations could come to pass only in death. Jazz, another great Black musical form, vacillated between sad songs and exuberant musical improv, while the blues made a handful of Black performers rich but were based on hopelessness.

“God Bless the Child,” which teeters between jazz and blues, was a quasi-self-help song for Black Americans, far less wide-eyed and optimistic than “Over the Rainbow.” It was a warning to Black audiences to take control of their own lives without depending on religion, the kindness of strangers, or even their own parents. They couldn’t count on handouts or inheritances from dead relatives not far removed from slavery. “Mama may have, Papa may have / But God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own,” Holiday sang in the song’s best-known lines, her voice drowsy with resentment yet hinting at possibility.

The first time I heard “God Bless the Child,” Diana Ross was singing it during the finale of “Lady Sings the Blues,” the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic for which she was nominated for a best actress Oscar. I was around seven when I watched it on TV, years after its cinematic run, and I’ve never been able to shake the impact of the song. Not long afterwards, I saw a Saturday afternoon rerun of a 1968 episode of the TV series “Tarzan” in which Ross and her fellow Supremes Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong played nuns. In the only scene I remember, the Supremes sang a song with the recurring refrain “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” a variation of an old proverb embraced by Blacks and whites that echoes the sentiment of “God Bless the Child.”

The “Tarzan” song was nowhere near as magical lyrically or musically as “God Bless the Child,” but hearing Diana Ross as Billie Holiday and Diana Ross as a nun delivering overlapping messages created an association in my young mind: Diana Ross and Billie Holiday = Black achievement. That laid the foundation for the empowering, religious experience that “God Bless the Child” came to be for me, despite its powerless beginnings and its subtle shading of godliness.

Today, both the song and Holiday are crucial to Black history, and fittingly, “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday” will be released at the end of Black History Month. Although Holiday’s life is, ultimately, a series of cautionary tales, it’s also inspiring. With her greatest hit, Lady Day was able to break our hearts while urging us to excel, becoming a true ambassador for the Black talent and Black excellence that I still believe will one day lead us to our promised land.