Billie Holiday has always been a musical artist that has captured my interest. I have always admired the way that she was able to overcome racial barriers throughout her career as well as how her songs were often filled with emotion and told a story. When looking through the Phono Project’s website, I noticed that there hadn’t been any previous coverage on any of her songs, so I decided that she was an artist I would want to research and write about for this project.
I considered doing my project on her famous racism protest song “Strange Fruit”, however I know that most people are already familiar with the story behind this song. For this reason, I decided to look at some of her other songs in the catalogue and narrowed it down to “God Bless the Child” and “Gloomy Sunday.” I eventually settled on “God Bless the Child” due to the fact that it was her original song while “Gloomy Sunday” was a cover.
“God Bless the Child” is a song that has been covered a lot by many different artists, and something that I realized while listening to the song was that I’m not sure that I had ever actually heard the original Billie Holiday version. I have always enjoyed the soft and raspy tone that she sings with, and I do think that hearing a song from its original artist can offer a different experience than hearing it as a cover.
I started looking into the history and story behind this song by going to its Wikipedia page. Here I found that it was co-written by Arthur Hezong Jr. I also found that the inspiration for the song came from a financial dispute between Holiday and her mother. According to an article from Financial Times documenting the song’s history, Holiday claimed in her autobiography — Lady Sings the Blues — that she had asked her mother for a loan and that her mother had refused despite the fact that she helped to pay for the opening of her restaurant. She wrote, “I was mad at her, she was mad at me . . . Then I said, ‘God bless the child that’s got his own’, and walked out” (Via Financial Times).
Something else that I found interesting from the Financial Times article was that there was also a dispute between Holiday and Hezong over who really wrote the song. The article stated that “both later claimed sole credit for it” and that Hezong argued that Holiday’s only contribution was the story behind it and the line of “God bless the child that’s got his own.”
Despite the dispute between the writers, this is still one of Holiday’s most renowned songs, and has been covered by a plethora of artists including Stevie Wonder, Sonny Rollins, Barbara Streisand, and Aretha Franklin. The lyrics were also turned into a children’s book thats illustrations told the story of an African American family during the Great Migration.
There is a lot of material to work with in regards to the history and legacy of “God Bless the Child”, but for the script for my project, I think that it will be most important to cover the story behind the lyrics as well as its lasting impact both on Holiday’s legacy and music itself, with it having been covered by many legendary artists. I do think that I should briefly mention the controversy regarding both writers wanting to take full credit for the lyrics later on, but due to having to condense all of this information into a short time span, I don’t think I will spend too much time on it.
Regardless, I am looking forward to putting all of this information together into a script and having the opportunity to tell the story of such an iconic track.