Songs and Theories of Being

Portrait of Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947] (LOC) Gottlieb, William P., 1917-, photographer.

Quiz scores and discussion board posts suggest that my students appreciate those items on

the syllabus that can be watched or listened to rather than read. The Uncivil and Throughline podcast series have been rich sources of materials. Popular with students and with the instructor, too, was the Throughline episode on Billie Holiday, her nemesis, federal narcotics cop, Harry L. Anslinger, and her iconic song, “Strange Fruit.” Of course, I knew the song, and I was aware of the 2001 David Margolick book on the topic. But I didn’t know about Anslinger’s Javert-like persecution of Holiday, which he conducted from the time of her first performances of the song to the time of her death in the Metropolitan Hospital in New York.

The story is wrenching; it packs a punch. Placed on a timeline of African American History, it resonates contextually and foreshadows things to come. It illustrates the racist character of the wars on drugs of later decades. As did others, Holiday acted in a wartime and postwar ideological climate that offered leverage in the struggle for Black freedom. Her insistence on performing “Strange Fruit”—despite how uncomfortable the song made some feel, despite how ‘divisive’ some considered it to be—was a resolute stand against Jim Crow. Not only did she serve time for taking this stand, she put her career and her very life on the line. These were lonely choices but less lonely than they would be for others who came later and made similar choices in the decades that followed.

As a bonus, we have the artifact, the song itself, indestructible, reproducible, and experience-able—synchronously with others—in about four minutes’ time.

Only recently was I able to appreciate another of Holiday’s signature songs, “God Bless the Child.” Of course, I knew this song, too. My first exposure was almost certainly to the Blood, Sweat, and Tears version, a top-ten hit in 1969, which I heard on the radio growing up. Something about that version made me tune the song out. Maybe it was the exuberant arrangement and vocal performance, which overshadow the lyrics. Maybe I was too young to take them in. In any case, I apparently took little notice of “God Bless the Child” whenever I heard it covered by others–or even when I eventually heard Holiday’s own recordings.

Then, not long ago, I came across a version on a “lost” Bobbie Gentry album, also recorded in the late 1960s. After failing to follow up on the massive commercial success of “Ode to Billie Joe” (1967), Gentry was taking a stab at becoming a jazz chanteuse, “a sort of Mississippi Julie London,” as the writer of the liner notes puts it. She planned an album of standards and interpretations of recent pop hits, and included “God Bless the Child,” but the project was abandoned, and for five decades, these recordings were unavailable. Hearing Gentry’s version, somber, minimally arranged—perhaps because it was never finished—I grasped the subtlety of the chord progression as if for the first time. For the first time, I grasped the idea of the song.

Holiday, with co-composer Arthur Herzog, Jr., contributed that idea. As the story goes, she’d gone to her mother for a loan and an argument ensued. Holiday crafted her mother’s refusal into the now well-known lyric:

Mama may have
Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own

In his book about degrowth, Less is More, Jason Hickel uses a phrase that I mentioned in my last post, “theory of being.” I’m a little wary of the term. The concept Hickel is referring to is one many scholars find necessary to express and find a variety of ways to do so. Worldview. Mindset. Fundamental orientation. Ethos. Belief system. “The way we make sense of the world.” The systems theorist Gregory Bateson favored the term epistemology, which he used to emphasize the essential links he identified between ways of knowing, ways of learning, and ways of being or behaving. It’s hard to nail the concept down, in other words, and it takes one pretty easily into the weeds. But it seems to me that ultimately, a worldview, a mindset, a theory of being is a working vocabulary or set of metaphors used at a semi-consciousness level to account for the operations of reality. It tells us who we are, where we are, how we are, why we are.

Hickel uses the term theory of being when discussing the rise of capitalism in early modern Europe. That rise, Hickel argues, required not only violence in the form of enclosure and the manufacture of scarcity but a change in the way people understood themselves as beings in nature. That change evolved and intensified until it came to dominate across a broad society. It reproduces itself in the forms and structures of the society, both symbolic and material. It implies itself everywhere, even in songs. As Hickel and many others see it, the dominant theory of being in our society is mechanistic, atomistic, and reductionist. This theory provides that individual self-interest is primary and that all other life is exploitable to that end. These ideas disrupt all kinds of relations, including those between parent and child, so that in a society where it dominates, even a child must have “his own.”

If you analyzed every song for its theory of being, you’d run into trouble pretty quickly. I suspect the analysis would not be very productive. But what do you do with a song like “God Bless the Child,” a song that makes its “this-is-the-way-of-things” statement so plainly?

The theory of being expressed in “God Bless the Child” has a long pedigree in popular song. One of the very first American hits, at least as we understand the word today, was the song “Nobody,” recorded in 1905 by the renowned vaudeville performer Bert Williams, a mixed-race West Indies immigrant, a Black man who performed in blackface. The song comes out of a period of intensive, polyglot urbanization, and refinements in the edifice of racial caste. Its lyric expresses extreme social and economic anonymity. Most relevant to my topic is the sentiment expressed in the refrain:

I ain’t never done nothing to nobody,
I ain’t never got nothing from nobody, no time
And until I get something from somebody, sometime,
I don’t intend to do nothing for nobody, no time

Revisiting this song, I couldn’t help but think about a recent read, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2013 bestseller, Braiding Sweetgrass. The book juxtaposes an Indigenous American’s theory of being with the dominant European import. One of Kimmerer’s key concepts is “reciprocity.” Reciprocity represents the loving exchange of gifts between organisms that constitute the symbiotic relationships from which ecosystems emerge and flourish. “The breath of plants gives life to animals and the breath of animals gives life to plants,” she writes, in one especially fundamental expression of reciprocity in nature. “My breath is your breath, your breath is mine. It’s the great poem of give and take, of reciprocity that animates the world” (344). In stark contrast to this, the singer in “Nobody” gives nothing, gets nothing. This organism exists in a state of no relation with the rest of the world. When scholars such as Hickel describe our society’s dominant theory of being as atomizing, this is pretty much what they mean.

A related, more pointed sentiment is expressed in “God Bless the Child”‘s middle eight:

Money, you’ve got lots of friends
Crowding ’round your door
When you’re gone and spending ends
They don’t come around no more

It is the way of things, the song says, that friendship is purely transactional. To put this in Kimmerer’s idiom, transactional relationships are those starved of the natural history of symbiosis that constitutes reciprocal relationships. Transactional relationships are those understood as monotone, stripped of complexity and the mutual interests of a thriving ecosystem. When scholars such as Hickel describe our society’s dominant theory of being as reductionist, this is one aspect of what they mean.

“When you have money, you have friends” is an American pop song trope, surely. It signals the sort of hard-nosed cynicism expressed commonly in blues. It’s a pose, a posture, a self-protecting, self-atomizing tactic that is struck often in the performances of songs, including performances of “God Bless the Child.” That we often call this cynicism “realism” indicates how dominant the dominant theory of being is. What thinkers such as Kimmerer are proposing is that change in theory of being is the root of change, is where the kind of long-term change we need today takes place.

To my ears, the Blood, Sweat, and Tears’ version leans toward cynical posturing. The effect is to endorse or reinforce the dominant theory of being, to reproduce it once again. But what about the Bobbie Gentry version, or, let’s say, the 1962 Lou Rawls version, which probably influenced Gentry, a big Rawls fan? These performances sound to me more like objections, protests, not against something as specific as lynching, but against the dominant theory of being itself.

They indicate a troubling tension. Many aspects of our lives are characterized by reciprocity–within our families, among our friends and close communities. But there is no denying the destructive influence the dominant theory of being has over these relations, over the way we see the world, and how we exist in it collectively.

An earlier version of this essay was posted on the Society for US Intellectual History blog.