On Barnabe Googe and Billie Holiday

By Robert Pinsky on 3.30.09

There’s a fascinating similarity between Googe’s poem and the lyrics Billie Holiday wrote for her great jazz song, “God Bless The Child”. The way Googe slows up his line with the four words “Fair face show friends” then releases that strain with the accelerating “when money doth abound” reminds me of Holiday, too. And the sentiment expressed is pretty much the same, with pretty much the same terms. I don’t mean that Billie Holiday had been reading Barnabe Googe, but that two great artists were akin, finding ways for that language to express a bitter, harsh experience.

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Give money me, take friendship whoso list,
For friends are gone come once adversity,
When money yet remaineth safe in chest,
That quickly can thee bring from misery;
Fair face show friends when riches do abound;
Come time of proof, farewell, they must away;
Believe me well, they are not to be found
If God but send thee once a lowering day.
Gold never starts aside, but in distress,
Finds ways enough to ease thine heaviness.

Here are some of Holiday’s words:

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

As with Googe’s poem, there’s an implicit lament that love and friendship can fail to provide what they should, and an implicit longing for a better experience of them. “Gold never starts aside”—a brilliant phrase, with an undertone of longing for a human connection as reliably steady as that.

topics: Essential Pleasures

1 Comment

Jonathan Blunk said on 4.02.09 at 8:25am:

Though the phrase has entered common usage without it, the lyric to the Holiday song actually includes an apostrophe following “Bless’”, that is, “God blesses the child that’s got its own.”