For Fanny Brice, who popularized it in the U.S. in the 1920s (here's what she sounded like), it was a signature song. Barbra Streisand gave it a big boost of attention and affection in the 1960s when she played Brice in the movie version of "Funny Girl." Diana Ross did a pretty inspiring version of it (see the tears streaming down her face in this performance), as did jazz greats Sarah Vaughan and Abbey Lincoln. More recently, for the soundtrack of the HBO show "Boardwalk Empire," Regina Spektor gave it a feel similar to that of Mistenguett, who introduced the song first in 1915 in its original French ("Mon Homme").
But, for my money, the song -- "My Man" -- belongs to Billie Holiday. The others played the character who narrates the story of that song. Billie Holiday was that character.(Here's a great clip of her singing the song in what I'm guessing is the late '40s or early '50s).
That was true of plenty of her songs. As John Levy, Holiday’s one-time bassist and later a legendary manager of jazz musicians, once said, “When you listened to Billie Holiday sing, you felt that she had lived that experience and she was telling a story about it.”
“My Man” is about a woman so desperately in love she was willing to look past her lover's many and possibly dangerous flaws. He’s damaged goods, but she’ll still cling to him.
The intro verse, which Holiday sings rubato (without strict tempo), sets up the tension through a succession of minor chords:
It cost me a lot/ But there's one thing that I've got/ It's my man/ It's my man
Cold or wet/ Tired, you bet/ All of this I'll soon forget/ With my man
He's not much on looks/ He's no hero out of books/ But I love him/ Yes, I love him
So far, not so great. Still, if anything, you might admire her for seeing something in this guy beyond his looks, lack -- of what? -- charisma and all the other aggravation. But his drawbacks get more sinister and, one would think, harder to overlook:
Two or three girls has he/ That he likes as well as me/ But I love him
At this point, Holiday's voice suggests helplessness and despair:
I don't know why I should/ He isn't true/ He beats me, too/ What can I do?
Then the chords shift from minor to brighter majors, and she bridges to a steady, plaintive tempo, almost defiantly to the end:
Oh, my man, I love him so/ He'll never know/ All my life is just despair /But I don't care/ When he takes me in his arms/ The world is bright/ All right
What's the difference if I say I'll go away/ When I know I'll come back on my knees someday
For whatever my man is I am his forevermore.
Sweet as that sentiment might sound, it’s also sad and painful. It’s not just the garden-variety and often-hokey heartbreak that makes up a broad swathe of American popular music. Her man has such an emotional hold on her that she'll even endure violence, two-timing and who knows what other abuses. So much so that even if she tries to pull away from him, she'll "come back on my knees someday."
I’m of course not the first to point out how problematic this text is, and even Holiday herself may have been aware of it, too – at least earlier in her career. As Donald Clarke writes in his 2000 biography of Holiday, “Feminists love Lady, but they have an understandable problem with a song about a man she cannot give up even though he beats her: there was too much violence in Lady’s life, but on her first version of the song [which she recorded in 1937] the direct reference to physical violence is absent. Either the violence in her life had to yet come to the fore, or perhaps the tougher lyrics would have been less acceptable in 1937.”(As this website shows, the lyrics in that first recording of the song make no mention of violence. Not so her many later recordings of it.)
But even Clarke’s telling of Holiday’s story suggests that the violence, and certainly neglect, started from her years growing up in Baltimore. And they continued nearly to the end of her relatively short life (at age 44 in 1959). Holiday was, in reality, treated by “lovers” even worse than “My Man” could ever suggest.
Several of Holiday’s abusive lovers were also her managers, who beat her, skimmed large sums of her earnings for themselves, carried on with other women and fed her long-time, unquenchable narcotics and alcohol addictions in order, many suspected, to keep her less attentive to their misdeeds. Among many such episodes one of her manager/lovers, John Levy (not to be confused with her bass player of the same name) dragged her by her hair across a San Francisco hotel room before a show in 1949. A band mate later recalled: “I’d go to get her for work, and she’s on the floor, and he’s standing up on her stomach – kicking her.” Her sidemen had to tape up her ribs before the show.
A few years later, another manager/lover, Louis McKay, who picked up where Levy left off, hit her and knocked her out after she goaded him during an argument, ultimately mouthing the word “mo-ther-fuck-er” to his face. A band mate saw the episode and reported that not long later, “here comes Lady, prancing from the dressing room, as though nothing had happened.”
Why and how could she – and many women like her – endure all this? Psychologists who see many cases like this might have an explanation. Clarke, decidedly not such an expert, nevertheless tries out his own hypothesis: “Why did she choose men like this, and why did they get worse over the years? …[S]he had little self-esteem [and] …avoided the possibility of disappointment by choosing unsuitable men. She was also a masochist; the violence had become part of her love life. Men who were tough, or at least behaved as though they were tough, seemed to be the only one who could do anything for her; paradoxically, she kept herself safe by not risking the vulnerable part of herself. It was a game, and pain was part of the prize.”
So it shouldn't be a surprise that the same bittersweet sentiment in “My Man” showed up in other Billie Holiday classics. In “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” which she recorded in 1949, one verse goes:
I'd rather my man would hit me/ Than follow him to jump up and quit me/ Ain't nobody's business if I do.
I swear I won't call no copper/ If I'm beat up by my papa/ Ain't nobody's business if I do
In “Billie’s Blues (I Love My Man)”, recorded first in 1936, she sings:
My man wouldn't give me no breakfast/ Wouldn't give me no dinner/ Squawked about my supper and put me outdoors/ Had the nerve to lay a matchbox on my clothes/ I didn't have so many/ But I had a long, long way to go.
“Don’t Explain,” which she wrote with Arthur Herzog and recorded first in 1944, features a cheating lover, and she rationalizes (or, maybe irrationalizes) the problem away:
Hush now, don't explain/ I know you raise Cain/ I'm glad you're back/ Don't explain
Quiet, don't explain/ You mixed with some dame/ Skip that lipstick/ Don't explain
…Cry to hear folks chatter/ And I know you cheat/ Right or wrong, don't matter/ When you're with me sweet.
“Everything Happens For the Best,” which she also co-wrote and recorded in 1939, sums up the mixture of misguided hope and self-delusion:
Always blue all in a mist/ It's plain as can be/ You're so mean to me/ But everything happens for the best
You always play around/ You're running my heart so deep in the ground/ That's O.K. everything happens for the best
As particular as Billie Holiday’s experience may have been, the heartbreak of “My Man” is, of course, all too universal - among many women in many times and places. Even in the supposedly enlightened 21st century America.
When I played the song for one of my daughters and her friend a few months ago, they instantly recognized a similar love-hate theme in the best-selling single from a couple of years ago, “I Love The Way You Lie.”
It’s a collaboration between the rapper Eminem and singer Rihanna, reflecting violent relationships of their own – Rihanna’s most famously with the rapper Chris Brown. (Based on her own tempestuous relationship, Skylar Grey co-wrote the song.) A few lines of Rihanna’s lyrics:
…You’ll always be my hero/ Even though you’ve lost your mind
Just gonna stand there and watch me burn/ But that’s all right because I like the way it hurts/ Just gonna stand there and hear me cry/ But that’s all right because I love the way you lie
Now there’s gravel in our voices/ Glass is shattered from the fight/ In this tug of war, you’ll always win/ Even when I’m right/ ‘cause you feed me fables from your hand/ With violent words and empty threats/ And it’s sick that all these battles/ Are what keeps me satisfied
…So maybe I’m a masochist/ I try to run but I don’t wanna ever leave/ Til the walls are goin’ up/ In smoke with all our memories.
Like "My Man," it's a gorgeous song. Until I read and think about the lyrics. and real, sad story behind them. How can a song be so sweet and so sad?
[The photo above was taken in 1947 by the famous jazz photographer William Gottlieb for downbeat magazine. All quotes from musicians above came from Clarke's biography of Billie Holiday.]