Tag Archives: Bing Crosby

The blessings lurking in elementary school and behind the screen

As I recall it, the closest my grandson’s winter concert got to noting the meaning of Christmas was singing the song “Count Your Blessings.” The school managed to accurately describe Hannukah and Kwanzaa, but missed the incarnation of Jesus — unless “Jingle Bells” (by the much-loved and enthusiastic kindergarten) is enough of a hint for you. (Honestly, I probably could have discerned the presence of Spirit in anything those 5-year-olds sang. I shouted for an encore.)

I was counting my blessings when I left the school, despite the sting of witnessing Jesus being despised. Pointedly ignoring Jesus makes Christian supremacy that much more obvious, it seems to me. Nevertheless, I have not stopped singing “Count Your Blessings” in my head, which is not a bad thing. I even recorded it for my sister so she could enjoy remembering our mother singing it.

Micky and Minnie nostalgic for their more authentic past — Kinkade Studio

The lyrics matter

When you think about most popular American songs very long, they tend to fall apart. But think about them we must, or they might help us fall apart. So here we go.

The chorus of this little song is what got it into the elementary holiday concert of 2022. The kids’ great grandparents heard it first in 1954.

When I’m worried and cannot sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.

Sweet and comforting, isn’t it? The country had experienced some hard years. And those lyrics have some practical value don’t they? They are somewhat psychologically and spiritually sound.

The idea of “counting sheep” to get to sleep was purportedly donated to European culture by shepherds who had to keep a count of their sheep entering the pen. It was boring enough to put you to sleep – or so became the popular thought. A brave sheep will jump a fence under about four feet, and then the followers will jump, one by one, which is also mesmerizing. In the 1800’s, the image worked its way into plays and such, and became a cliché. It is probably better to imagine something like waves on the beach or a soothing symphony orchestra. But counting blessings might do the trick. It is surely better than piling up worries! So many of us sleep so poorly, we could use some tricks.

Counting stuff might not help you sleep

The American song problems arise when we get to the other part of the chorus and the verse.

When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all
And I fall asleep counting my blessings

I think about a nursery
And I picture curly heads
And one by one I count them
As they slumber in their beds.

I am not sure the teacher should have resurrected this old chestnut. But that’s undoubtedly because I follow Jesus and don’t like how his holiday has turned into a shopping spree all over the world. When the kids got further in this song, they found out the “blessings” are all about money and stuff. And it kind of looks like children are among the “possessions.” This seems in line with the American sense of well-being: “I think about when I was poor, but now I have stuff; about when I was childless but now I’m not.”

I’m not sure how the poor, unmarried and childless Jesus fits into all of that! Not to mention the third graders! So stick with the first stanza up there! Otherwise, going to sleep kind of depends on having enough stuff, which very few of us are good at having, even when we’re as rich as Carrie Fisher.

[BTW, Carrie Fisher (AKA Princess Leia) is the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Fisher had the most-selling rendition of “Count Your Blessings” in 1954 right after Irving Berlin published it].


There is meaning behind the idealization

Irving Berlin, the Russian secular Jew, was married to an Irish Catholic heiress for 63 years. He wrote “Count Your Blessings” for the movie White Christmas (named after the #1 best selling single ever), a redux of Holiday Inn, which both fenced off the idea of a godless winter holiday. White Christmas was nominated for an academy award in 1955.

The parents of Berlin’s wife were opposed to their interfaith marriage and wouldn’t speak to the couple for years until they lost their second child a month after he was born, on Christmas Day. So you can see the lyric came out of his own rags-to-riches and terrible pain. Berlin said the song came from his doctor telling him to stop belly-aching and count his blessings.

The movie stars who sang it to each other in the movie were Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney’s aunt and Debbie Boone’s mother-in-law). Their stories kind of undermine the sentiment with which Berlin probably wrote the song, because they didn’t or couldn’t perform it authentically. But they could perform the idea of it. Their lives demonstrate just how committed we Americans can be to presenting an image packed with idealized meaning (like “the holidays”), even down to being our own brand, becoming an ideal, public “self.”

Bing Crosby was an amazing showman but was probably an even better entrepreneur and visionary. His unique voice catapulted him to fame from nowhere and he took it from there. He pioneered sound equipment (and was instrumental in stealing advanced devices from Germany after WW2) which made him sound even better. He might be the first person to perfect a personal “brand.” His “Bingness” made him even richer and more famous when it was translated into big movies like White Christmas and Going My Way. In his “on the road” movies with Bob Hope he was the smooth, calm, connective , all-American guy to Hope’s goofier and more accident-prone guy. It sold. His kids said they wished some of that “Bingness” would have come home with him, where he was a distant, driven loner. It was mostly acting.

Rosemary Clooney also recorded the song and it was well received. But her own story belied its gentle confidence even more than Bing’s. She was a traumatized child who escaped to Hollywood. She married Jose Ferrer and birthed five children in five years. She divorced him over his affairs and married him again, then divorced him over his affairs again. She then waited thirty years before marrying again, all the while dependent on tranquilizers and sleeping pills. After Bobby Kennedy was killed, she had a nervous breakdown onstage and entered psychoanalysis for eight years. Always a heavy smoker, she died of lung cancer. She presented herself as a fulfilled mother, and she did love mothering. But the “Rosemaryness” on screen masked the trauma of her childhood and the ongoing instability of her life.

I think the stories of these people are fascinating. So is your story. But theirs has quite a lesson for me. In the U.S. especially, the screen lures us into what is ideal. I don’t mean fake, since it has truth and love in it, but it is never true to what is. The song “Count Your Blessings” ends up with sweetness rather than actually being sweet. It is strange, isn’t it? It is a song about vulnerability sung by people who can’t seem to manage their own vulnerability, at least in real life. So in that sense it becomes an anti-vulnerability song we are supposed to swallow even if we don’t have the blessings. We use it to salve the vulnerability we can’t face when the lights are on.

We may have a little “Aww. That’s sweet” feeling (and then immediately mock it) but we don’t have the real sense of resting in real comfort. Accepting that idealized sweetness as real seems to actually blunt our receptors for truly being blessed. Maybe it is comfort porn. The love we get  in real life is not as ideal as what characters are having on screen (or Instagram).

“Count Your Blessings” is only 2:42 minutes long! In that brief time we get a little taste of blessingness performed with Bingness and Rosemaryness, which I kind of like. Like I said, it is a pleasant earworm. But I would hate to live off it! By this time, the postmoderns have effectively deconstructed all that and exposed every dark underbelly available, anyway, so we probably get only a minute’s worth of the sweetness. What is left?

Maybe people will go with a relationship with God through Jesus, or though whatever preliminary means they discern. The real stuff is better. And it’s left when all the idealizations have been exposed as such.

Let’s count some blessings

Psalm 4:6-8  Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?” Le t the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD. You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound. I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD,  make me dwell in safety.

I did not grow up in a spiritually rich atmosphere, in most ways. But the atmosphere of the U.S. of my youth, as it still has in many ways, had a lot of spiritual direction floating around. Christianity was the background for a lot of popular culture, even though it was quickly being privatized and beginning to be deconstructed. The old movies that TCM keeps recycling taught me a lot about how to relate to God, even when they weren’t trying that hard. For instance, when I woke up in the middle of the night last night, I had a choice. I could count the undone things that faced me or I could “count my blessings instead of sheep” like Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney (Aunt of George) taught me.

I am not always lulled back to sleep by my blessings, but counting them is a lot better  than counting my anxieties. Last night I was recounting the many amazing people who bless my life with their radical faith, dogged hope and expansive love. Once I got started admiring them all, I realized that I was surrounded and blessed. I was feeling Psalm 4.

Let me just name the top ten people who have blessed me this week, only. I could enumerate the blessings of my great wealth and delightful family, highlighting the good time I had with Josiah and Brendan, yesterday, and how I saw Rachel/Zach/Corie and Randy/Garrett at Seussical. But there are even more extraordinary blessings that should not go unsung. I hope I instigate your own enumeration.

1. Art Bucher and Aaron Dahlstrom, a twofer. They multiplied a cell. As we sat at the Morning Glory Diner, I was kind of too-ebullient, maybe, and acting out a bit, because I was in the midst of the best Coordinating Group ever. It is still amazing to see people replicating more outposts of the kingdom in an organic, authentic way.

2. Joshua Grace pulled Ralph Moore off the shelf and told the Inner Metro Green guys to center their efforts on planting a well-founded, oddly-relevant church in Lancaster. I admire his capabilities. And I was blessed by the audacity of the church planters, too!

3. Jeremiah Alexander took the Psalters to Manor Church on Thursday night to rile up some worship and make some partners for our mission of compassionate service.

4. Rebekah Edwardson took over the Treasurer’s job and began to preside over a brand new team of treasurer’s: Country (oops Courtney) Jones, Danny Bresler-Nowak, Kathryn Seyfried. They are really putting it together with their new remote access technology (when it works) and commitment to fastidious sharing.

5. Annie Kopena and a group of delightful women ushered Alice Puchalsky into adulthood last night with their own rendition of a red tent (which everyone should read).

6. Christina Kallas not only raises money for AIDS awareness and treatment, she has great relationships at Philly Aids Thrift where she tells people about and shows them Jesus. Her co-workers bought her a lily for Easter out of respect born in their unbelieving hearts just by knowing her.

7. Justin Pascale and Katie Linton were so worn out from teaching Thursday they almost fell asleep at our cell meeting. I am blessed by the teachers who pour out their lives for children.

8. Joshua Schnapf is excited about what the Events Team might be able to do. He wants to combine the imagination he gets from working with the Barnes Foundation with his life in Christ. He walks into our space and imagines art flourishing. Lovely.

9. Audrey Robinson jumped into the cleaning rotation and gets to the building even when it is not her turn in the rotation, I understand. You can’t have too many friends like that.

10. Toni Gardner and Kelly Musser both jumped into Rachel Sensenig’s cell to help give the leadership for multiplication. Daring women are what we need.

The more people I named the more I could name. But I decided on ten in advance. Maybe you’d like to add a few to the list yourself. The world can keep you awake at night – it is such a mess. But if we turn our sights on the resurrection life Jesus keeps raising from the dying things all around, it makes it easier to rest.