The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
– W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”
A few months ago, I was watching the NBC show “Parenthood” (which ended on such a supremely tidy note that cancellation of the show is almost guaranteed) when I heard a familiar phrase being sung in the background: “a good man’s hard to find.”
The song – a short acoustic number by The Fling – is by no means the first to use the saying. There have been countless songs with this same title centered on romance and heartache for almost a century now – and at the heart of the phrase’s evolution is a short story by a southern gothic writer who had a knack for delving into the “grotesque.”
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” was coined by Eddie Green in 1918, when he made it the title of one of his piano rolls. The song was a hit when it was first released, but became even more popular as a signature tune by singer Sophie Tucker. Early covers of the song also include those by Marion Harris (1919), Bessie Smith (1928), Brenda Lee (1960), and even Ol’ Blue Eyes himself.
All of these versions feature the same lyrics, which focus on the romantic woes of a woman looking for a suitable partner – one who isn’t mean, unfaithful, or otherwise bad for her:
A good man is hard to find
You always get the other kind
Just when you think that he is your pal
You look for him and find him fooling ’round some other gal
Then you rave, you even crave
To see him laying in his grave
So, if your man is nice, take my advice
And hug him in the morning, kiss him ev’ry night,
Give him plenty lovin’, treat him right
For a good man nowadays is hard to find.
But a pivotal moment in the phrase’s evolution occurred when Flannery O’Connor made it the title of one of her short stories in 1953.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find is quintessential O’Connor: it revolves around flawed fundamentalists in the deep South, heinous violence, and what she often referred to as the “painful” movements of grace.
Without giving too much away or going into too much detail, the story’s focus is on two characters: a sanctimonious old grandmother traveling with her family from Georgia to Florida for vacation, and “the Misfit,” an escaped convict.
The grandmother is fundamentally self-centered, more concerned with appearing good than being good – a veneer that breaks down when she and her family unexpectedly become threatened by a deadly violence. In this context, the grandmother’s usual religious platitudes fall flat, and she is propelled into a truly “holy moment,” maybe the first of her life. The supreme tenderness wrought by such an extreme, violent circumstance causes one character to say: “she would have been a good woman, if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
O’Connor’s fundamental point seems to be two-fold: first, that violent change might be the only thing jarring enough to draw something truly “good” out of us; that “intrusions of grace” – the free and unpredictable help given by God to become really “good” – are often, as O’Connor once put it, preceded and followed by great violence and upheaval in life.
The second point is that high-falutin snobs are, in their own way, no better than the violent misfits of the world – maybe even worse. Every single person is in desperate need of that “help” of grace, and is, in some fundamental way, “not good.”
We find this thought echoed by author and essayist G.K. Chesterton in one of his poems about the living Church, the community of believers in the world. He doesn’t portray them as a group of people who are somehow better than non-believers. On the contrary:
The news of the Church may always be good, but its members are not. Maybe they are enabled to be better than they once were as a result of faith – but at the end of the day, they are just as blind and sick and in need of help as anyone.
O’Connor’s story has forever infused “a good man is hard to find” with this new meaning – not awkwardly imposed on the phrase from without, but naturally infused from within. What was once a simple jazz tune about finding a decent boyfriend became – thanks to her brilliance – a commentary on the spiritual battle in the heart of humanity. “All human nature vigorously resists grace,” O’Connor concluded, “because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
Later songs with the same title bear witness to that influence: Tom Waits, on his 2002 version from the album Blood Money, crows: “How far from the gutter, how far from the pew?” calling to mind the gutter-like life of The Misfit and the pew-posturing life of the grandmother.
Bruce Springsteen recorded a song with the same title – a Born In The USA outtake that was released on his Tracks box set in 1998. At first glance, his version seems to be treading the familiar territory of the earlier jazz versions. He sings about a girl who “ain’t got no time now for Casanovas,” meditating on “the meanness in this world” after being left by her love.
She remembers how the world was the day he left
And now how that world is dead
And a good man is so hard to find
The song itself doesn’t necessarily suggest anything beyond that straightforward meaning – but in an interview with Springsteen, we learn that he was personally inspired in a very special way by the short stories of O’Connor.
“The really important reading that I did began in my late twenties,” Springsteen recalls, “with authors like Flannery O’Connor. There was something in those stories of hers that I felt captured a certain part of the American character that I was interested in writing about. They were a big, big revelation.”
He goes on to say:
“She got to the heart of some part of meanness that she never spelled out, because if she spelled it out you wouldn’t be getting it. It was always at the core of every one of her stories—the way that she’d left that hole there, that hole that’s inside of everybody. There was some dark thing—a component of spirituality—that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own.”
Sufjan Stevens’ 2004 take on the phrase – a cut off the gentle acoustic album Seven Swans – has an even more explicit influence from O’Connor.
Once in the backyard
She was once like me
She was once like me
Twice when I killed them
They were once at peace
They were once like me
I once was better
I put off all my grief
I put off all my grief
So I go to hell, I wait for it
But someone’s left me creased
Someone’s left me creased
The last line refers to O’Connor’s description of the Misfit as having a “long creased face,” and re-emphasizes this notion of being “marked,” damaged, and in need of restoration.
It’s amazing what Flannery O’Connor’s short story has done to transform this phrase “a good man is hard to find” over the decades – and for my money, it was her infusion of the phrase with the mystery of our fallenness and the violent operations of grace that makes it persist in our memory and our art.