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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

I needed "O-o-h Child" and its unabashed optimism today

The simplest tracks sometimes hit you the hardest.

Today has been pretty stressful and work-heavy; I have a midterm essay due in the morning and another the next day. With all the work I've been doing for those, I'm only beginning to write this article around 11:15 PM. Thankfully, I still have inspiration in the form of a piece of a song that got stuck in my head today.

...Man, I just don't get what's going on in my head at all when it comes to my musical recall. Sometimes I'm able to hear an entire track in my head — just two day ago, I heard Mark Ronson's "Find U Again" that way — but on other occasions, despite knowing the sone in full, I only hear a short piece of it. The latter is how I heard "O-o-h Child" by the Five Stairsteps multiple times during the day. Simple, soulful, and optimistic, "O-o-h Child" is the kind of song I needed to hear as I got down on myself for getting behind my schedule, even if it was just the opening section. Now, as I take a break from writing my midterms, I take the time to appreciate the track in its entirety.

The Five Stairsteps were a family group, comprised of five of six siblings in Chicago's Burke family. Their sound was emblematic of the Chicago soul of the time, with heavy use of horns and gospel leanings. The former is present right away in "O-o-h Child," with a trumpet taking the lead for the track's introduction. The verse then begins, and the song's simply lyrics speak of optimism and belief in better days lying ahead. Clarence Burke Jr.'s descending "O-o-h child" vocal gesture is what always sticks with me from this track, and it's what I heard in my head today that inspired this blog entry. Subsequently remembering the hopeful lyrics only further solidified my decision.

Between the song's two distinct sections — it's hard for me to call either the chorus with how they both repeat so heavily; more on that in a bit — the chord progression and Keni Burke's bass movement stay the same. The key, however, does change, and it does so quite dramatically, with a direct modulation from F Major to A-flat Major. The move to a distantly related key leaves me wondering if it ends up making the track sound brighter or darker — usually, moving in the direction this song does gives off a darker effect, but here I feel the track brightening up because of the individual chords involved in the change. At the moment of the key change into the second section, the chords switch from a suspended C Major to D-flat Major, a half-step up. I hear this upwards movement taking precedence over the large-scale change, and therefore the song gets brighter heading into the "Someday" section.

Other than the key, the "Someday" section's changes include a more prominent role for Hugh McCracken and Clarence Burke Jr.'s guitars, as well as Bernard Purdie's magnificent drum work. One of the most underrated drummers of his era with a great feel for snare-driven syncopation and the 'pocket' of a groove, Purdie would later gain greater prominence through the similar lines he laid down for Steely Dan (check out his work on perhaps my favorite Steely Dan track, "Kid Charlemagne"). While "O-o-h Child" is a relatively slow track, clocking in around 88 BPM, Purdie's groove makes the track feel faster and bouncier. That liveliness also helps drive home the impact of the backing vocals behind each "Someday" later on in the track with their aforementioned gospel-like sound in their chord voicings.

As I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago, in listening to "O-o-h Child," I'm left wondering which section could be better labeled as the chorus. Considering the song consists of two clear sections, repeated one after the other for its entire form, it makes the potential verse/chorus distinction ambiguous. The only deviation from the song being straight through is the repetition of the second "Someday" section, before the song ends after one more iteration of the "O-o-h child" portion. If I had to choose, I'd say that the "Someday" section is more of a chorus because of its coming second and its later additions having greater impact, but I'd rather not have to choose. I simply label the "O-o-h chid" and "Someday" sections "A" and "B," respectively, eschewing the labels because of the repetitions they share. In that case, I hear the song's form to be A-B-A-B-B-A, something which sounds more fitting to me than trying to shoehorn the "chorus" label into a song which doesn't quite have it.

There's beauty in the simplicity of a track like "O-o-h Child." It's easy, yet groovy and soulful listening, and it's no surprise to me that it's been heavily used in TV shows and films, most prominently in a scene from Boyz n the Hood. Combine its optimism with its lack of specificity in time and place, and it can be applied to innumerable situations, if one simply believes that the lyrics ring true.


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