Friday, April 24, 2015

A Beautiful Life – William Matthew Golden

His words read like a pledge, such as one might make to a parole board in a penitentiary. William Matthew Golden certainly had an opinion in 1918 about what he thought “A Beautiful Life” might resemble, and perhaps that was because his life had not really gone the way he thought it should for someone whose aim was to enter into God’s presence. If a 40-something was in trouble, maybe in a prison and perhaps engaged in hard labor (as in this 1911 picture, in Mississippi’s state pen), yet thought about how to turn around his circumstances, what would he say? More importantly, what would he do to make good on his oath? Are you and I, more or less, in the same boat with William Golden?

In 1918, William Golden may have been a 42-year old state penitentiary inmate, whose circumstances might have compelled him to see that he needed to make some changes.  He reportedly wrote most of the 22 songs credited to him while in prison. He composed at least one song--“Will My Mother Know Me There?”-- in 1906, “To Canaan’s Land in 1914, and “A Beautiful Life” in 1918, but at what point his eight-year prison life began and ended is not clear. Also, did he initiate his songwriting habit while in prison, or before then? Since he was born and died in Mississippi, we can speculate that it was perhaps the state prison in Parchman (northwestern Mississippi), known as Parchman Farm in the Mississippi River Delta region, where Golden was incarcerated and made a vow about his future. It’s said that Golden (whose last name was originally Golding) served eight years for his prison term, so his crime may have been one of the comparatively lesser offenses, although there is no information on what he did to earn his sentence.  Could his songwriting have earned him good behavior points with the prison authorities? Was he the product of a chaplain at Parchman who helped him seek out reform, or was he self-taught? One also wonders if Golden’s new life manifested itself while he was still behind bars. If it did, he went about helping others who were sick, poor, or needy; practiced purity; and spoke kind words to others – all sentiments that he reasoned in his five verses were expressions of “A Beautiful Life”. Golden even added his own name to the first verse’s first line, perhaps as a means to remind himself that the words and proposed actions were an intimate promise.  

What exactly motivated William Golden’s songwriting ventures is unclear, but the Divine presence can use any situation to carry out His purposes. Was it the death of Golden’s one offspring in childhood that moved him initially to song composition, or a prison term, or some other events that are not known? Is Providence proscribed by any of these, or do they in fact hasten His influence? Whatever caused Golden’s descent into prison, that didn’t stop God from working in him, an insight that must have dawned upon this composer and moved him to generate most of his life’s musical output in that setting. Perhaps all of us should think of ourselves in a prison…    

See brief biographic information on composer here:

All five verses of the song here:

Another source of composer’s brief biography:

Information on Mississippi state penitentiary: