Note: A version of this article originally appeared in December, 2011 in The Daily under headline “Spiritual Sweetness.” It is no longer extant, so I have republished it here, altered to better reflect my current preoccupations.
In the matter of Christmas music, I’m as nostalgic as they come. The carols and hymns I learned in my childhood, which was light on church attendance but heavy on Yuletide enthusiasm, can still bring tears to my eyes in a single verse.
My love for the song “Angels We Have Heard on High” is long-established, but it was only five years ago this month, while driving down Western Avenue in Chicago, that I heard for the first time the earthy contralto of Mahalia Jackson singing “Sweet Little Jesus Boy”:
The world treat you mean, Lord
Treat me mean, too
But that’s how things are down here below
We didn’t know it was you.
Sweet little Jesus boy,
They made you be born in a manger
Sweet little holy child
Lord, we didn’t know it was you.
By the time I learned the title of the song and the name of its original composer, Robert MacGimsey, it had already assumed the No. 1 spot on my list of seasonal tunes. The Depression-era piece has been recorded dozens of times by all manner of artists, but I’ve yet to hear a rendition that surpasses Mahalia’s. It is a grave, beautiful and challenging spiritual that, to me, expresses the easily overlooked essence of the Christmas story — at least as it comes down to us in the Gospel according to Luke.
Some Christmas songs beautifully express a high Christology, centering on Jesus as the incarnate Word of God. Think of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” Other Christmas carols are more focused on Jesus’s humanity, keeping us near a scene tinted with retrospect. The Jerusalem suburb of Bethlehem, the manger, the animals and the Mother of God herself are tinted with the warmth and joy that we associate with Jesus’ divinity. A child who grows up singing “Silent Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Away in a Manger” may be forgiven for imagining that nothing could be more delightful than to be born in a stable. But that’s not how we hear it in Luke’s Gospel or MacGimsey’s lyric.
Mary and Joseph are subjects of an empire that moves them about at will. She is unmarried, probably quite young, and unlikely to be educated or privileged in the modern sense. And in Luke she’s the only one who hears the improbable story of her child’s conception; the angel chooses not to make things clear for Joseph, let alone the neighbors. The conditions in which Mary gives birth are not so much rustic as deprived and even dangerous. So when Mahalia voices the line, “they made you be born in a manger,” she hearkens all the way back to the original story, in which there is no hint of sentimentality. She is lamenting Jesus’ poverty and foreshadowing his life as an oppressed person.
Perhaps the most striking refrain in the whole song is the line on which it ends: “We didn’t know it was you.” The standard manger scene is a busy one, with shepherds and wise men, angels and animals all paying their respects. But again Luke’s Gospel is much more spare. It’s only from Matthew that we hear about all of Jerusalem in an uproar, a prominent star and traveling wise men. The only audience for the newborn Jesus, in Luke’s account, is a group of shepherds directed to the manger by the momentary appearance of the heavenly host. Jesus was very much hidden from the world at the time of his birth, revealed only to a divinely favored group of peasants and his unwed mother.
The songwriter Robert MacGimsey was an early and forceful white advocate for African-American music. Born in Arkansas in 1898, he grew up in an age where demeaning “coon songs” were the most popular adaptations of African-American culture by white composers. In addition to writing “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” “Shadrack” and other original gospel songs, MacGimsey transcribed many of the traditional slave songs of the Georgia Sea Islands and lectured white composers and performers on their tendency to ruin African-American vernacular music by forcing it into more European forms.
MacGimsey’s work stands out in its era as an attempt to honor and celebrate black music and the people who made it. Inspired by the singers MacGimsey knew in the Jim Crow South of his youth, yet written with white performers and audiences in mind, “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” would eventually come full circle. It found its way into the heart of the gospel music canon alongside “authentic” classics like “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
I don’t know if MacGimsey had racial injustice in mind when he wrote, “The world treat you mean, Lord / Treat me mean, too” — Mahalia Jackson, who would go on to be active in the civil rights movement and sing at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, makes the line into a tremulous, mighty climax — but he gave the story of the birth of Jesus a powerful modern echo, and one that will go on ringing for a long time to come. “Dwell on the meaningful words here and there according to your own feelings,” MacGimsey directs the singer in an early sheet-music edition. “Bear in mind that this is a song of suppressed emotion, sung by you intimately to the Christ Child.” “Intimately” says it all: The song does not rely on the following centuries of worship for its images, and it features no crowd of wise men and angels validating your love and your hopefulness. “We didn’t know you’d come to save us, Lord / To take our sins away / Our eyes was blind, we couldn’t see / We didn’t know who you was.”