Mary’s Boy Child

My first exposure to a non-standard variety of English was probably the Christmas song Mary’s Boy Child. One of my grandmothers had the sheet music and various members of the family sang it in various combinations when we visited at Christmas.

I vaguely remember vaguely thinking, ‘oh, this is different English’, not ‘oh, this is bad English’. Researching for this post, I found that Jester Hairston was born in a rural community in North Carolina, but grew up in Pittsburgh and later studied at Tufts University (Medford, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston) and the Juilliard School (Manhattan, New York). An obituary in the Los Angeles Times refers to his Boston accent, which he had to ‘lose’ for (stereotypically Black, at the time) radio and tv roles.

I don’t know which of my sisters has the sheet music now. I assume that it has the words as recorded by Harry Belafonte in 1957, which I found online and checked against the recording. He sings, with markers for my comments below added:

Long time (1) ago in Bethlehem,
So the Holy Bible say (2),
Mary’s boy child, Jesus Christ,
Was born on Christmas day,

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new King born today,*
And man will live forevermore (3),
Because of Christmas day.
Trumpets sound and angels sing,
Listen to (4) what they say,
That man will live forevermore,
Because of Christmas day.

While shepherds watched their flock by night,
Them (5) see (2) a bright new shining star,
Them (5) hear (2) a choir sing,
The music seemed [?] (5) to come from afar,

Now, Joseph and his wife, Mary,
Come (2) to Bethlehem that night,
Them (5) find (2) no place to born (6) she (7) child,
Not a single room was in sight.

By and by, they [sic] (5) find (2) a little nook,
In a stable all forlorn,
And in a manger cold and dark,
Mary’s little boy was born!

(1) Standard English uses A long time ago. Google Ngrams records ‘_START_ long time ago’, but it’s well down the list. It is possible to sing A long time ago if you add an upbeat.

(2) Verb forms: Standard English uses present simple 3sg says in the first instance and past simple in the others. The other verb form Hairston uses is was. The possible exception is in the second verse (flagged by [?]). The lyrics say seemed, but even after several medium close listens, I can’t tell whether Belafonte sings seem or seemed, because of the following /t/ of to.

(3) A matter of spelling, rather than grammar. Google Ngrams records forevermore, for evermore, for ever more and forever more in that order.

(4) Several times, Belafonte omits to. Listen what they say is ungrammatical.

(5) Pronouns: Hairston refers to both the shepherds and Mary and Joseph as them (in the subject position), where standard English uses they. The exception is in the last verse (flagged by [sic]), which may be a slip on Belafonte’s part. There is no reason for him to start using they at this point.

(6) Standard English uses bear – bore – born/borne. Following (2), we might expect to bear here.

(7) Standard English uses her. Hairston uses object pronouns (them instead of they) elsewhere, so we might expect her here, except that that is also the correct possessive pronoun.

Boney M‘s version standardises most of the above. The only two items above which survive are ‘Long time ago’ and ‘the holy bible say’. Them becomes they throughout, all the other verbs are in past tense and born she child becomes bear her child. I would previously have said that bear a child referred to pregnancy, not to childbirth, but Dictionary.com records to bring forth (young); give birth to.

[* ps: after I posted this, I kept wondering whether A new King born today is standard or not. Certainly, it has no verb, and Boney M changed it to the undoubtedly standard A King was born today.]

A few comments about Christmas lyrics or imagery in general. There is no reference to Jesus being born in a manger: Saint Mary laid/placed him in one. I don’t know how big mangers were/are, but if this one was baby-sized (as depicted in stained glass windows, cards etc), Saint Mary certainly didn’t lie in it to give birth. There is no reference to a stable. So where else do we find mangers? The Oxford Companion to the Bible says ‘Single-room houses were often built in two sections, a raised terrace for the family and a lower area for its animals … These simple houses could have a guest room on the roof … This is sense of kataluma in Luke 22.11 [that is, the location of the last supper]; if the word has the same meaning in Luke 2.7, the setting Luke gives for the birth of Jesus is a private one-room home with mangers in the floor.’ So, no inn (pandocheion – compare the good Samaritan story), either. (Saint Matthew has the magi visiting ‘the house’, up to two years later.) And probably no snow, for that matter – at least there is no mention of it . And the angels didn’t ‘sing’ – the Greek verb is lego, say. And everyone didn’t look northern European. Apart from that …

(For previous discussion about kataluma and pandocheion, see here.)

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