In the early days of all-Christmas radio, it wasn’t the overly formatted mess that it is today; it was a more glorious mess. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 30 is one from those days, and one you almost never encounter on the air any more.
I first heard “Mary Had a Baby” by Bruce Cockburn in either 1997 or 1998. WLJY, a central Wisconsin radio station with an adult-contemporary format, became the first in that part of the country to go all-Christmas for a few weeks. If memory serves, it didn’t change over until around the first weekend of December and it kept playing holiday music until New Year’s. It called itself “The Holiday Light,” and, in those days before every commercial Christmas station sounded the same except those in really small towns, its playlist was eclectic. You could tell what CDs the station owned based on what it played; one it certainly had was Must Be Santa! The Rounder Christmas Album because it played many of the songs on that disc, even the strange ones.
It also evidently had Cockburn’s Christmas CD, which was released on both the Columbia (secular) and Myrrh (contemporary Christian) labels in 1993. (A side note: Until relatively recently, it was common for artists who had both secular and sacred followings to have their albums released simultaneously on different labels for both markets. Once most of the Christian labels were bought by the majors and once Christian stores adopted the same UPC codes as secular stores, separate releases ended. You now get the same CD on the same label whether you buy it at Walmart or Family Christian Stores.) One of the songs it played regularly was this rollicking version of a 19th century African American spiritual that usually is sung at a stately tempo.
“Mary Had a Baby” probably originated on the island of Saint Helena, off the coast of South Carolina in Beaufort County, which may have been an early port for the colonial slave trade. Based on the repeated line “People keep a-comin’ but the train done gone,” it dates from the 19th century, when the train served as a symbol of both salvation and escape in African American spirituals. It is also a great example of the call-and-response song, where a leader sings a line and the congregation or choir echoes with a related line.
The song was first collected by Nicholas G.J. Ballanta in his 1925 book Saint Helena Island Spirituals. Recorded and transcribed at Penn Normal, Industrial and Agricultural School, Saint Helena Island, Beaufort County, South Carolina. A few years later, legendary spiritual arranger William Dawson published a choral version, and it spread from there. At least 20 verses are known to exist, and Cockburn sings most of them.
Cockburn (born 1945; his last name is pronounced as if it were spelled Coburn, as in the actor James Coburn) is a Canadian national treasure, with more than 30 albums to his name. He has won numerous Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent to the Grammy, and is in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He remains a cult figure in the United States; here, he has had only one big hit, “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” which peaked at #21 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1980, and he also gained some renown for his 1984 song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” Not all of his albums have been released in the U.S., but his Christmas album, which is filled with delights, was.
Here’s Bruce Cockburn’s version of “Mary Had a Baby.”