Tag Archives: 1993

CSOTD 12/30/16: A train to Bethlehem?

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.”

CSOTD 12/22/2015: Short but sweet

Since at least World War II, a regular theme of Christmas songs is the desire for home. Sometimes, it’s the singer with that longing, such as in “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” or “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays”; other times, the singer wants someone else to come home, as in “Please Come Home for Christmas” or “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” My Christmas Song of the Day for December 22 falls in the second category.

In England, Kate Bush (born 1958) is a phenomenon. Of her 11 albums, 10 of them have made the top five; she is the only female artist to have top-five albums in five decades. She also has had four top-10 singles. In the United States, it’s a different story: She’s had only one Top 40 single, “Running Up That Hill,” which got to #30 in 1986, and her most successful album, 1993’s The Red Shoes, peaked at #28.

The first American CD single from that 1993 album, “Rubberband Girl,” contained a short but pretty holiday song called “Home for Christmas.” I found this song on Christmas Super Hits, a diverse 4-CD set released by Sony Music in 2010 that, at least at one time, was only available at F.Y.E. music stores. (That is the only place I remember seeing it, anyway.) Other than on the original CD single, this compilation might be its only U.S. release. So enjoy this relatively rare Christmas song with me.

CSOTD 12/2/2015: Joseph wonders aloud

The Christmas songs about the birth of the Christ child tell the tale from many points of view. They are about Jesus, Mary, the Magi, the angels, the shepherds, the town of Bethlehem, and of course, what it all meant (and still means).  But Joseph often gets short shrift.  My Christmas Song of the Day for December 2 was an attempt to rectify that.

4HIM was a four-man vocal group that first came together in a revolving-door eight-person Christian group called Truth. In 1990, spurred on by an offer from the Benson Records label, Andy Chrisman, Mark Harris, Marty Magehee and Kirk Sullivan left to form their own quartet. They immediately became one of the most popular groups in Contemporary Christian music.

In 1993, 4HIM released Christmas: The Season of Love, a 10-song CD that contained both traditional and new Christmas songs. The last song on the disc was the one that stuck out. Harris, the singer and co-composer of the song, wondered aloud how Joseph might have felt about the events transpiring on that night. Why, he wondered, was “a simple man of trade” part of God’s great plan? Or Mary, “just an ordinary girl”? It didn’t make sense, but it worked out in the end.

It’s been more than 20 years since the original version of the song was released, and it’s still often heard on contemporary Christian stations that play Christmas music this time of year. But it hasn’t crossed over to secular radio. It’s been frequently covered, but to these ears, the original version has never been topped.  Listen as 4HIM sings “A Strange Way to Save the World.”