Tag Archives: Bruce Cockburn’

CSOTD 12/29/2022: A future is shining

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 29 is not the usual retelling of the birth of Christ and its aftermath.

I’ve featured the music of Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn (born 1945) before. But this is one that does not appear on his 1993 album Christmas, which is likely why I’d missed it for so long.

“I wanted to write a Christmas song,” Cockburn told Paul Zollo in the magazine SongTalk in 1994. “I went at it like trying to tell the Bible story but put it in modern terms. … I thought the story in the Bible is such an interesting story, but you forget how interesting it is because it’s held up as a cliche so much to us. And over the years people have lost their humanity, who are in the story, and they’ve become larger-than-life figures. And I just thought it would be interesting to play at putting them in a human context. So Mary becomes a little bit shrewish and has a little bit of an attitude.”

In Cockburn’s song, “Cry of a Tiny Babe,” from his 1991 album Nothing But a Burning Light, Joseph thinks Mary has been sleeping around, a paranoid Herod sends death squads after the Babe, and the Savior reveals himself to, as the lyrics state, hookers and bums. It sounds irreverent, but this is not the case at all. According to Cockburn in a 1991 interview, session drummer Jim Keltner broke down in tears. “Well, he didn’t break down – he kept playing – but he was fighting it off throughout the song because he was so moved by what was going on.”

The song is seven and a half minutes long, which likely is why it isn’t on the radio much, if at all. But in listening to it for this post, I never once wanted to shut it off. Here’s the studio version of “Cry of a Tiny Babe.”


CSOTD 12/14/18: North America’s first carol

Most of the traditional carols we sing in the United States, particularly in church services, come from other countries and cultures. England is the primary source, followed by France, Germany, and Spain. At times, it can make one wonder if any of the great pre-20th century Christmas carols came from the New World. Actually, a couple do: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are 100 percent from the United States. But did you know about the first North American Christmas carol? It has an interesting story, and it is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 14.

The first documented carol in the New World was written not in any of the European languages spoken by the immigrants, but in the native tongue of the Huron Indians, who populated what is now Ontario in Canada in the 1600s.

The original title of the carol, taken from the lyrics, was “Jesous Ahatonhia” (Jesus, He is born); today, it is best known by the title “The Huron Carol,” or by its controversial 1926 English transliteration by Jesse Edgar Middleton (1872-1960), “Twas In the Moon of Wintertime.” I first became acquainted with the song when I was a member of the Wisconsin Master Chorale in Stevens Point, WI in the first decade of the 2000s. We sang it in a choral arrangement in our Christmas concert of 2005. I was struck by its haunting melody and its words. Naturally, I wanted to find out more about it.

The song was written by a French missionary and Jesuit priest, Jean de Brebeuf (1593-1649), in approximately 1642; he put his words, which were in the Wyandot/Huron language of the Natives, to a French folk song, “Une Jeune Pucelle” (A Young Maid). One of the interesting facets of the lyrics is that de Brebeuf used imagery that would be familiar to his audience to tell the story of the birth of Christ, rather than simply retelling the traditional versions as found in the books of Matthew and Luke.

Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian far more famous in his native country than south of the border, is known to abhor the Middleton lyrics because he feels they are patronizing to the Native culture. On his 1993 album, Christmas, he recorded the song as originally written. He admitted in an interview that year with Liane Hanson of NPR that determining how to pronounce the original Huron lyrics was a challenge, because the language, through genocide and assimilation, is almost extinct. But he was able to find a linguist at the University of Sudbury in Ontario to help with a close approximation. Here’s Cockburn’s version in the original tongue:

Middleton, also a Canadian, was a reporter and historian with a strong interest in Native cultures. In his version, he used what Cockburn thought were stereotypical shortcuts — the Algonquin name for the Christian God, “Gitchi Manitou,” for example. But at the same time, Middleton kept the spirit of the original by, once again, transporting the birth of Christ from Bethlehem by using familiar Native imagery. This first English-language version gave modern Canadians, and by extension English-speaking people around the world, the opportunity to sing this first Christmas carol written in North America. Even members of the First Nations tribes in Canada have embraced Middleton’s version of the song and have sung it themselves.

My favorite modern recording of the Middleton version of “The Huron Carol” comes from an unlikely source — the Canadian alternative band Crash Test Dummies, who are best known for their 1993 hit song “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.” After their brief taste of fame, they went in other directions, including their 2002 Christmas album, Jingle All the Way. This album, which is better than it has any right to be, closes with this moving version of “The Huron Carol.”



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.”