Celebrating A Beloved Christmas Song

Esau McCaulley writes of hearing the “Christmas spiritual ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy‘” when he was a young boy in his grandmother’s kitchen. Great. And it would be totally fine if he just really liked it, or even kinda liked it, or even just remembered it. But that’s not lofty enough to set us up for where he’s taking us.

“Sweet Little Jesus Boy” was, in my childhood imagination, a connection to the faith of my ancestors, a song composed in the hush harbors where enslaved people gathered clandestinely to celebrate the birth of our savior. The song fought for supremacy in Black church Christmas services alongside hymns like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Mary Had a Baby.”

See what happened there? It went from a song to a cause. It went from a Christmas spiritual to the embodiment of black oppression and the fight against white supremacy. It was no longer a song, but the battle hymn enslaved. Why does this matter?

When I decided to write an essay about the spirituals sung every Christmastime in Black churches, I was startled to discover that “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” was written not by an African American* during slavery but by a white man named Robert MacGimsey in 1934. Rather than working on a plantation, MacGimsey grew up on one.

MacGimsey is…I can’t even write it. What was Mahalia Jackson thinking, singing a song written by a white man just because it was a really good song?

As it turned out, MacGimsey was a fairly ordinary middle class white man in the south, which carries with it all the baggage one would expect of him.

Growing up in Louisiana, MacGimsey found inspiration from listening in on Black people at work and in their worship services, according to a 1939 article in The Indianapolis Star. In that piece he refers to African American plantation workers using racist terms and tropes indicative of the era. His words come across as someone who only knew African Americans as subordinates. The songs he wrote went on to make him famous, according to The Star.

After his success as a songwriter as well as a whistler who performed on the radio, he bought a plantation himself where, like his father before him, he hired Black people to pick cotton.

Should MacGimsey have refused to hire black people? Would they have been better off without jobs? And having gone there, McCaulley would be remiss if he failed to note other appropriation.

There is a long history of white artists appropriating and gaining fame by adopting Black music. Consider rock ’n’ roll, whose early sound was influenced by Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Rosetta Tharpe and Little Richard.

He’s not wrong, of course. about the important contributions of black musicians to rock, and he didn’t even bother with jazz, which is even more deeply connected to black musicians. If the point is that black people contributed enormously, even dominantly, to much of the music we love today, he is certainly right. But if his point is to spoil the joy and wonder of music by racializing it and turning it from something beautiful to something ugly, then what is gained?

I find the appropriation of African American Christian music even more troubling because these hymns are not just a style or form. They contain a theological content that articulated the Black church’s longing for spiritual and physical liberation. These songs mean something to us and deserve to be treated as the sacred things that they are.

The song that McCaulley loved(?) as a child didn’t change. The melody didn’t change. The words didn’t change. It was exactly the same as when he first heard it. The only thing that changed was that he since learned that it was written by a white man. So he went searching for reasons to be offended by it.

There are hints of strangeness in MacGimsey’s famous song, if ears are attuned to them. The refrain is, “We didn’t know who You were.” But in spirituals written by Black people, there was never any doubt about the identity of Jesus, Ollie Watts Davis, professor of music and the conductor of the Black Chorus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me.

I asked Dr. Davis about a particular line in “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” that bothered me. In it, MacGimsey refers to Jesus as “Master.” Dr. Davis said: “‘Master’ is rare in spirituals originated by African Americans. Jesus is Lord, Friend, Rock, Shelter, Deliverer, but rarely Master.” She said that the word “massa” in spirituals often refers to the white man.

If you seek for offense in lyrics, you’re almost certain to find it. And once you’ve found it, you can never hear the song the same again. But even though McCaulley found it necessary to take a beloved song and ruin it for others by explaining in a New York Times op-ed its racist roots and its racist lyrics, he offers a closing rationalization for how he will listen to it without being outraged by this white man’s appropriation.

This year I will gather with my family on Christmas morning at the Black Baptist church we attend on the south side of Chicago. If “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” is played, I will sing it with gusto. Why? Because MacGimsey could never have written it had he not encountered formerly enslaved believers. Whatever genius that song contains, it comes from them. We have made it ours by the singing of it. Jackson’s voice made the song Black and allowed it to transcend its limitations.

It just couldn’t be a wonderful song, the same song he heard as a child in his grandmother’s kitchen, and enjoyed for no other reason than he loved the song. Then again, if he hadn’t come up with an excuse for singing the song with gusto, would he have been compelled to inform the parishioners of black Baptist church that they were engaged in white supremacy or could he have just let others enjoy the song, the service and the day without spreading  racial misery?

*According to Stanford, the phrase “African American” is no longer appropriate.