Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Mary Had a Baby'

History of Hymns: 'Mary Had a Baby'

By C. Michael Hawn

“Mary Had a Baby”
African American Spiritual
Worship & Song, 3058

Mary had a baby, my Lord.
What did she name him, my Lord?
She named him King Jesus, my Lord.
Where was he born, my Lord?
Born in a manger, my Lord.


With some exceptions, such as “Go, tell it on the mountain,” the nativity of Christ was not a common theme in African American spirituals. African American poet James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) noted that spirituals “based on the birth or infancy of Jesus” were “extremely rare.” He speculates that the “Negro preferred to think of Jesus as God, as almighty, all-powerful to help” (Johnson, 1926, p. 14). Furthermore, Johnson observes that Christ’s birth was not a particularly sacred or religious observance in the South, but a time of celebration with “gunpowder and whiskey . . . singing, dancing, visiting; to guzzling, gluttony, and debauchery” (Johnson, 1926, pp. 14–15). Johnson’s observation notwithstanding, hymnologist Eileen Guenther lists more than a dozen nativity-related spirituals and variants in her study (Guenther, 2016, p. 376).

Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas, with some of the largest populations of enslaved people, were among the first in the United States to declare Christmas a state holiday in the 1830s (Evans, 2020, n.p.). Though their masters feared rebellions and escapes during the holidays, the observance of Christmas gave many enslaved people some respite from daily drudgery and abuse. The following narrative by Solomon Northup, the author of Twelve Years a Slave, A Citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington City in 1841 and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the red river Louisiana (1853), recently made into a film (2013), offers this witness:

The only respite from the constant labor the slave has throughout the whole year is during the Christmas holidays. [Master] Epps allowed us three—others allow four, five and six days, according to the measure of their generosity. It is the only time to which they look forward with any interest or pleasure. They are glad when night comes, not only because it brings them a few hours repose, but because it brings them one day nearer Christmas. It is hailed with equal delight by the old and the young . . . It— . . . a time of feasting, and frolicking, and fiddling— [is] the carnival season with the children of bondage. They are the only days when they are allowed a little restricted liberty, and heartily indeed do they enjoy. (Cited in Guenther, 2016, pp. 112–113)

Famed orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass offers a similar account in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston, 1845, p. 74).


The origins of this Christmas spiritual are shrouded in the struggles of enslaved Africans. Folklorist Natalie Curtis-Burlin (1875–1921), noted for her work in making early recordings of the Hampton Singers between 1915 and 1917, provides one of the arrangements of the spiritual that Frank Damrosch (1859–1937), director of the Musical Art Society (Institute of Musical Art, later the Julliard School, New York City), presented as “two old negro Christmas songs, collected and arranged by Mrs. Curtis-Burlin, which to the writer’s knowledge, have never been done by a white choral body before” (Grant, 1919, p. 36). The two Christmas spirituals were “Mary’s Baby” and “Dar’s a Star in the East.” The article notes:

The first song was heard at the Penn School in St. Helena, South Carolina, where the Negroes are perhaps less touched by white civilization than any other place in the United States. . . Here the writer heard sung the weird song refrain used in the beginning of her arrangement of “Mary Had a Baby.” She also heard the song sung by the younger native of St. Helena somewhat modernized into a major melody. Hence in the arrangement of the Musical Art Society, Mrs. Curtis-Burlin has carefully adopted both the major and minor versions into one (Grant, 1919, p. 36).

On the heels of this 1919 performance was the publication of the Saint Helena Island Spirituals (New York, 1925), a collection of 113 transcriptions of performances by Nicholas George Julius Ballanta-Taylor (1893–1962), a musicologist, organist, and composer born in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The spirituals contained in this noteworthy collection had not been published before, except for four that appeared in the groundbreaking postbellum Slave Songs of the United States (1867)— “Roll Jordan, Roll,” “Wrestle on Jacob,” “I Can’t Stay Behind,” and “Hunting Fo’ A City.” Ballanta’s (missionaries gave him the surname “Taylor”) purpose was to focus on previously unexamined spirituals (Crawford, 2012, p. 33). Lovers of spirituals owe Ballanta a debt of gratitude.

Ballanta passed his first examination for the bachelor of music degree at Fourah Bay College, a college of the University of Durham, England, in Freetown in 1917. The final examination was held only in Durham. Because he did not have the means to travel there, he never completed the course of study. While a government clerk, he also studied organ on his own initiative, assuming this position at St. Patrick’s Church (Anglican) in Kissy. Composition lessons with Freetown native Adelaide Casely-Hayford (1868–1960), who had also studied in Stuttgart, Germany, developed his skills as a composer. Mrs. Hayford sponsored Ballanta’s trip to the United States in 1921. He was awarded a scholarship to the Institute of Musical Art (now the Julliard School) and a diploma in 1924. Philanthropist George Foster Peabody (1795–1869) funded Ballanta’s research in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, resulting in his contact with the Penn School and the publication of the Saint Helena Island Spirituals (Kimberling, Canterbury Dictionary, n.p.).

In the United States, the musical Damrosch brothers, Walter and Frank, made connections for Ballanta that led him to the Penn Normal, Industrial, and Agricultural School located off South Carolina’s southern coast on St. Helena Island, the center of African American Gullah culture. Ballanta, who demonstrated significant facility in quick and accurate transcriptions of spirituals, set to work notating spirituals sung by the students, Community Sings sponsored by the school, and the St. Helena Quartet. Following the model of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Hampton [Institute] Singers in the latter nineteenth century, the St. Helena Quartet was a fundraising and public relations ensemble of Penn Normal. The members of the Quartet were former singers and graduates of the Hampton Institute trained by the well-known Canadian African American composer Nathaniel Dett (1882–1943). The precision of their singing contrasted with the other community members and made it easier for Ballanta to notate the harmonies of the spirituals (Crawford, 2012, pp. 99–105). Without Ballanta’s work in the mid-1920s, many of these spirituals might have been lost to future generations.


“Mary had a baby” appears in four versions in the Saint Helena Island Spirituals. “Mary had a leetle baby” (No. 3, p. 5) is distinct from the other three and has not persisted to any degree. The Community Sings program was the source of “Mary had a baby, sing Hallelu” (No. 3, song 48, p. 41), one of three variants that have some similarities:

Mary had a baby Sing Hallelu jpg

The phrase, “Down in a valley,” is a common trope that likely indicates a time of suffering or loss. This version has not continued in the canon of spirituals.

“Mary had a baby, aye Lawd” (No. 1, song 46, p. 40) is more familiar in choral arrangements and does not appear in congregational song collections.

Mary Had a Baby jpg

This variant contains a somewhat enigmatic phrase for today’s singers: “de people keep a comin’ and de train done gone.” The metaphor of the train, a newer nineteenth-century development in transportation, is common in spirituals, most likely as an eschatological reference or, perhaps, a veiled reference to the underground railroad. Curtis-Burlin explains the metaphor this way:

The “Gospel Train,” a familiar bit of negro imagery, forms the refrain of the song. To the unlettered black man, the first railroad was as great a wonder as the Bible miracle, and it offered the slave poet many a poetic symbol. To “git on b’od” the Gospel Train which runs on the rails made by “Heavenly Truth” meant to find religion, and in this song, the connection of ideas would seem to imply an urging of humanity to the birthplace of “Mary’s Baby King Jesus” lest the train of Salvation leave before the arrival of those tardy ones who “keep a’comin though the train done gon’.” (Grant, 1919, p. 36)

Composer and folksong enthusiast Elizabeth Poston (1905–1987) found the train metaphor incongruous—the result of “the imaginative impact . . . of the advent of the railroad, 1830–40” (Poston, 1970).

A third variant, “Mary had a baby, muh Lawd” (No. 2, song 47, pp. 40–41), is the one that appears in hymnals. Ballanta provides the following stanzas in the key of G Major:

  1. Mary had a baby, muh Lawd.
  2. What did she name him, muh Lawd[?].
  3. She name him King Jedus, muh Lawd.
  4. Where was he born, muh Lawd [?].
  5. Born in a manger, muh Lawd.
  6. Born in a stable, muh Lawd.

Between stanzas 2 and 3, Ballanta inserts the parenthetical note: “Other names may be used sig. ‘Mighty Counsellor,’ ‘Prince of Peace,’ ‘Mighty God,’ and ‘Everlasting Father, ’ etc.”—references from Isaiah 9:6. Ballanta used parentheses throughout the collection to indicate additional textual variations that might be added. The familiar names in Isaiah 6 are likely his suggestions and not terms necessarily sung by the islanders. The insertion of interrogatory stanzas (2 and 4) gives this spiritual a catechetical structure. Scottish missionary Tom Colvin adopted this pattern in his Christmas text to a Malawi melody, “That Boy-Child of Mary” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 241).

Elizabeth Poston extends the question-answer format in The Second Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (1970) with

  • Where did she lay him? / She laid him in a manger.
  • Who heard the singing? / Shepherds heard the singing.
  • Who came to see him” / Shepherds came to see him.

Poston adds several more stanzas “as sung variously extempore,” rounding out the nativity narrative:

  • Star keep a-shining . . .
  • The wise men kneeled before him . . .
  • King Herod tried to find him . . .
  • Moving in the elements . . .
  • They went away to Egypt . . .
  • Traveled on a donkey . . .
  • Angels watching over him . . .

(The complete textual additions by Poston may be found at https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/mary_had_a_baby.htm.) These have not been adopted in any of the approximately ten hymnals in the United States that have included this spiritual.

Of the first three, sociologist and historian Thomas Jackson Woofter believed that “the variants of this sort originated elsewhere, but they are more apparent on Saint Helena Island because of the convergence and survival there” (Woofter, 1930, p. 60). These spirituals were sung throughout the Christmas season, emphasizing an exemplary model of motherhood that coincided with the midwifery program of Penn School. Midwifery was a primary program to reduce infant mortality resulting from longstanding unhealthy and superstitious practices (Crawford, 2012, pp. 249–250). Arthur Jones, the founder of The Spirituals Project in Denver, Colorado, discusses the “Mary” spirituals and how the system of slavery promoted a “sadness ensuing from the oppressive circumstances of birth” mirrored in these (Jones, 1993, p. 26). M. Roger Holland II, the current director of The Spirituals Project, notes: “The fact that two or three versions of this spiritual survived the centuries attests to the prerequisite of the enslaved African community—if a song didn’t serve the community, they didn’t continue to sing it, and when they stopped singing it, the song fades from memory” (Correspondence, October 11, 2022).

Solo and choral arrangements and performances of variants of the spiritual were the sources of dissemination during the first half of the twentieth century. The Book of American Negro Spirituals (2 vols., 1925, 1926) by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamund Johnson (1873–1954) included a popular arrangement that is derived from “Mary had a baby, aye Lord.” James Weldon Johnson was aware of both Curtis-Burlin’s version and the variations in Ballanta’s publication (Johnson, 1926, p. 15). African American baritone and activist Paul Robeson (1927–2014), known for his performance of this version, helped popularize it. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95Yk-keLcw0.)

Tuskegee Institute music director William L. Dawson (1899–1990) published one of the most commonly sung choral arrangements in 1947, and it is this version that has most likely influenced the congregational rendering found in most hymnals, as it does not contain the earlier refrain, “The people keep a comin’ and the train done gone.” The St. Olaf Choir included this arrangement on their album The Spirituals of William L. Dawson (1997) under the direction of Anton Armstrong (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wh8oCHks7Y4). Numerous choral arrangements have become available since the second half of the twentieth century.


Returning to the introduction of the Curtis-Burlin version performed in New York in 1919 by the Musical Art Society, her comments in Musical America offer insight into the deeper motives for the concert and Curtis-Burlin’s work. Though framed in a language a century old and at times in terms that appear condescending today, the author’s ethical intent is clearly and passionately articulated. The importance of spirituals in congregational repertoire song endures, though Curtis-Burlin’s vision remains unrealized:

I am more than ever convinced that the artistic utterance of the negro has a permanent significance and is a lasting offering to our national culture. In an appreciation of that art lies one help toward a greater understanding of the negro; here is a basis of approach involving no controversy and no problem; music forms a bridge of sympathy that makes a greater friendship for the black man, instinctive and natural. I feel that Dr. Damrosch’s inclusion of these negro songs since [World War I] has a certain human significance, a prophecy of true Democracy and of that greater justice which should be accorded those black men who fought in Europe for the rights of oppressed races and are asked to accept peaceably oppression at home. Those of us who have seen the bravery of the negro’s efforts towards self-development and self-respecting economic independence, cannot but rejoice that on so significant a program as this of the Musical Art Society, the music of the negro is accorded so prominent a place. While we have been stirred throughout the war by the recital of the many historic deeds which flashed their glint of spiritual ascendancy across the blackness of the horror, few of us have stopped to think how really heroic has been the negro’s peaceful upward struggle against prejudice and indiscrimination in the half-century since America’s great war. It is an extraordinary proof of the virility and endurance of the black race that oppression and segregation, instead of having crushed the negro, have but forced him to develop within his own racial communities, educational, economic and professional independence. There are negro doctors, lawyers, clergymen, trained nurses and teachers, negro restaurants, hotels, banks, insurance agencies; every need of a civilized people is now filled for the negro by members of their own race . . . The growing recognition of the fine work now being achieved by colored composers in the development of negro music is an added source of encouragement. I believe that through the widening appreciation of the black man’s pronounced artistic gifts will come a greater realization of the negro as a man with a contribution to make to the culture of this country. (Grant, 1919, p. 36)


Eric Sean Crawford, “The Negro Spiritual of Saint Helena Island: An Analysis of Its Repertoire During the Periods 1860–1920, 1921–1939, and 1972–Present,” Ph.D. Dissertation, The Catholic University of America (2012).

Farrell Evans, “What Was Christmas Like for America’s Enslaved People?” History (December 21, 2020), https://www.history.com/news/christmas-slavery-american-south (accessed October 6, 2022).

Frances R. Grant, “Recognizing Our Debt to Negro Music,” Musical America (December 13, 1919,) https://www.musicalamerica.com/mablogs/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/12-13-1919B_p36.pdf (accessed October 7, 2022).

Eileen Guenther, In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of the Spirituals (St. Louis: MorningStar Music Publishers, 2016).

Clark Kimberling, “Nicholas Ballanta,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology (Canterbury Press), http://www.hymnology.co.uk/n/nicholas-ballanta (accessed October 5, 2022).

Arthur Jones, Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals (New York: Orbis Book 1993).et

Elizabeth Poston, The Second Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970).

Eileen Southern, Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1982).

Thomas Jackson Woofter, Black Yeomanry, Life on St. Helena Island (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1930).

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

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