History of Hymns: 'Rock-a-Bye, My Dear Little Boy'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Rock-a-Bye, My Dear Little Boy”
Czech Carol, trans. Jaroslav Vajda
The United Methodist Hymnal, 235
We may know little of eastern European Christmas carols, but we know even less about carols from Czechoslovakia. The appearance of this traditional Czech carol in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) was at the instigation of the hymnal’s editor, Carlton R. Young. Young contacted well-regarded Lutheran hymn writer Jaroslav Vajda (1918-2008) at a meeting of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in Fort Worth, Texas (1987) to prepare a fresh translation for use in the then forthcoming hymnal. Vajda was reared in a Slovak immigrant family, Slovakia being a country closely related to Czech culture and language. He translated many hymns from Europe and eastern Europe, providing this new version of the Czech carol “Hajej, nynjej, Jezísku,” commonly known by the tune name ROCKING. He commented on his translation’s origins:
The charming Czech Christmas carol traditionally known as ROCKING translated into English half a century ago has captivated me for many years. I was, however, disappointed in the lightness of its content, pretending, as it does to be sung by the maiden who composed the Magnificat [Mary’s canticle, Luke 1:46-55]. Wondering what kind of lullaby the mother of the Savior might have sung to “that holy thing” she had borne, I wrote the content of the carol closer to a hymn which trying to keep the simplicity and intimacy of the traditional carol (Vajda, 1987, p. 172).
Vajda was responding to the translation by Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), editor of The Oxford Book of Carols (1928), a well-known source for folk songs collected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries throughout Europe. Dearmer’s translation was judged by some to be overly sentimental. He enlisted Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and Martin Shaw (1875-1958) as musical editors, both of whom were influenced by the work of folksong collector Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), leading to folksong revival. This collection was said to have “revolutionized Christmas services, and led to the development of the carol service as an important event in the church’s year.” (Watson, Canterbury Dictionary, n.p.)
The translation of stanza 1 from Dearmer’s collection follows:
Little Jesus, sweetly sleep, do not stir;
We will lend a coat of fur,
We will rock you, rock you, rock you,
We will rock you, rock you, rock you:
See the fur to keep you warm,
Snugly round your tiny form.
Dearmer’s second stanza concludes with what became a controversial last phrase: “We will serve you all we can, / Darling, darling dear little man”—an ending so objectionable that many avoided using the carol altogether, in spite of its charming melody, or they attempted to substitute other words for the last phrase. Vajda’s version is less an attempt at a literal translation and more of a carol-like theological interpretation.
. . . since Mary was the kind of mother who “kept all these things in her heart,” it is likely that she mulled over the message of Gabriel, the greeting of Elizabeth, and the prophecy of Simeon as she rocked the infant to sleep, and wondered, as most mothers do, what would become of this special child, and what the “sword” was that would one day pierce her heart (Vajda, 1987, p. 172).
Avoiding the repetition of “rock you,” Vajda substitutes Jesus, the “dear little boy”, as a “wonder of wonders” and a “gift from God to me and the world . . .”—more substantial theological language for the Incarnation. The second stanza, referencing Mary’s son (Máriansky synácku in the original Czech), continues the theology of the Incarnation by naming Jesus as an “Infant Divine,” who is “one with the Father, yet born to be mine”—both divine and human. The gift of the child is “love . . . destined for you and for me.” Vajda’s translation has only one reference to rocking the child.
Various sources indicate that the carol, perhaps 400 years old, was collected in 1921 by “a Miss Jacubičková” where Dearmer obtained it and had it translated for his 1928 publication. Folk dance teacher John Garden indicates that it was first published in a Czech anthology in 1920 (Garden, 2010, p. 51). Erik Routley (1917-1982), eminent hymnologist of the last century, commented that the Czech carol was “in its own right . . . delightful. . . and . . . that its tune is of more than passing interest” (Routley, 1958, p, 203). Concerning the tune, Routley noted that the Czech carol appears to be “clearly a variant” and a “charmingly decorated” version of “Twinkle, twinkle little star” and, thus, perhaps a link between carols and nursery rhymes. The tune ROCKING appears in several hymnals on both sides of the Atlantic, usually with Dearmer’s translation; Vajda’s translation may be found only in The UM Hymnal.
Of course, the use of a cradle to rock an infant probably began as a medieval European practice. The manger where the infant Jesus was placed, according to the biblical account, was, undoubtedly, not capable of being rocked. Thus, the concept is an example of cultural adaptation of the biblical narrative as a sign of affection for the new-born child.
The carol gained popularity when Julie Andrews recorded Dearmer’s translation in 1963 as a single titled “Rocking” and included it later on the album Christmas with Julie Andrews (1975).
Dearmer included a second Czech carol in The Oxford Book of Carols, “The Birds” (No. 103), an enchanting carol with no significant theological import, depicting three birds—cuckoo, pigeon, and dove—that circle the manger while contributing their special song.
John Garden, The Christmas Carol Dance Book (lulu.com, 2010).
Erik Routley, The English Carol (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1958).
Jaroslav J. Vajda, Now the Joyful Celebration: Hymns, Carols, and Songs (St. Louis: Morning Star Music Publications, 1987).
J. Richard Watson. “Percy Dearmer.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press. Web. 1 Oct. 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/p/percy-dearmer.
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.