History of Hymns: 'See Him Lying on a Bed of Straw'
By C. Michael Hawn
“See Him Lying on a Bed of Straw”
by Michael Perry
Worship & Song, 3061
See him lying on a bed of straw;
a drafty stable with an open door;
Mary cradling the babe she bore—
the Prince of peace is his name.
Oh, now carry me to Bethlehem
to see the Lord of love again:
just as poor as was the stable then,
the Prince of glory when he came.*
*©1965 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Michael Arnold Perry (1942–1996) was an Anglican priest in the Church of England. Having served several parishes, he concluded his ministry as chair of the Church Pastoral-Aid Society (1993–1996). Perry was involved in congregational song publications for over two decades, beginning with a Church of England collection, Psalm Praise (1973), to which he contributed selections and served on the editorial committee. His more than 180 hymns, songs, and carols were published in Singing to God (Carol Stream, IL, 1995).
Michael Perry was a founding member of the British Jubilate Group (1980), an organization devoted to the modernization of hymns in the more current language of the day. Hymns for Today’s Church (1982) set the tone for the group’s publications, work that continues to the present day. Perry contributed to and co-edited several of the group’s collections, including Church Family Worship (1986), Carols for Today (1986), Carol Praise (1987), Psalms for Today (1990), Hymns for the People (1993), and a scriptural resource, The Dramatized Bible (1989). Two of his most widely sung hymns in the United States include “Blessed be the God of Israel” (1973), a paraphrase of the Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68–79) set to MERLE’S TUNE by Hal H. Hopson (The United Methodist Hymnal, 209), and “O God Beyond All Praising” (1981), a text set to the soaring tune THAXTED (The Faith We Sing, 2009), taken from the “Jupiter” movement of the suite The Planets by Gustav Holst (1874–1934).
The words and music of “See Him Lying on a Bed of Straw,” also known as “Calypso Carol,” were composed in 1964 during Perry’s theological education at Oak Hill College, South Gate, North London. The concept of the carol was inspired by the curate of Beckenham Church, Peter Hancock, who asked the congregation, “How would you like to be born in a cowshed?” (Idle, Canterbury Dictionary). Perry completed the carol when a final selection was needed for a Christmas concert at Christ Church, Cockfosters, London, that same year. It was published in Youth Praise 2 (1969) and became a favorite among children and families for church services and school events. (See a family performance at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1UI5Ko34XQ.) When a BBC engineer accidentally erased a tape of the traditional King’s College Cambridge “Nine Lessons and Carols,” the “Calypso Carol” was included on a substitute program. Famous pre-Beatles British rock and roll singer Cliff Richard (b. 1940) hastily put a program together and sang this carol as a solo, bringing it to the attention of a much wider audience. The music and text were so successful that BBC announcers assumed it was a “traditional folk carol from the West Indies,” and thus, a song in the public domain. Said Perry, “This was one of my rare tunes—and by far the most successful” (Perry, 1995, pp. 266–67).
An unusual distinction was afforded the carol when the eastern Caribbean State of Nevis (officially the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis) requested noted British postage stamp designer Jennifer M. Toombs (1941–2018) to prepare a set of Christmas stamps in 1983. Calypso Carol was the theme with four postage stamps—one for each of the four stanzas—each with its distinct monetary value:
“See him lying in a bed of straw” (5 cents)
“Star of silver, sweep across the skies” (30 cents)
“Angels sing again the song you sang” (55 cents)
“Mine are riches, from your poverty” ($3)
The text was soon modernized from the original—removing archaic and gender-exclusive terms. Stanza 1 is based on Luke 2:6–7. Stanza 2, beginning with “Star of silver, sweep across the skies,” seems to conflate the coming of the Magi (Matt 2:1–12) and the arrival of the shepherds (Luke 2:8–12). The angels’ song (Luke 2:13–14) is the theme of stanza 3. The final stanza draws upon 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake, he became poor so that you through his poverty might become rich” (NIV).
Mine are riches from your poverty,
from your innocence eternity;
mine, forgiveness by your death for me,
Child of sorrow for my joy.*
The lively refrain is undoubtedly a source of the carol’s popularity, placing the singer at the nativity scene:
O now carry me to Bethlehem
to see the Lord of love again:
just as poor as was the stable then,
the prince of glory when he came.*
Though “Calypso Carol” has been well received and published in several hymnals in the UK and British Commonwealth countries, it did not find its way into collections published in the United States until the 1990s. It takes its place beside two additional tunes in a calypso style associated with the nativity narrative: the Caribbean carol, “The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy,” and a 1956 song composed by African American choral legend Jester Hairston (1901–2000) in a calypso style, “Long Time Ago in Bethlehem” (“Mary’s Boy-Child”), the latter made popular by Harry Bellefonte.
Some think that the lively calypso rhythms of these carols are more suited for choirs and concerts than for congregations and Christian worship. Such distinctions may limit a congregation’s ability to enliven their worship and ignore the contribution of other cultures to the nativity narrative. About “Calypso Carol,” Perry notes, “This carol—which now seems to me fairly artless—was in fact the beginning of my serious hymn writing.” Without this carol, his other hymns would not exist (Perry, 1995, p. 267). Michael Perry’s life was cut short when he died of an inoperable brain tumor at age 54.
Christopher Idle, “Michael Perry,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/m/michael-perry (accessed October 15, 2022).
_____, “See Him Lying on a Bed of Straw,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/s/see-him-lying-on-a-bed-of-straw (accessed October 15, 2022).
Michael Perry, Singing to God: Hymns and Songs 1965–1995 (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 1995).
Verses marked NIV are from Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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.