History of Hymns: "Bethlehem"
by Marilyn E. Thornton
The Africana Hymnal, No. 4033
Zion Still Sings, No. 58
Worship & Song, No. 3053
In the fall of 1985, I moved with my family to a small town in the Hudson River Valley in New York where I immediately became involved with Christian Education in our church. I found myself in charge of the Sunday School Christmas program. Never enjoying the slow and drawn out manner in which “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is often sung, I decided to compose an upbeat new song as an alternative selection. Culturally, I wanted it to reflect African American heritage, utilizing call and response and a gospel/jazz rhythm. I wanted people to immediately identify it as part of the continuum of Black Sacred Music, maybe even thinking that it was not new, even though they had never heard it before. Musically, I wanted the melody to be simple enough to learn quickly but interesting enough for all age levels to enjoy. As an alternative to “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I felt that the name of the village should be featured prominently and from a biblical standpoint, and I determined that it should tell the story of Mary and Joseph’s sojourn to Bethlehem, the city of David, where Jesus was born.
I thought about the criteria I had set for myself as I traveled with my children to Washington, DC, for Thanksgiving. As anyone involved in Christmas programs knows, Thanksgiving represents the beginning of crunch time, and upon our return to New York, rehearsals would begin in earnest. I had to get the song composed that week if it was to be ready for the participants to learn. We were spending the week with my parents for some grandparent time. I felt that because my parents could keep the children—ages two and almost four—maybe I could concentrate enough to write the song.
At some point during the week, I took a walk in my beloved childhood neighborhood. Setting a beat with my feet, the first phrase of the refrain began to form: a minor triad, using the natural rhythm of the name—“Bethlehem, Bethlehem!”—up and then down with a slight flourish. Even though a minor key is often associated with sorrow songs, this song would not be sorrowful because Bethlehem is the “city where the King was born.” Sing it again. “Bethlehem, Bethlehem!” Let’s continue the story and throw a little idiomatic speech in there: “Mary had-a Jesus on Christmas morn.” This would be my responsive phrase, ending the refrain and coming after each bit of the story.
See, the Bible is very androcentric. Often women’s names are not even mentioned. And here we have Mary, the mother of Jesus, the main character! Sojourner Truth (c.1797-1883) was born a slave, Isabella Baumfree, in Ulster County, NY. She gained her freedom in 1827, a year before the New York abolition laws went into effect, by running away, forcing the man who owned her to keep his promise. As a slave she had sued for the return of her son, who had been illegally sold into a southern state, where he would not receive the advantage of the New York abolition laws. She won; her child was returned to her. Upon being freed, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth, indicating God’s purpose for her life, to travel the nation, preaching the truth of the good news. She became a champion for abolition and women’s rights, and was affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
As part of her speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” Sojourner Truth asked at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, “Where did your Christ come from? God and a woman! Man didn’t have nothin’ to do with it!” That woman was Mary. In writing a new song for the Christmas season, this was an opportunity not to be wasted. So the first verse would be all about Mary: “Mary, Mary, meek and mild; mother of the Holy Child!”
I walked until the melody became firmly embedded in my mind. When I returned to my parents’ home, I went immediately to the piano to frame the chords and write out the three verses that now appear in Zion Still Sings: For Every Generation, The Africana Hymnal, and Worship & Song. Children of musicians and teachers are often the guinea pigs for new ideas, and so I taught the refrain to my toddlers on the ride back to New York. It was a hit! At our next rehearsal, I taught it to the Christmas program participants and they liked it, too. During the program, a favorite adult singer performed the verses and the entire audience sang the response. I have taught “Bethlehem” at every ministry where I have served for thirty years, including the United Methodist Publishing House.
In 2005, I presented it to the committee for the Zion Still Sings project. They accepted it as an entry and in 2011, Bob MacKendree, a co-worker at the United Methodist Publishing House, asked me to write more verses. The version with the added verses was arranged and recorded by Roderick Vester for the 2014 Abingdon Press Bible and Arts program, Praise Break: Celebrating the Works of God!, which can be heard on the mp3 for #4033 in The Africana Hymnal.
- The Africana Hymnal: Black Sacred Music, Abingdon Press, 2015, #4033, USB Flash Drive
- The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, originally published in 1850.
About this month’s writer:
Marilyn E. Thornton (B. Music History (African American Religious Music), Howard; M. Violin, Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University; M.Div. Vanderbilt) is an elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church. She is the lead editor of African American Resources at The United Methodist Publishing House, music editor for Zion Still Sings and the Africana Hymnal, and a contributing writer for the Africana Worship Book Series.