Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy”

History of Hymns: “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy”

By Cynthia Wilson and C. Michael Hawn

The Music Canon of the Africana Church Liturgy—Spirituals

“The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy”

West Indian Spiritual

Public Domain

The Faith We Sing, 2098

Zion Still Sings, 60

Biblical Themes: Psalm 19:14; Luke 1:27b, 2:1-20

Verse 1

The virgin Mary had a baby boy,

The virgin Mary had a baby boy,

The virgin Mary had a baby boy,

And they say that his name is Jesus.


He come from the glory,

He come from the glorious kingdom.

He come from the glory,

He come from the glorious kingdom.

Oh yes, believer! Oh yes, believer!

He come from the glory,

He come from the glorious kingdom.

He come from the glory,

He come from the glorious kingdom.

Sample: The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy (arr. Cynthia A. Wilson), from CD A Christ-mas Experience, Free Indeed Productions, 2010.

The genre affectionately known as the Negro spiritual is acknowledged as the foundation of Black American music. Since Western African culture was expressed mainly through ritual, memory, and symbol, this oral song tradition does not claim specific composers. Notwithstanding the linguistic challenges among various tribal communities, the overlap of indigenous musical elements helped cultivate a collective religious belief system. Although African slaves had not yet appropriated the English language, the song tradition was a primary teaching tool. I have studied this rich song tradition, and I want to suggest four distinct ways in which spirituals can be categorized: (1) code or double entendre, (2) social commentary, (3) didactic, and (4) the sermonette.

Author Wyatt T. Walker reminds us that Black folks “are essentially people of the Book” (Walker, 2). Consequently, these texts were extracted from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In many instances, we see a reworking of the Israelite story. Although some biblical scholars offer the critique that the contextualization of the story distorts its message and meaning, the song allowed the entire community to preach and be inspired by the perpetual message found in Scripture. It is also important to note that the sermonette functioned to address biblical literacy, not only relative to the English language, but also to the slaves’ own stories, characters, and plight, which seemed to mirror the legend of Israel. “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” is one such example. With some contextual nuances, this type of spiritual song propelled liturgical life and caused that which might have been obscure to become obvious; that is, the story of Jesus’ birth! Therefore, this spiritual is most often sung during the seasons of Advent and Christmastide.

While on the surface, the simplicity of this spiritual might appear to lack musical, spiritual, or theological depth, the element of repetition enhances its accessibility and memorization of biblical story, especially for children. Since spirituals are hardly ever performed the same way twice, soloists should freely exercise an improvisational approach to the verses. The congregation can best participate when the chorus is sung in unison. However, when the phrase, “Oh yes, believer! Oh yes, believer!” is sung in four-part harmony, it provides a strikingly beautiful homophonic contrast to the single melody lines.

This spiritual reflects the varying experiences and cultures encountered by enslaved Africans when they came to the Americas. It does not appear in some of the historical collections of spirituals such as the monumental Slave Songs of the United States (New York: 1867), the first extensive collection of African American spirituals. The reason for this may be because it seems to have been the product of the African diaspora in the Caribbean. The traditional designation for this spiritual, “West Indian Carol,” places it in the somewhat ambiguous location of the West Indies – generally the Caribbean islands. Its appearance in hymnals is later than many spirituals, the mid-twentieth century. Because of immigration patterns within the United Kingdom and its former colonies, this spiritual found a place initially in British hymnals more than collections in the United States. Australian hymnologist Wesley Milgate notes the origins of the spiritual are in the oral tradition:

“The West Indian carol was taken down by [Trinidad native and calypso performer] Edric [Esculus] Connor [1913-1968] in 1942 from the singing of James Bryce, a negro then 92 years old. It was printed in The Edric Connor Collection of West Indian Spirituals and Fold Tunes [London:] 1945, and became more widely known through its inclusion in The Cambridge Hymnal 1967.” (Milgate, 2006, 220)

In the United States, this spiritual found acceptance in a variety of choral arrangements first before appearing in congregational song collections. The earliest denominational hymnal to include this spiritual in the United States is the Mennonite collection, Hymnal: A Worshipbook (1992). Because of its West Indian origins, a calypso style accompaniment is usually preferred.

For Further Reading

Wyatt Tee Walker. Spirits That Dwell In Deep Woods: The Prayer and Praise Hymns of the Black Religious Experience (New York: Martin Luther King Fellows Press. 1987), 2.

Wesley Milgate and D’Arcy Wood. Together in Song, Australian Hymn Book II: A Companion. (Sydney: The Australian Hymnbook Book Pty Ltd., 2006).

NOTE: This article is an excerpted from Cynthia A. Wilson, PhD., “The Incarnational Nature of Congregational Song: A Deeper Meaning of Performance.” PhD dissertation Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, 2013.

Cynthia Wilson is associate general secretary for Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music, Adjunct Professor and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

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