Does the Meaning of a Song Change Depending on Who Wrote It?
I first heard the Christmas spiritual “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” when I was a small child. It was playing in the background while my grandmother put the finishing touches on the pies, cakes and fixings that would be served for Christmas dinner. While she mixed flour, butter, sugar and salt, Mahalia Jackson’s combination of operatic range and Black church soulfulness whirled around in my heart.
“Sweet Little Jesus Boy” was, in my childhood imagination, a connection to the faith of my ancestors, a song composed in the hush harbors where enslaved people gathered clandestinely to celebrate the birth of our savior. The song fought for supremacy in Black church Christmas services alongside hymns like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Mary Had a Baby.”
When I decided to write an essay about the spirituals sung every Christmastime in Black churches, I was startled to discover that “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” was not written by an African American during slavery but by a white man named Robert MacGimsey in 1934. Rather than working on a plantation, MacGimsey grew up on one.
Before writing music, MacGimsey was a lawyer and, later, a private secretary for Senator Joseph E. Ransdell of Louisiana. But he is remembered for the songs he wrote in the Negro spiritual style, as the genre was known, the most famous of which is “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” He also composed a song for the 1946 Disney musical “Song of the South,” based on the Uncle Remus stories. That film has long been shelved and is unavailable on any Disney platform because of its undeniably racist content.
Growing up in Louisiana, MacGimsey found inspiration from listening in on Black people at work and in their worship services, according to a 1939 article in The Indianapolis Star. In that piece he refers to African American plantation workers using racist terms and tropes indicative of the era. His words come across as someone who only knew African Americans as subordinates. The songs he wrote went on to make him famous, according to The Star.
After his success as a songwriter as well as a whistler who performed on the radio, he bought a plantation himself where, like his father before him, he hired Black people to pick cotton.
MacGimsey seems to have been both a product of his time and someone who was attempting to transcend it. He was clearly taken by the pathos of African American Christian music when many dismissed it. He invited his workers to record the spirituals he probably feared would be lost to history. He paid them the same fee for recording their music as he did for working the fields, according to a 2001 piece in The Town Talk, a Louisiana newspaper. He also assisted in the publication of “Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands,” a collection of folk music by Lydia Parrish.
I am glad we have recordings of these spirituals that we might not otherwise, but I cannot help but be bothered by another account of a white man benefiting from the musical genius of the Black community. In the end, he profited both from Black physical labor and our creative spirituality.
There is a long history of white artists appropriating and gaining fame by adopting Black music. Consider rock ’n’ roll, whose early sound was influenced by Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Rosetta Tharpe and Little Richard.
I find the appropriation of African American Christian music even more troubling because these hymns are not just a style or form. They contain a theological content that articulated the Black church’s longing for spiritual and physical liberation. These songs mean something to us and deserve to be treated as the sacred things that they are.
“Steal Away to Jesus,” for example, is both a spiritual about wanting to be with Jesus and a hope for freedom from slavery. There is a difference between being moved by the deep passion in these songs and letting the theology contained therein challenge one’s understanding of God. Black Christians were bold enough to believe that the gospel had something to say about the salvation of the body and the soul, that the pursuit of holiness and liberation were not in competition with one another. If we miss that central message of the spirituals we have not heard them rightly.
In the 1960s, MacGimsey planned to transcribe and publish the songs he collected but eventually abandoned the project, fearing it would be too controversial in the heady days of the civil rights movement, according to The Town Talk. Those songs, published later by his great-nephew, never received the acclaim that MacGimsey’s own compositions did, and they will not be sung during the upcoming holidays.
There are hints of strangeness in MacGimsey’s famous song, if ears are attuned to them. The refrain is, “We didn’t know who You were.” But in spirituals written by Black people, there was never any doubt about the identity of Jesus, Ollie Watts Davis, professor of music and the conductor of the Black Chorus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me. “‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ captures the Black tradition better,” Dr. Davis said. “Most Christmas spirituals arranged by Black composers are a straightforward telling of the story of Jesus. God came to us in the form of a baby, and we celebrate the newborn king.”
For enslaved Black Christians, Christmas was about the extent God was willing to humble himself to know them. If God was willing to become a baby, he was surely not above coming into a slave shack to encourage a downtrodden people. The incarnation, for the Christian, remains God’s great extending of himself all the way down so that even the lowliest can reach him.
I asked Dr. Davis about a particular line in “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” that bothered me. In it, MacGimsey refers to Jesus as “Master.” Dr. Davis said: “‘Master’ is rare in spirituals originated by African Americans. Jesus is Lord, Friend, Rock, Shelter, Deliverer, but rarely Master.” She said that the word “massa” in spirituals often refers to the white man.
This year I will gather with my family on Christmas morning at the Black Baptist church we attend on the south side of Chicago. If “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” is played, I will sing it with gusto. Why? Because MacGimsey could never have written it had he not encountered formerly enslaved believers. Whatever genius that song contains, it comes from them. We have made it ours by the singing of it. Jackson’s voice made the song Black and allowed it to transcend its limitations.
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