Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, December 2003)

Time for the annual sorry plea: There aren't any good Christmas songs in the traditional repertoire. There are probably two reasons for this: First, Christmas wasn't a major event in England until recent times (the main reason Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol was to have the day declared a holiday) and second because Christmas songs, being sung only during a brief time of the year, wouldn't tend to be preserved. I've used up the whole handful of genuine traditional Christmas songs I know.

So: This song is not traditional. It's definitely old, though. The earliest known text of Joseph Lieber, Joseph Mein comes from a Leipzig manuscript of around the year 1500. There are several ancient settings, of which the most important is probably that in the Piae Cantiones, that amazing collection that seems responsible for most of the best old religious songs we know.

That earliest manuscript included the song as part of a nativity play. Unfortunately, that seems to have influenced the editors of the Oxford Book of Carols, the primary English-language source, who insisted on puffing it up into a sort of mini-musical. As such, I'm sure it's fine, but it isn't really a song.

And it should be. The tune is beautiful, easy to sing, and works well with a simple guitar accompaniment. (The easiest and most obvious approach being single fingerstyle arpeggios.)

I also like the song's picture of Joseph and Mary actually being a family. This is, admittedly, completely non-Biblical; the only thing we know about the relationship between Joseph and Mary is that Joseph wanted to cancel their engagement when she turned up pregnant out of wedlock, and was talked (actually, dreamed) out of it. Not a pretty picture. And by the time Jesus started his public ministry, though Mary was still around, Joseph was either dead or vanished.

Unfortunately, given the beauty of the tune, there isn't much song here. I thought I learned it from George and Gerry Armstrong, but I went back and listened to their version, and I know more words than they sing. They have three verses, and I knew about three verses of my own, not entirely the same. So I don't know where I learned them. I've pieced the song together as best I can, pasting in a couple of lines of my own to finish partial verses (in verses 1 and 3. I hate that, and you may well believe I feel guilty, but I can't do anything else until I figure out where I learned what I learned!). If you want really a lot of words, see the Oxford Book, which also has the complete German lyrics. I've printed the first German verse in the sheet music, with the verse that comes closest to translating it, though "closest" is not very close. I often sing that, too, just to produce a "foreign" feeling; it's not Aramaic, which is the language Jesus and his family spoke, but Aramaic is effectively a dead language (there are a handful of people who use a much-changed descendant in Lebanon and Syria); not many people are writing hymns in it these days.

In the guitar tablature, I've shown the melody twice: Since it's a pentatonic with a range of only a sixth, it can be played in the key of G on either the three bass strings or the three treble strings. So I tabbed it both ways; pick the one that fits (I use either or both, depending on where the voice is).


Complete Lyrics:
It's Christmas night, the star does shine,
Hush, I hear a baby crying,
Far from home and comfort lying
In Mary's arms,
Lullay the son of Mary.

Joseph dearest, Joseph mine,
Help me lull the baby mine
It is Christ the child divine
From heav 'n above,
Lullay the son of Mary.

Child born in an ox's stall,
Babe, yet king above them all,
Born to save us as we fall,
The holy child,
Lullay the son of Mary.

Joseph dearest, Joseph mine,
Help me lull this babe divine
So on us God's grace may shine
In paradise,
Lullay the son of Mary.

It's Christmas night, the star does shine,
Quiet now the babe divine
Sleeping now the child is lying
In Mary's arms,
Lullay the son of Mary.

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