Mary’s Boy Child, one of the newer religious Christmas carols, is already 66 years old. It is often assumed to be Jamaican folk song and gained its greatest popularity in Britain and Europe but was written by an African American composer in the United States.
Jester Hairston was then a 54 year old songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, and some-time actor—he had a role in the television version of Amos ‘n’ Andy He was regarded as a leading expert on Negro spirituals and choral music.
|Jester Hairston, composer of Mary's Boy Child and his inspiration--a Black West Indian family.|
Hairston was born in Belews Creek, North Carolina in 1901 but was lost his father in an industrial accident at an early age and raised largely by his grandmother while his mother worked. The family migrated to Homestead, Pennsylvania where he graduated from high school in 1921.
He grew up listening to stories of slavery, the Reconstruction South, and the harsh imposition of Jim Crow laws in the last decades of the 19th Century. He took great interest in the tales, and especially to the snatches of field chants and spirituals he heard.
Hairston was a good student and his family had ambitions for him. He studied landscape architecture at the Massachusetts Agricultural College. While pursuing his studies he sang in church choirs and choral groups. His musical talent was recognized an a church accompanist became his benefactor and sponsor providing the financial assistance that he needed to study music at Universalist Tufts University where he was one of the first Black students. He graduated in 1929, just in time for the Great Depression. He went on to study at Julliard.
He worked as a choir conductor in the early stages of his career. His work with choirs on Broadway eventually led to singing and acting. He was singing with the prestigious Hall Johnson Choir from Harlem but after his long studies in the North he had carefully cultivated a refined New England accent, and had to relearn his grandmother’s rural Southern speech for the dialect in many of the songs the Choir sang.
The Hall Johnson Choir performed in many Broadway shows including The Green Pastures. In 1936, they were asked to go to Hollywood to sing for the film version. Russian composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, heard Hairston and invited him to collaborate with him. This led to a thirty-year association during which time Jester arranged and collected music for the movies while also composing choral numbers for high school and college choirs.
|The Calypso carol in West Indian dialect.|
In the early ‘50’s Hairston was asked to write a song for a birthday party that would be attended by several West Indians. Inspired by the calypso craze of the time he wrote a song called He Pone and Chocolate Tea. Not long after Walter Schumann, conductor of Schumann’s Hollywood Choir, asked Hairston to write a new Christmas song for a seasonal concert. Hairston took his calypso melody and set new words to it.
Mary’s Boy Child focuses on the very human teenage mother and the humble circumstances of her son’s birth.
Harry Bellefonte heard the song and got permission to record in 1954. It was included on his 1956 for his album An Evening with Belafonte. A shortened single was released and reaching #1 on the UK Singles Chart in November 1957 and was the first single to sell over one million copies in the UK alone. Back in the U.S. Mahalia Jackson recorded a version called Mary’s Little Boy Child.
|The European Christmas single sleeve by The Springfields featuring Dusty Springfield. Mary's Boy Child was the B side.|
Several artists subsequently recorded covers including Andy Williams, Jim Reeves, and The Letterman. But the song was even more popular in Britain where it was covered by South African Roger Whittaker and the British folk/pop trio The Springfields featuring the powerful lead vocals of a young Dusty Springfield. It was the B side to one of their biggest hits, Bambino, and Italian Christmas Song.
|The German based Afro-Caribbean volal group Boney M made the song an international sensation.|
Mary’s Boy Child was quickly translated into several languages and recorded across much of Europe. The song exploded to new international acclaim in 1976 when it was recorded by the German-based Afro-Caribbean pop/disco group Boney M including Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett from Jamaica, Maizie Williams from Montserrat, and Dutch Bobby Farrell, of Aruban ancestry.
Today we enjoy Harry Belafonte’s original version.