O Mary, Where Is Your Baby – a Christmas spiritual from Louisiana
In 1980 Mary Alice and I purchased “The Second Penguin Book of Christmas Carols”, a small paperback edited by Elizabeth Poston which includes a number of traditional American gems. This is where we learned “Watts Cradle Hymn” and it includes Elizabeth Poston’s sublime “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” which our little Guilford Community Church Choir often sings.
The “Second Penguin Book of Christmas Carols also includes “Oh, Mary, Where Is Your Baby“; just the melody, attributed as a traditional song from Louisiana. Mary Alice and I introduced the song to our Guilford Community Church Choir around 1988, and, for the next decade, it became a staple of our annual 11 pm Guilford Church Christmas Eve service, the choir singing in rollicking unison to my improvised piano accompaniment. Mary Alice and I included a duo/piano/banjo performance (in the style of our Guilford Church Christmas Eve choir performances) in our 1991 out-of-print cassette album “This Longest Night”
In 1999, when our son Stefan was fifteen, the mother of one of Stefan’s friends suggested I do an arrangement for Stefan and three of his singing pals for our Christmas Eve service. I wrote them out an arrangement of “Oh, Mary” for piano and four men’s voices and they knocked it out of the park at our Guilford Church 1999, 11 pm Christmas Eve service.
A year later, January 2001, I gathered a bunch of my Brattleboro singing friends into the downtown Brattleboro basement Sound Design Recording Studio to record some of my choral arrangements. I revised the guy quartet “Oh Mary” version I’d done into a piano/SATB arrangement, and added Ron Kelley on saxophone. This is the version that is a free download in our online choral sheet music download store/library:
I like the arrangement, but the song still works great simply in rollicking unison to the piano accompaniment from that piano/SATB arrangement (and saxophone if you have someone with the right chops).
As I was preparing to write this piece I checked for versions “Oh, Mary, Where Is Your Baby” on Youtube, something I’d never done before. What a feast:
Here is, possibly, the first commercial recording of “Oh, Mary”, sung by siblings Peggy, Penny and Mike Seeger on the 1955 vinyl LP “American Folk Songs for Christmas”. This record is a companion to their mother Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1953 book by the same name.
“Oh, Mary” seems to have become a bluegrass standard. Here is John Reischman and the Jaybird’s version:
My favorite version from my Youtube exploration is ten-year-old Emilie Hamilton’s fiery performance:
And who would ever have guessed that Bobby Darin put out his own version just five years after the Seegers’. What an arrangement!
“Oh, Mary” is a terrific song for a small church choir Christmas Eve service. Let me know if it works for you.