Sunday, March 13, 2016

"Christ Was Born in Bethlehem" -- an Easter hymn that got into the bluegrass gospel repertory ** UPDATED 2x w/ editor's notes

UPDATED EDITOR'S NOTE: This post began as an introduction to "Christ Was Born in Bethlehem," which I hoped to introduce April 2 at Clayville. But I put it aside when I realized I wasn't going to be able to tab it out for mountain dulcimer in time. Then, late last night [March 30], I found tab on Shelley Stevens' website and changed my mind for a second time. New links, etc., at [posted Thursday, March 31, edits from March 29 revisions].

ORIGINAL EDITOR'S NOTE: I decided I'd better learn this song a little better before I try to introduce it at a session, but it's too nice a piece of music to delete. So I'm leaving it up on Hogfiddle, but with edits [posted Tuesday, March 29].

A song I want to introduce at Saturday's monthly jam session sooner or later. It's called "Christ Was Born in Bethlehem," and you'd think it's going to be a Christmas carol. But it isn't. Think of it more as a mountain ballad that begins at the stable in Bethlehem but focuses instead on the Easter story -- almost like a southern Appalachian counterpart to Handel's Messiah. It's been around in one form or another for more than a hundred years, and a version got into 19th-century editions of the Sacred Harp. We're doing to do the version that's gotten into the bluegrass gospel repertory.

Lyrics and chords, in G, at I'll have a chord sheet and mountain dulcimer tab (in DGD) with me Saturday morning.

Two sessions coming up:

  • From 10 a.m. till noon Saturday, April 2, Clayville Pioneer Academy of Music, in the barn Broadwell Inn building at Clayville Historic Stagecoach Stop, Ill. 125, Pleasant Plains.

  • From 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 5, Clayville-Prairieland Strings, at Peace Lutheran Church (formerly Atonement), 2800 West Jefferson, Springfield.

Here's "Christ Was Born in Bethlehem" as performed by the Smoky Mountain String Band, the house band at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., for a Christmas program there in 2012:

And here's my favorite YouTube clip, a performance by Norm Williams, Amanda Parker and Bob Mallalieu -- and a butterfly -- Aug. 29, 2010, at the Maidencreek Old Time Music Festival in Blandon, Pa. Says John Hilderbrand, who put it up on his YouTube channel, "Watch the butterfly and listen to the performers during this clip. It's inspirational and funny!" Please note: No butterflies were harmed in this performance.

The folk festival performance is a cover -- of a very fine arrangement by Tim and Mollie O'Brien. It's also available on YouTube, along with a couple of others, at:

The Corries were a Scottish folk band of the 1970s and 80s. Their version of the song sounds more like the traditional Appalachian ballad.

Based on a hymn by American composer William Howard Doane (1832-1915), it got into the oral tradition in the U.S. and Australia, and it was part of Jean Ritchie's family repertory. (They called it "Down Came an Angel," but it's the same song.) It has been widely collected in southern Appalachia -- including by Cecil Sharp in the 1910s. Richard Chase also collected it, in North Carolina.

The ballad is modal -- I have it from the John C. Campbell Folk School's songbook edited by Betty Smith in D Mixolydian, and it appears elsewhere in other modes. Sometimes, as in Chase's collection, the first verse appears as "Jesus walked in Galilee (or Bethany) ... to save us all from sin," no doubt to get around the Christmas-y title.

As an Appalachian ballad, it would have been sung a cappella. Sheet music is available in an a cappella SATB choral arrangment by Peter Amidon, in his book "Fifty-five Anthems for the Small Church Choir." Sound file of a performance by Kari Smith and Fred Breunig, soloists. Says Amidon,

We first learned this beautiful Appalachian ballad from the singing of John McCutcheon. This is really a Lenten-Easter carol; the first verse talks of the birth, but the second verse jumps right to 'Judas he betrayed him...'. There are two harmonizations of the melody in my arrangement. I encourage you to try out different ways of using these harmonizations, as we did on this recording.

Probably because of the Ritchie family's interest in the song, the ballad version has caught on with mountain dulcimer players. Here is YouTube user Darren W. playing Larkin Bryant's arrangement from her dulcimer instruction manual of the 1970s commonly known as "Larkin's Book."

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