I had a bit of a music revelation back at Easter when I heard the hymn Were you there for the first time; it blew me away. In the advent to Christmas, I’ve been trying to choose the one hymn that says Christmas for me. Fairytale of New York is my song of the season, but I was looking for one that spoke to the soul rather than the heart. I’m homesick enough.
Trolling through FB earlier this month, I happened on a friend’s posting of a duet by Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd, Mary, did you know? I really don’t know where I’ve been all this time. In all the Christmases I’ve had, I’d never heard this one before. Or maybe because of the year that’s in it, I simply needed to hear it this year.
It’s not an oldie worldie song, and it may not even qualify as a hymn in some churches where the Parish Priest isn’t quite keeping up with the times. The lyrics were written by Mark Lowry back in 1984 but it would be another seven years before Buddy Greene put music to them (it took him just 30 minutes). The first recording was by Michael English in an album of the same name in 1991.YouTube has plenty of versions on offer, even one by Lowry himself. It still is his claim to fame.
He did a chat show once talking about how he came up with the lyrics, and how everyone talks about the deity of Jesus but rarely about the humanity – how Mary had to teach him how to walk and how to talk. He had no intention of writing a Christmas song as ‘everything that’s been said about Christmas has been said’. What he wrote was a monologue that would go between two songs in a Christmas production.
Several years after it had reached Christmas classic status (where was I!!!) he got picked up on his grammar and his Texas use of ‘did you know’ vs ‘do you know that your baby boy will’. Apparently, when Michael English recorded it, he changed it to ‘Mary, did you know that your baby boy would…. ‘ which Lowry said upset him, as it takes you out of the manger scene.
It seems like people have issues with the song to which Lowry responds. As an example:
Naysayers have disparaged this song as “biblically illiterate” and “the hymn that cancels Christmas.“1,2 Another critic called it “typically Protestant in sensibility… emphasizing Mary’s ordinariness rather than her extraordinariness.“3
Who’d have thought, eh?
Spinditty has a list of the 16 best versions of the song, a list topped by Pentatonix. In second place is Peter Hollens followed by Anthem Lights in third. Jordan Smith’s cover for the final of the VOICE (2015) knocked Adele off No. 1 spot in the charts and comes in at #5 (where was I?) Even Sanam, India’s answer to One Direction, featured (#12). The version I first heard was a duet by Kenny Rogers with Wynonna Judd ranks #14 but maybe because it’s the first I heard, it’s my favourite. Though Sanam’s comes close.
The Singing Contractors down tools and pick up their phones to do their version. And Kristine W does a pop version complete with a video that more than does it justice. Where was I? How could I have missed this? I can’t believe I’d never registered it before; I’m grateful to Paula McCann for sending it my way. It’ll be a Christmas feature from now on.
1Scheer, H. (2016, December 21). Why ‘Mary Did You Know’ Is The Most Biblically Illiterate Christmas Tune. Retrieved from http://thefederalist.com/2016/12/21/mary-know-biblically-illiterate-christmas-tune/
2Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ. (2017, June 8). The Problem With “Mary Did You Know”. Retrieved from https://aleteia.org/2015/12/09/the-problem-with-mary-did-you-know/
3Greydanus, S. D. (2015, December 24). What Did Mary Know and When Did She Know It? Retrieved from http://www.ncregister.com/blog/steven-greydanus/what-did-mary-know