Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Lullaby

Many years ago, when I attended a small Baptist church, the altar call at the end of sermons was frequently a mournfully beautiful tune in a minor key of which I never knew the name or for that matter any of the words. It wasn't until about a decade ago, in a Methodist church I attended at the time, that I learned it was called "Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy", from its opening line, in the Methodist hymnal, in which it was first included in the 1990s. In the old Broadman hymnals, used for many years in Baptist services, it is called "I Will Arise and Go to Jesus" from the opening line of the refrain.

The words to "Come Ye Sinners" were published in 1759 by their author, British minister Joseph Hart. In 1835, a Spartanburg, South Carolina singing school teacher named William Walker--better known among fans of oldtime music as "Singin’ Billy"--set the words to a tune called "Restoration" in his shape-note hymnal THE SOUTHERN HARMONY.

I left the Methodist church in April of 1998, if I recall. In May, I found Doc Watson’s 1990 CD ON PRAYING GROUND, on which he sang a set of Christmas lyrics to the same tune. The words Doc sings are taken in part from a poem by the great British hymn writer Isaac Watts. Doc's lyrics, identified as traditional with arrangement by Doc Watson in the songwriter's credits, are:

Hush my babe, lie still and slumber
Holy angels guard thy bed
Heavenly blessings without number
Gently stealing on thy head.

How much better art thou attended
Than the son of God could be
When from Heaven he descended
And became a child like thee

Soft and easy is thy cradle
Coarse and hard the Savior lay
When his birthplace was a stable
And his softest bed was hay

Hush my babe lie still and slumber
Holy angels guard thy bed
Heavenly blessings without number
Gently stealing on thy head.

Doc sings with only his own guitar accompaniment, and pronounces the word "gently" as "gentlie"--a very old mountain way, not uncommon at all in traditional mountain music.

I can imagine a mountain mother, awake in the night with a fussy baby, rocking and singing, rocking and singing. . .


  1. A gentle and haunting little tune, Fair.

    Have a wonderful and peaceful Christmas.

  2. And you also, Barry. (I used to sing this to my younger niece.)