We’re doing the Joan Baez version. Well, that’s how I think of it. Way back in the seventies among my fairly extensive collection of of Scots, Irish and American folk albums, Joan Baez performed an unknown version of Away in a Manger. Jump forty something years to a Monday night choir practice in Strathaven and I hear, and sing, that very melody, set by Bob Chilcott. Some research required.
This darling of Nativity Plays throughout our land can be traced to nineteenth century USA where in 1882 it first appeared under the title ‘Luther’s Cradle Song’. Attributions to the pen of the reformer Martin Luther himself were widespread and relatively long lived. Scholars have subsequently overturned these claims and even the assertion that the third verse was written by a New Yorker by the name of McFarland does not withstand scrutiny as this stanza appeared twenty years before Mr McFarland was supposed to have written it. It seems that the words come from the hands of the prolific Anonymous.
Initially the lyrics were not related a specific melody, rather, some popular tunes were suggested as being suitable. One such was ‘There’s No Place Like Home’.
The melody which Joan Baez, Bob Chilcott and Strathaven Choral have in common owes its origins to James R Murray, a Massachusetts composer of hymns. He published his version, complete with tune, in his collection ‘Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses’ (1887). Murray continued the erroneous connection to Luther and thus his contemporaries reckoned that he had not composed, but simply arranged an old German tune and the melody became known as ‘Mueller’ – although no record of the said ‘Carl Mueller’ can be found!
Nevertheless, ‘Mueller’ is the transatlantic melody of choice for Away in a Manger and on Youtube you can find, among many others, Bing Crosby and John Denver celebrating yuletide with such renditions.
Let us turn to the true British version, the tune I learned in primary one, and I expect most of you did too. It must be homegrown. Well, no. It is known as ‘Cradle Song’ and was written by William J Kirkpatrick who also was American. First published in 1895 in a collection entitled ‘Around the World with Christmas’ it was listed as ‘Luther’s Cradle Song’ and was supposed to represent Germany, neither of which ‘facts’ bear scrutiny.
“A contemporary hero of British Choral Music” according to The Observer and Oxford University Press, Bob Chilcott provides the arrangement of the Murray melody. Born in Plymouth in 1955 and based in Oxfordshire he is a prolific composer of choral music. Well known pieces include ‘A Little Jazz Mass’.