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Thursday, December 22, 2011  

We Didn't Know It Was You

Last Sunday's column was on Robert MacGimsey's classic "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" and Mahalia Jackson's rendition:

The songwriter Robert MacGimsey was an early and forceful white advocate for African-American music. Born in Arkansas in 1898, he grew up in an age where demeaning “coon songs” were the most popular adaptations of African-American culture by white composers. In addition to writing “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” “Shadrack” and other original gospel songs, MacGimsey transcribed many of the traditional slave songs of the Georgia Sea Islands and lectured white composers and performers on their tendency to ruin African-American vernacular music by forcing it into more European forms.

MacGimsey’s work stands out as an attempt to honor and celebrate black music and the people who made it. Inspired by the singers MacGimsey knew in the Jim Crow South of his youth, yet written with white performers and audiences in mind, “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” would eventually come full circle. It found its way into the heart of the gospel music canon alongside “authentic” classics like “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

I did some actual, in-the-library, out-of-print textual research for this one. It's got embedded video of the song, too.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:37 PM
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