One of the sweetest Christmas songs I heard as a child was Sweet Little Jesus Boy. Like many, I assumed it was a spiritual first sung by the slaves of the American South. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that the song was written in 1934 by Robert MacGimsey, a white lawyer.
MacGimsey was born in Pineville, Louisiana and grew up with black domestic help including “Aunt Becky,” his caregiver. When he was an infant and young child, Becky sang spirituals to young Robert. She and other workers in the MacGimsey home gave Robert a rich background in the gospel music of the south.
Robert MacGimsey grew to adulthood and began practicing law, but he also wrote and published songs throughout his life. No matter where Robert traveled, he never forgot his Aunt Becky and the songs she sang to him as a child. In fact, Robert focused his life’s work on making African-American folk music of the South known and accessible by the world.
Sweet Little Jesus Boy was written because of a personal experience. One Christmas Eve, MacGimsey was walking through the snowy streets of New York City. He was appalled by the number of people visiting various nightclubs who chose to celebrate Christmas by getting drunk instead of focusing on who Jesus was and why He came into the world. To Robert, Christmas was a time of worship and praise. So, he penned the lyrics to Sweet Little Jesus Boy as an apology to Jesus because, as goes the refrain, “We didn’t know who you was.”
Sweet Little Jesus Boy was written to reflect the lives of black Christians during the Civil War. Robert MacGimsey once stated that as he wrote the song, he “pictured an aging black man whose life had been full of injustice standing in the middle of a field giving his heart to Jesus in the stillness.” As you read through the lyrics below, you can almost picture this taking place.
Sweet little Jesus Boy-they made you be born in a manger.
Sweet little Holy Child-Didn’t know who You was.
Didn’t know You’d come to save us, Lord;
To take our sins away.
Our eyes was blind, we couldn’t see,
We didn’t know who You was.
Long time time ago, You was born, born in a manger low,
Sweet little Jesus Boy, the world treat You mean, Lord,
Treat me mean, too,
But that’s how things is down here-
We don’t know who You is.
You done told us how, we is a trying’!
Master, You done show’d us how, even when You was dyin’.
Just seem like we can’t do right,
Look how we treated You.
But, please, Sir, forgive us, Lord-
We didn’t know ‘twas You.
Listen to Sweet Little Jesus Boy sung by Mahalia Jackson on the Ed Sullivan Show on December 18, 1960.
*Image courtesy of Michael Payne