Tuesday Thoughts: From the Shadows of Slavery “to Mary’s Little Boy Child”

 From childhood, African American spiritual and choral musician Jester Joseph Hairston absorbed the experiences and emotions of his enslaved grandparents and used them as inspiration for his life work.

After his death on January 18, 2000, obituaries in newspaper around the United States and the world defined the parameters of his life’s work by describing him as a trailblazing expert on African American spirituals and choral music with over 300 compositions to his credit including “Amen,” the theme from the movie the Lilies of the Field, which he composed and dubbed for Sidney Poitier,  and the Christmas song “Mary’s  Boy Child.” He was also known as an arranger, singer, conductor, and actor, and experts in the field recognized him as one of the few African American composers responsible for transitioning African American spirituals into a mainstream genre of choral music.

By 1956, the year he wrote “Mary’s Little Boy Child, “Jester Hairston had been singing, and directing choral music around the country and around the world for decades. He created his latest composition as a Christmas song, but time has transformed it into a patchwork quilt of versions and visions. Producer, songwriter Frank Farian, based in West Germany, formed a vocal group that he called Boney M. The European-Caribbean group included members from Jamaica, Montserrat, and Aruba. They produced the “Oh my Lord,” version of Jester Hairston’s carol. Today there are several interpretations of “Mary’s Little Boy Child,” or as it is more commonly known, “Mary’s Boy Child,” including pop, gospel, Christmas Carol and velvety Harry Belafonte, Anne Murray, and Andy Williams renditions.

Jester Hairston – Mary’s Boy Child – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0eG58Y4x9xc

Harry Belafonte     Mary’s Boy Child – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkq4AlQyIkA

Anne Murray  – Mary’s Boy Child – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CF-yItdZuVQ

Andy Williams – Mary’s Boy Child  –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLZWdBnkufc

Boney M,  Mary’s Boy Child – http://Boney M,  Mary’s Boy Child – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmm1gt_2SkQ

Jester Hairston – Amen – http://Jester Hairston – Amen – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJyh27LsFWs

“Mary’s Little Boy Child”
Jester Hairston

Long time ago in Bethlehem
So the Holy Bible say
Mary’s Boy Child, Jesus Christ
Was born on Christmas Day

Hark, now hear the angels sing

A new King’s born today,

And man will live forevermore

Because of Christmas day.
Trumpet sound and angels sing
Listen to what they say
And man will live forevermore

Because of Christmas day
While shepherds watched their flocks by night,   

They saw a bright new shining star
And heard a choir from heaven sing

The music came from afar

Now Joseph and his wife Mary

Came to Bethlehem that night

They found no place to bear her Child

Not a single room was in sight.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,

A king was born today,

And man will live for evermore,

Because of Christmas Day

And then they found a little nook in a stable all forlorn,

And in a manger cold and dark,

Mary’s little boy was born.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A king was born today,

And man will live for evermore,
Because of Christmas Day.

Jester Hairston:  Shaped by Slavery, Motivated by Music

Born July 1, 1901, in Bellows Creek, North Carolina close to the plantation where his grandparents had toiled as slaves, Jester felt the impact of its legacy early in his life. When he was still a toddler, his parents moved to Homestead, Pennsylvania, where he quickly realized “there’s nothing to do there but work in steel mills. That’s the reason I got out of there as quickly as I could.”  Before Jester left Homestead, he moved in with his grandmother after his father died in a coke oven accident, and after first graduating from high school. He won a church scholarship to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, but when the scholarship expired in two years he had to drop out for lack of funds. After he took a job, he met Laura Anna Kidder, a Northampton teacher, who so believed in his musical talent that she offered him her savings to finance his education. In later years, Jester repaid her loan in full.

Jester applied to Tufts University in Boston, because of the excellent reputation of its music, department, but his application was rejected. When a discouraged Jester encountered an African American friend in New York who had been accepted at Tufts because of his athletic skills, his friend advised Jester to write a letter to the chair of the music department and sell himself well. Jester took his friend’s advice and auditioned for music department head Leo R. Lewis on his front porch. Jester passed his audition and became a student at Tufts. He graduated from Tufts in 1929 and then studied music theory at Julliard School of Music in New York for two years.

Jester Hairston:  Man of Many Muses

When he left Julliard, Jester accepted a position as assistant director of the Hall Johnson Choir in New York where he developed his childhood interest in African American spirituals. For a brief period he founded and directed the African American Jester Hairston Singers and in 1939, he married Margaret Isabel Swanigan, one of the singers. In 1934 and 1935, Jester worked for the Works Progress Administration as assistant director of a large New York City music school for African American children and adults. The Hall Johnson Choir traveled to California to perform in the movie, “Green Pastures,” in 1935.

Jester enjoyed more career successes in the following years, with film credits like “Lost Horizons,” and throughout the 1940s he arranged choral music for more than forty films, including “Friendly Persuasion” and “Red River.” The Hall Johnson choir performed on radio programs, including with Shirley Temple and her choir, and the group performed a private concert for Russian composer Igor Stravinsky at Paramount studio, inspiring Stravinsky to compose a group of choral works for the choir. During the 1930s and 1940s, Jester earned the distinction of being one of Hollywood’s most respected choral directors. In the 1950s, the United States government sent Jester and an integrated choir to Asia on a good will tour.

When choral ensembles disappeared from films, Jester turned to character acting in television and films, with credited and uncredited roles in productions including “The Alamo,” “Tarzan,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and “In the Heat of the Night.”

Jester broke down many racial barriers in the United States. Probably his most controversial roles were Henry Van Porter and Leroy Smith in the radio and television show “Amos’n Andy.” When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights groups objected to such programs, as black exploitation, Jester countered with his own strong opinion. He was not ashamed of his role in playing the Amos’n’Andy story.  He said,” if you’re gonna say I was wrong for playing on the Amos’n’Andy story, then you’d have to take The Jeffersons off and all of them. Strictly minstrels, strictly minstrels.” He complained that the creators of the minstrel show in the 1830s conditioned many white Americans to think of black entertainers as strictly song and dance men.

To Jester, African American spirituals were an important bridge between black and white cultures and understanding and acceptance of each other and their cultures. He believed that white people were trying to learn about Black spirituals for the first time. “I don’t have hatred,” he said. “I can’t harbor hatred in my heart for all white people because of some fool that I had run into. “Because I don’t believe that I could write … music that white young people in colleges and high schools and white churches . . . would love if I had hatred in my heart.”  He believed that God is blind to color. “I could never worship a God that would do something to or for someone because of color.”

And he noted that black attitudes were changing as well. “Years ago when I went into a racially mixed high school and started talking about African American music, the black students would be terribly embarrassed. But not now. They want to learn more.”.

Jester Hairston, the Lyrical Life

Jester Hairston’s life seemed to be a musical composition of many moods and movements.

The prelude included the young black North Carolinian pretended to speak pidgin French so he could eat in a Los Angeles café. The postlude included the aging black choral director leading a choir of black and white high school students in the South Carolina, overwhelmed at the social change that allowed him to take the leader’s baton. One of the opening notes of the song included  Jester being the first African American invited to conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The middle of the composition included varied movements like being awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Tufts, the University of Massachusetts, and from the University of the Pacific. Another appeared when Jester received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in recognition of his contributions to film and television.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Jester accepted consistent invitations to be guest conductor at high schools, colleges, and church choirs at home and abroad. The State Department sent him on several goodwill tours to Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. One time he noted, “I will bring more love to China through American Negro folk songs than anything Kissinger can write.”

In the last years of his life, Jester actively organized national reunions of the Hairston family, a family with roots to the American South before the Civil War and including both black and white descendants. Jester Hairston turned his anger about slavery in positive directions and transformed it into forgiveness and learning and honoring the history of African American folk music and spirituals and the history of his country.

The end notes of Jester’s life composition included expert knowledge of African American folk music and African American spirituals and becoming one of the leading interpreters, arrangers and composers of that music. He said, “I decided I wanted to make my mark in folk songs because my grandparents were slaves…. I wanted to keep that music alive.”

Jester Hairston’s music is alive in lives and hearts just like “Mary’s Little Boy Child.”

For more of Jester Hairston’s Work

California State University Dominquez Hills

Spirituals Composed and/or Arranged by Jester Hairston – 1955-1968

Jester Hairston Collection –   http://Jester Hairston Collection –   https://csudharchives.libraryhost.com/repositories/6/archival_objects/5512

Tufts Digital Library – Jester Hairston Collection   https://dl.tufts.edu/concern/eads/nz806942t