Norm Williams, Amanda Parker and Bob Mallalieu, Maidencreek Festival, Maier’s Grove, Blandon, Pa., Aug. 29, 2010 (song begins at 1:29).

Our services for Holy Week are all online this year, and it’s quite a different experience for someone who always sang in the choir and couldn’t quite shake the feeling they were performances. I know my theology’s way off here, but Maundy Thursday and Good Friday felt a little bit like the flurry of tech rehearsals and dress rehearsal leading up to opening night — for a show that opened on Easter Sunday. But this year we don’t have choir. So watching the Palm Sunday service on YouTube was sort of like sitting out in the congregation.

(Except, of course, the congregation is gathered around individual computer screens from Springfield to northern Wisconsin and points unknown. There are different ways of being the body of Christ, and the chat boxes at the right side of a computer screen will do for now.)

So this year I was drawn into the liturgy and the music in ways I hadn’t noticed before.

Since Palm Sunday is also Passion Sunday, we heard readings from the passion story in St. Mark interspersed by hymns. The hymns were traditional, and they were lovely. I was able to follow along in the hymnal I keep at home, as our cantor sang “All Glory, Laud and Honor.” I hadn’t been familiar with it before I started going to church in Springfield, but I have on good authority you can’t have Palm Sunday in the Midwest without singing it.

Then, after more readings from Mark, came “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” I think it has a good claim to be the most powerful of the “sorrow songs,” and I feel pretty much the same way about it as I do about the Palm Sunday anthem — it’s not Good Friday without singing, “… oh-o-o-oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” Also “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” with Paul Gerhardt’s text to a setting by Johann Sebastian Bach. You don’t get more Lutheran than that.

Then, when I was daydreaming during a contemporary worship music number — I forget what it was — I remembered another hymn. Well, not a hymn exactly. More like a traditional Appalachian ballad.

It’s one of the very few ballads collected in the Southern mountains that have a religious theme. And in a way it sums up the passion story in Mark. The whole life of Christ, in fact, since it begins in Bethlehem and ends with the resurrection. It’s usually called “Christ was born in Bethlehem,” after the first line of the first verse, but Jean Ritchie, who got it from her father in eastern Kentucky, called it “Down Came an Angel.” I like that title better, because it doesn’t sound as much like a Christmas carol. (It isn’t.) It’s in her Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians. (Her 1959 recording is available on YouTube.) Here, courtesy of the Bluegrass Messenger website, is the first verse:

Christ was born in Bethlehem
Christ was born in Bethlehem
Christ was born in Bethlehem
And in a manger lay
And in a manger lay, and in a manger lay
Christ was born in Bethlehem
And in a manger lay

But the rest of it isn’t Christmas-y at all. Some variants begin with a verse that goes like “Jesus walked in Bethany … to save us all from sin …” with the same pattern of repeats. But in most versions I’ve heard, the next verse jumps right to:

Judas, he betrayed him …
They nailed him to the tree …

Then this:

Joseph begged his body …
And laid it in the tomb …

And this — it’s where the Ritchie family got their name for the song:

Down came an angel …
And rolled the stone away …

Whatever it goes by, the song’s an old, old ballad. But it got into the folkier reaches of the bluegrass gospel tradition (my other liturgical heritage, along with Lutheran chorales and the Anglican musical tradition I grew up with). These days I hear it mostly, to a slightly different melody from the Ritchie family’s, in a shorter version that ends with this verse:

The tomb it could not hold Him, the tomb it could not hold Him
The tomb it could not hold Him
He burst the bands of death
He burst the bands of death, He burst the bands of death
The tomb it could not hold Him
He burst the bands of death

I’m quoting here from Richard L. Matteson Jr.’s website Bluegrass Messengers, which credits the lyrics to the Kicking Grass Band of Raleigh, N.C. But I know it from Tim and Mollie O’Brien (heard here on their 1988 album Take Me Back. In the YouTube video shared at the top of this post, Norm Williams, Amanda Parker and Bob Mallalieu (who got it from Tim O’Brien) sing the one verse a cappella at a folk festival in Pennsylvania. They’ve been accompanying themselves on banjo and mountain dulcimer, and the effect is electrifying.

Jean Ritchie adds several verses — it’s a ballad, after all, and ballads had to have lots of verses — to bring the story up to Easter:

Mary she came weeping …
Her precious Lord to see …

The angel asks, and Mary answers:

What’s the matter, Mary? …
They stole my Lord away …

And the angel replies:

Go and tell your bretheren …
He’s risen from the dead …

“Down Came an Angel/Christ Was Born in Bethlehem” has been around for more than 150 years. In the Bluegrass Messenger, Richard Matteson notes that it was in an 1859 edition of the Sacred Harp, and John Jacob Niles collected it in VIrginia in the 1930s.

I’m pretty sure I learned to play it on the mountain dulcimer from Betty Smith, educator and ballad singer of Madison County, N.C., to the Ritchie family’s melody. It’s in the Mixolydian mode, and I like to hold the flatted seventh (a C-natural in my key of D) at the end of the phrase “Christ was born in Beth-le-HEM” … the tomb it could not ho-old HIM.” It has that haunting “high lonesome” sound of the old ballads and modal fiddle tunes, and I think it’s as good an example of matching words and melody as anything in Bach or Handel.

The tomb, it could not hold him. Isn’t that what the passion stories are about?

Our congregational newsletter, which has the utilitarian (and, I think, very Lutheran) masthead name News You Can Use, has this summary of all the lectionary readings for Holy Week:

This week, the center of the church’s year, is one of striking contrasts: Jesus rides into Jerusalem surrounded by shouts of glory, only to be left alone to die on the cross, abandoned by even his closest friends. Mark’s gospel presents Jesus in his complete human vulnerability: agitated, grieved, scared, forsaken. Though we lament Christ’s suffering and all human suffering, we also expect God’s salvation: in the wine and bread, Jesus promises that his death will mark a new covenant with all people. We enter this holy week thirsty for the completion of God’s astonishing work.

Most scholars agree the earliest manuscripts of Mark end with Mary and the women at the empty tomb. Christ was born in Bethlehem, and he burst the bands of death. And I think those last six words in the bluegrass gospel version of that old Appalachian ballad tell the rest of story.

One thought on “‘Christ was born in Bethlehem’ — an Appalachian ballad that sums up Holy Week and the Easter season

  1. We listened to Mark also of course. But who on earth was that young man who lost his loincloth and ran off naked. I swear I never heard that portion before!

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