Peggy Seeger singing “Child of God,” American Folk Songs for Christmas, 1989.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been playing Christmas carols by the fireplace at night. We have the lights up (well, actually, they’ve been for two years now), and I’ve got a hunch playing the carols might be a good spiritual exercise. The hunch may be paying off — I’ve rediscovered a little African American folk carol from Georgia that brings me a mixture of hope and comfort appropriate to this Advent season.

It’s also bringing a new dimension to the way I think about the Christ child, the nature of Christ and other issues of high theology.

The song is known as “Child of God” or, more commonly, as “The Little Cradle Rocks Tonight in Glory.” I first learned it from the singing of Betty Smith, ballad collector, author and folk musician of Hot Springs, N.C. Betty’s simple, ballad-like arrangement follows that of Ruth Crawford Seeger, who included it in her collection  American Folk Songs for Christmas (first published in 1953 and reprinted frequently ever since). But the song has spawned any number of variants — with a whole bunch of overly caffeinated choral arrangements in the style of a pop spiritual especially well represented on YouTube.

(A performance by Peggy Seeger, who is Ruth Crawford Seeger’s daughter, is embedded at the top of this post, in a collection of American Folk Songs for Christmas collected and performed by members of the Seeger family. Both women had remarkable musical careers during the folk revivals of the 1930s and 1960s, but they’re best remembered today for their family relationship to Pete Seeger. If you’re in the mood for some vintage 1950s- and 60s-style folk music, by the way, “Child” is one of 53 songs of the season uploaded to YouTube by Mike Seeger, a folklorist and singer of some distinction in his own right.)

I play “Child of God” by ear, but Maureen Sellers has dulcimer tab for Betty’s version in Simply Christmas. And the lyrics and music for Ruth Crawford Seeger’s are available online (in F) at Beth’s Notes: Supporting and Inspiring Music Educators. The song itself is a composite of three earlier songs, one from Louisiana and two from Georgia. Joe Offer, music editor and moderator of the authoritative online discussion group Mudcat Café, also has has the music and lyrics on a personal website at http://www.joe-offer.com/folkinfo/songs/348.html, along with information on where the song comes from.

The first two verses are a mashup of a fragment from Louisiana and one from Georgia, Joe Offer tells us. They’re pretty standard, even in some of the pop spiritual arrangements:

If anybody ask you who I am,
Who I am, who I am,
If anybody ask you who I am,
Tell him I’m a child of God.

The little cradle rocks tonight in glory,
In glory, in glory,
The little cradle rocks tonight in glory,
The Christ child born in glory.

But the last two verses, as Offer gives them (and as I have edited them for reasons I’ll explain in a minute), just blow me away:

The Christ Child passing, singing softly,
Singing softly, singing softly,
The Christ Child passing, singing softly,
Christ child born in glory

Don’t you hear [his] foot on the tree top,
Foot on the tree top, foot on the tree top,
Don’t you hear [his] foot on the tree top,
Soft like the south wind blow?

I’d better explain my edits!

That last verse is taken ultimately from an 1899 article in the Journal of American Folklore. There it reads: “Don’ yo’ hear he foot on de treetop, / Sof’ like de south win’ blow?” It’s well known, at least among developmental English teachers, that spoken African American Vernacular English often lacks a possessive pronoun. Ruth Crawford Seeger modernized the verse to read “the foot on the tree top,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I think it should be “his foot.”

Forgive me if I’m sounding English teacher-y here, but I think that way it makes more sense as poetry. And it reflects my understanding of African American vernacular speech.

“In standard academic English, ’s is added to a noun to indicate possession,” explains an outline of “The Possessive System” for tutors in the University of Pennsylvania’s linguistics department, “as in John’s cat and This is John’s. In AAVE, the ’s suffix is normally absent when another noun follows (John cat).” As an old English teacher who taught his share of developmental classes, I’m going to interpret “he foot on the treetop” as the same kind of construction as “John cat” in the example for tutors at Penn.

So in the song fragment from Georgia, I think “he foot on the treetop” is a reference to the Christ child’s foot treading softly on the treetops as Christ passes by, singing softly.

And that brings it all together, at least for me, in unexpected ways.

Christ child in the treetops

In a 1964 collection of her folk songs, Peggy Seeger has a cryptic headnote to “Child of God,” with an unattributed quote that sounds like it comes from a 19th- or early 20th-century folklore collection. It gets me thinking even more. She says “Child” is:

A Louisiana and Georgia Christmas chant, full of the highly pictorial imagery of the Negro preacher: “De Old Mosa, he am trabeling … he am trabeling by dis way … I hears him stepping on de treetops … Doan you hear him bending low …” {High Point, N.C.)

The image of footsteps in the treetops is biblical, appearing in two narratives of King David’s war against the Philistines. One, in 1 Chronicles 14:15 says (in the New King James version): “And it shall be, when you hear a sound of marching in the tops of the mulberry trees, then you shall go out to battle, for God has gone out before you to strike the camp of the Philistines.” Exactly the same image appears in 2 Samuel 5:24: “And it shall be, when you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the mulberry trees, then you shall advance quickly. For then the LORD will go out before you to strike the camp of the Philistines.”

The thing is, there’s nothing warlike in the Christ child image in the song from Georgia. At least not to me.

When I hear it, I close my eyes and I get a picture in my mind of the Christ child passing by and singing, singing softly, singing softly. Born in glory, yes, but singing softly. Not just softly, but soft like the south wind sloughing through a piney woods in Georgia.

I’m reminded not of Jehovah, the Lord of hosts smiting the Philistines, but of the way God came to the prophet Elijah:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;  and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire [a]a still small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

Other translations have “a delicate, whispering voice.” A soft voice, the way I hear these things, singing like the south wind in a stand of longleaf pine trees in Georgia.

That’s how the voice of God comes to me. I don’t want to get all theological here — we’ve had quite enough English major-y talk here without adding theology — but I’m reminded of Fr. Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ. Christ is, well, universal. “A mature Christian,” says Rohr (quoted here on the Goodreads.com website), “sees Christ in everything and everyone else.” And hears the voice of God in the south wind and a scrap of African American folk song recorded 120-odd years ago somewhere in Georgia.

And that’s why I like this little fragment of a folk carol from 19th-century Georgia so much.

There’s a lot I still don’t know about it. I’d love to know where Peggy Seeger got her quote about Moses’ foot, the one from High Point, N.C. And I’ve been unable to find a bio or a CV for Emma Backus, who collected the song in 1899 and only printed the lyrics. “Unhappily, we cannot add the melody,” she explained. Nor did Backus say anything about the song’s provenance. But we know she contributed several articles to the journal, including one titled “Tales of the Rabbit from Georgia Negroes” remarkably similar to the Uncle Remus tales. I’d love to hear more about her fieldwork. I’d like to know more, too, about the tune collected in Louisiana.

But that can come later. In the meantime, I’m going to indulge my inner English major one last time here by including a proper list of Works Cited (in an approximation of the MLA style I taught, no less) so I can get back to it later.

Works Cited

Emma M. Backus, “Christmas Carols from Georgia,” American Journal of Folklore 12 (Oct.-Dec. 1899) 272 JSTOR https://www.jstor.org/stable/533054?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.

“Lyr Add: African-American Christmas Carols,” thread in Mudcat Café, Dec. 24, 2006 ff. https://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=97486.

Joe Offer, “Child of God (The Little Cradle Rocks Tonight in Glory),” http://www.joe-offer.com/folkinfo/songs/348.html [citing The Second Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (1970), ed. Elizabeth Poston].

“The Possessive System,” Tutor Handbook, Penn Reading Initiative, Linguistics Labratory, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2009-2010 http://pri.sas.upenn.edu/tutors/tutor-handbook/dialect-differences/possessive-system.

Richard Rohr OFM, The Universal Christ: The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For and Believe (____), quoted in Goodreads.com https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/60592660-the-universal-christ-how-a-forgotten-reality-can-change-everything-we-s.

Mike, Peggy and Penny Seeger, American Folk Songs for Christmas, YouTube, accessed Dec. 13, 2021 https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_kbDWffsIHlp3gfHLWpjz8JzBdUy7BlDbk

Peggy Seeger, Folk Songs of Peggy Seeger: 88 Traditional Ballads and Songs. New York: Oak Publications, 1964. 16.

[Published Dec. 13, 2021]

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