Christmas carols. I love to sing them. I love to hear them. In some way, even more, I love to learn about when and how these seasonal favorites were conceived and born into our world.
Last year, I wrote a series of four articles about some beloved Christmas songs and their origins (i.e. Good King Wenceslaus, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Silent Night and Handel’s Messiah). Since then, I have been collecting articles and bookmarking websites for a similar, 2013 behind-the-scenes look at even more beloved Christmas tunes and songs.
It may surprise you to learn that one of the most famous, modern Christmas songs which can be heard on radio stations throughout December, was written right here in good old Lynchburg, Virginia? The song is none other than the popular reflection, Mary Did You Know?
In 1970, Thomas Road Baptist Church began a Broadway-style Christmas program that, for decades, was known as The Living Christmas Tree. The TRBC choir would stand, like live ornaments in a large tree-shaped loft and fill the auditorium with the beautiful sounds of Christmas. Today, the program is known as the Virginia Christmas Spectacular.
In 1984, as preparations were being made for that year’s Living Christmas Tree, Dr. Jerry Falwell asked one of his church members to write the program. The virtually unknown singer-songwriter was none other than Mark Lowry.
In his efforts to write a memorable Living Christmas Tree program, Lowry took popular Christmas carols and hymns and interspersed them with play-like dialogue. While he was struggling to capture the wonder and amazement of that first Christmas, it was his mother, Bev, who gave him the spark of that original idea. In a casual conversation, one day, she simply commented to Mark, “You know, if anyone knew [Jesus] was virgin born, it was Mary…and her silence at the cross is proof, I think, that her story was indeed true.”
That simple observation, from his own mother, unleashed a torrent of questions and thoughts in Lowry’s mind about Jesus’ mother. In his own words, Lowry remembers the song’s beginnings like this:
Lowry pitched the lyrics to a gospel music songwriter, Buddy Greene. Greene was well-known as an expert harmonica player but also as a staple of the Southern Gospel music scene. He had an ear for timeless tunes. According to Lowry, he shared the song idea with Greene while riding cross-country in a tour bus. He wrote the lyrics down on a piece of paper and gave them to Greene on a weekend.
Monday morning, Lowry’s phone rang. It was Buddy. In just about 30 minutes time, he had crafted a tune, which he sang to Mark over the phone, that fit the lyrics perfectly. As soon as he heard it, Lowry was hooked and began to make plans to produce the song.
By this time, in 1991, Lowry was singing and touring with The Gaither Vocal Band full-time. He felt like the song was too “rangy” for his personal abilities but had one singer in mind to record it: Michael English. English’s debut album, which featured the song, had a seasonally unfortunate release date of January 1, 1992. Though it made its first appearance after Christmas, the song was an instant hit that insured its longevity.
Since English debuted the song, it has been recorded by over 500 artists, both secular and Christian. The most famous versions, to date, are the Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd duet as well as the more recent recording by Clay Aiken.
After it became a nation-wide hit, Lowry was humbled about the song by Gloria Gaither in a most humorous way. She pointed out to him that, based on the verses, the chorus is grammatically incorrect. Gaither suggested to Lowry, “It should be written, ‘Mary DO you know’?” To which Mark promptly replied, “Well, my way sings a lot better.” The joking critique was short-lived while the song has endured.
For years, Lowry refused to sing the song, publicly, thinking it was beyond his ability and musical comfort zone. However, one night during a Gaither concert in Detroit, an audience member yelled out, “Mark – Sing ‘Mary Did You Know’!” Lowry kindly refused, “Well, I don’t sing that,” to which the crowd responded with cheers and chants encouraging him to try. Lowry indulged the audience with an impromptu, a’cappella rendition. “Since then,” Lowry said, “I’ve sung it every night.”
While so many modern Christmas songs focus on “the season,” Lowry’s timeless work is a refreshing reminder of its “reason.” Surely, there are many things which Mary did not know. Yet, in her own song, Mary did, at least, know this:
(My thanks to this interview.)