Advent, Day 20: Of Little Lambs and Atomic Bombs

LOOK: Escape by Nicolas V. Sanchez

Sanchez, Nicolas_Escape
Nicolas V. Sanchez (Mexican American, 1983–), Escape, 2017. Oil on canvas, 61 × 76 cm.

LISTEN: “Do You Hear What I Hear” | Words by Noël Regney, 1962 | Music by Gloria Shayne, 1962 | Performed by Foreign Fields, 2016

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear?
A song, a song high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know?
In your palace warm, mighty king
Do you know what I know?
A Child, a Child shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say!
Pray for peace, people, everywhere
Listen to what I say!
The Child, the Child sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

Bing Crosby’s recording of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” from 1963 was one of the tracks on the Christmas compilation album that would be played on Christmas mornings in my house growing up. As a kid, I knew nothing of the gravitas of the carol, thinking it was only about a cute little lamb, a shepherd boy, and a humble king who go to see the newborn baby Jesus. While this is the ostensible narrative of the song, embedded in the lyrics is a fear of apocalyptic disaster, as it was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which lasted from October 16 to November 20, 1962. Involving the Soviet deployment of ballistic missiles to newly communist Cuba, which could hit much of the eastern United States in minutes (this in response to the US stationing missiles in Turkey, in range of Soviet territory), this thirty-five-day confrontation is the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear war. Though this particular crisis was averted, nuclear-related tensions and anxiety would continue to flare up for years to come.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” is by the songwriting duo Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne, who were married at the time. Regney studied at music conservatories in Strasbourg, Salzburg, and Paris, but World War II interrupted his education. Despite being a Frenchman from Alsace, he was drafted by force into the Nazi army—but he soon deserted and joined a group of French resistance fighters. He survived the war and began his music career. Touring internationally with singer Lucienne Boyer, he eventually settled in Manhattan in 1952, working for television shows as an arranger, composer, and conductor. It was in New York that he met musician Gloria Shayne, who would become his wife.

The two collaborated together on a number of original songs, but “Do You Hear” is by far their most popular. In a reversal of their usual roles, Regney wrote the lyrics and Shayne wrote the music. The song, as the writers have said in interviews, is a plea for peace amid the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation.

Released December 7, 1962, the debut recording with the Harry Simeone Chorale sold over a quarter million copies, and Crosby’s cover the following year made the song an international hit.

The song traces the passing along of the good news of the birth of a savior: the wind tells the lamb, the lamb tells the shepherd, the shepherd tells the king, and the king tells the world. These character types are common in stories about Christ’s nativity, but not all the ones in the song map directly onto the ones mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The king is neither Herod nor one of the magi, but rather an aspirational figure—a world leader who wields his power responsibly, calling all nations to the way of goodness, peace, and light represented by the infant sleeping in the cold, God incarnate. Jesus is never named as the child, but his identity can be inferred from the context.

The song is structured as a series of interrogatives: do you see a star, do you hear a song, do you know the child who shivers? The last stanza, though, is an imperative: pray for peace.

Once we recognize the world events that informed the writing of “Do You Hear,” some of the lines take on a double meaning. For example, the star with “a tail as big a kite” is not just a celestial body leading the way to the Christ child, but also a nuclear missile. The “song” that rings through the sky “with a voice as big as the sea” is, on one level, a hearty angelic choir, but on another, it’s the thunderous clap of a bomb dropping, the blast echoing out in waves. The menace, the terror, is veiled beneath sentimental language and imagery. But it’s there for those with ears to hear, beckoning us to repentance—to turn from our violence, our lust for power and supremacy, our arsenal building, and to instead embrace the peaceable kingdom of Christ.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” has been covered many, many times over its sixty years of existence. I’m partial to the cover by the electronic folk duo Foreign Fields of Nashville, consisting of Eric Hillman and Brian Holl. It eliminates the marchlike rhythm of the original as well as the choir and orchestra and, with just a guitar and solo vocals, captures well the sense of longing and lament. “He will bring us goodness” is sung six consecutive times, as if the singer is trying to convince himself of the truth of that promise, to bolster his hope through repetition.

4 thoughts on “Advent, Day 20: Of Little Lambs and Atomic Bombs

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