Christmas Songs Post: Which Blow the Doors Off Christmas Song is Better, Kate Smith’s “I Heard the Bells” or Mahalia Jackson’s “I Wonder as I Wander”?

These are two great songs to put together! Because they are both about American history in different ways, and they both are about blasting out your hope and faith in the midst of bad times.

Kate Smith! Very famous popular singer of the 1940s and 50s in America, massive voice. A real “cover your ears, she’s gonna blow” kind of style. And when you give her the right song, it’s tingles right down to your toes. This is DEFINITELY the right song. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written by Longfellow on Christmas day, 1863. This was smack in the middle of the American Civil War. Longfellow, like most of his fellow New England writers, was firmly anti-slavery and pro-union. But his faith was tested that year because his oldest son had run off to join the army. And, three weeks before Christmas, was wounded in battle and expected to die. So Longfellow’s declaration that the bells on Christmas day restored his faith that “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail” was not a shallow feeling, he was in the darkest place a human can be at that moment and yet he managed to keep the faith. And he was right! The Union won the war and, on a personal level, his son managed to recover and survive against all odds. You put that strong pure feeling together with Kate Smith’s voice, and you’ve really got something.

Mahalia Jackson! Another part of American history. She was born in New Orleans and came to Chicago as a young woman as part of the Great Migration. She was raised singing in churches in New Orleans and, after arriving in Chicago, the Chicago gospel community quickly realized she was something special. She became the most popular gospel singer of all time, sang for royalty and presidents, and the voice and soul of the American 1960s Civil Rights movement. She refused to sing popular music her whole career, said that her voice was only for God. And this song is perfect for that. It’s not a Gospel song, it’s a folk song. A folklorist, John Niles, heard a young girl sing it in a church in Appalachia, just a few lines. He expanded that and made it into a short simple song. Jackson was one of many to record it, but I think her version is something special, the combination of an Appalachia folk song with a powerful Gospel voice, and powerful faith.

Have you listened to them both? Am I right, tingles right down to your toes? Which is your favorite?

6 thoughts on “Christmas Songs Post: Which Blow the Doors Off Christmas Song is Better, Kate Smith’s “I Heard the Bells” or Mahalia Jackson’s “I Wonder as I Wander”?

      • Reminded me: there’s a scene in Jacob Have I Loved, a book that stuck with me as a young person, where the infuriatingly perfect sister sings this as a haunting solo and it’s this moment of pure beauty that I always aspired to and never attained.

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