I clearly remember the first time I heard this song. I was about six years old, and we had just gotten the Goodyear album “The Great Songs of Christmas” volume 6. The album had recordings of Christmas music from many popular artists, but the one that impressed me most was Andy William’s rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” I’d never heard it before, and fell in love with the song. I vaguely remember singing it all the time.
According to that most trusted of online resources, Wikipedia, the song was written in 1962 by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne as a plea for peace right after the Cuban Missle Crisis. The Harry Simeone Chorale first recorded the song, but it really took off with a Bing Crosby recording in 1963.
Alas, after decades of musical training, and after years of hearing it solely in shopping malls, my artistic snobbery kicked in, and the song fell to the bottom of my list. I got so that I couldn’t stand to listen to it. The lyrics seemed trite, and the music monotonous, repetitious, and a bit overly bombastic and earnest.
Speaking of the lyrics, I always found them confusing. I think the phrase that gave me problems was the following:
In your palace warm, mighty king,
do you know what I know
A Child, a Child shivers in the cold
It was a problem with misplaced modifiers. Was it the king, or the Child this the palace warm? For some reason I always misunderstood, and wondered why a child would be shivering in the cold if it was in a palace warm. Regardless, it bothered me enough to dismiss the song.
However, apart from the melody, the song contains many of the classic elements of a carol. There are conversations and reactions between characters involved in the story, all leading up to an acknowledgement of the Christmas Child. Many of the carols in The Oxford Book of Carols and other collections follow a similar pattern, often attributing non-canon powers to the Christ Child and other characters. For example, one says Joseph was a very old man and “Silent Night states that, “The little Lord Jesus, No Crying He Makes.”
Although it’s still not one of my favorite songs, I’ve reconciled myself to “Do You Hear What I Hear”, with understanding of the song in the larger context of musical history. So, here is the original version of the song that first caught my attention, as performed by the inimitable Andy Williams: