Was It a Lamb or an Ass?


Consider this.  About half of the covers of What Child Is This? that I have heard within the last five years have changed “ox and ass” to “ox and lamb.”  What would William Chatterton Dix think of this?  We shall never know; but in my humble and sometimes wrong opinion, it is presumptuous to arbitrarily alter a word in a 150-year-old song for fear of offending someone with the word ass.  I will grant that different hymnals often have different versions of songs.  In fact, Wikipedia lists variations on nine lines of What Child is This? based on five hymnals.  It is interesting, though, that none of those alternatives includes “ox and lamb.”

Here’s the nub.  As an erstwhile songwriter, I can’t hear that song anymore without listening closely to that line to see what the performer has chosen to do.  I can say with certainty that any good songwriter (and Mr. Dix was one) would not arbitrarily pick “ox and ass.”  He picked those words because those were the ones he wanted in the song and we may reasonably assume that he thought about using lamb somewhere in that song.  Mr. Dix knew that lambs are found in a fold, while oxen and asses are found in a stable, where the Son of God was born.

You may say that the presence of shepherds in verse one justifies the reference to a lamb in verse 2.  This is a good argument, but I would counter: First, the songwriter indicates that these two are feeding; if a lamb did follow his shepherd to the stable, it would not be his normal environment for feeding (I’ll submit my judgment there to anyone who knows more about sheep than I do).  Second, and most importantly, changing a super-classic song out of fear is simply a bad idea.

2 thoughts on “Was It a Lamb or an Ass?

  1. I should like to apply the same reasoning of changing the words of a song to changing the tune and rhythm; To change the notes mostly changes the emotion of the and the change in rhythm just shouts arrogance.of the one who takes the audacity to change it. my personal opinion.

  2. That’s a good thought. I can certainly see how a changed melody could “ruin” a song for someone, especially if the new melody was inferior. And I have definitely run into a few of those.

    Principally speaking though, I’m not trying to say that changing any lyric is wrong, just that said change was done out of fear and may have had the opposite effect as the one intended. In fact, I have run into several lyric changes that I was glad for and thought were necessary improvements.

    As to melodies, I would say that traditionally music and lyrics have not been rigidly joined. Many classic hymns and songs have been a collaboration between a lyricist and a composer; some were simply poems that a composer liked and wrote a melody for years later; some have had multiple melodies; and often a melody has been used over and over. Speaking from the songwriter’s perspective, I would not take offense to someone changing my melody or writing a new melody for my lyric. Having said that, the super-classic argument should be brought into play. It is sufficient to say that someone could get into real trouble for writing a new melody to a song like Amazing Grace (yes, this is one of those I have definitely run into). Furthermore, I have seen a well-written new melody revive a classic hymn whose melody is outdated enough that it does not lend the proper support to the lyrics anymore. In these cases, it is my private opinion that those melodies were not as well-written to begin with. This gives us motivation to write melodies that will stand the test of centuries.

    So I would boil the criteria down to the motivation behind the change, whether the change accomplishes the stated goal, and whether the new melody or lyric matches the quality of the original (notwithstanding, if the songwriter is still alive, it would be courteous to consult him).

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