Who Sang It Best? "Away in a Manger (Luther's Cradle Song)"
Will the Real Writer Stand Up?
It's hard to celebrate Christmas without hearing the ubiquitous hymn, "Away in a Manger." Most of us learned this simple, elegant song as a child, and even if you're not religious, you probably know the words. Many of us also recognize it by its alternative title, "Luther's Cradle Song."
But here's the thing: German religious reformer Martin Luther did not, in fact, write this Christmas carol, and we're not entirely sure who really did. For generations, "Away in a Manger" was believed to have been written by Luther for his own children, then was made popular by German mothers. However, no one has ever identified an original German version by Luther. In actuality, "Away in a Manger" appears instead to be a rather recent—and entirely American—invention.
According to modern research, between 1882-1884, an unidentified contributor(s) to multiple religious periodicals submitted the first two stanzas and a description crediting the song to Luther. The first two stanzas depict the infant Christ child asleep on the hay in the manger. The newborn then rouses but doesn't cry after hearing the mooing of the cows. The general source of the spuriously attributed song is now thought to be German Lutherans in Pennsylvania.
A third verse subsequently found its way into print in 1892. The verse takes the form of a prayer requesting that God bless the children and protect the song narrator. The verse's authorship was ascribed to John Thomas McFarland, a Methodist minister who allegedly sought to use the song at a children's church program. Some researchers believe instead that prolific gospel songwriter Charles H. Gabriel penned the last stanza. No one truly knows.
Although there are 41 or more alternative melodies for "Away in a Manger," the tune that remains most popular today was written by William James Kirkpatrick in 1895. At least we do know that.
If you're a fan of this spiritual song, you may have strong opinions about how it should be executed. Suspend judgment for a few minutes while you listen to a variety of approaches, artists, and genres. I guarantee there are some versions here that will surprise you. Then, weigh in and tell us who you think sang it best!
"Who Sang It Best?": Here's How It Works
With many artists singing the same Christmas tunes, the sleigh has become overloaded. Let's rank them and cross some versions off the list.
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with either a traditional choir rendition or the original, recorded version of a popular Christmas song that has been covered multiple times. Then we present a set of contenders—artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover versions honor the original style while others are reinterpretations.
Since the original song version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. Instead, we display it first for comparison, then present up to 14 contenders in ranked order. Vote on your preferences:
Do you prefer the traditional choir version of the song or a cover by a popular artist?
Of all the cover versions, which you prefer?
The Traditional Song
Traditional Choir Version
"Away in a Manger" by Libera (2013)
Soft and otherworldly, these voices dance through the lyrics with promise—at first. However, this boy choir opts for some unusual vocal inflections that give the reverent Christmas carol a sing-song quality. After awhile, sing-song feels like an artist (or choir) is just mailing it in. Ultimately this detracts from the religious ambiance. The singers also don't enunciate crisply in the middle of the song, resulting in a vocal mush. It's lovely sounding mush, but they might as well be singing "ah-ah-ah." This choir sounds like they've sung this favorite Christmas song a thousand times too many.
Libera is a London-based choir of approximately 40 men and boys, aged seven to sixteen. The boys each have unchanged boy soprano voices, and many are associated with the St. Philip's Anglican church choir.
Which version would you rather listen to -- a traditional choir version or your favorite cover version by a popular artist?
Popular Artists' Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "Away in a Manger" by Casting Crowns (2005)
The birth of the newborn Christ child is reason for warm celebration in this version of "Away in a Manger" by Grammy Award-winning contemporary Christian/rock band, Casting Crowns. Conveying simple reverence for the miracle of His birth, the group adeptly rotates solo, duet and group performances. The effect is heavenly.
Modifying the lyrics, Casting Crowns opts for "and fit us for heaven" instead of the original line, "take us to heaven." Then the group loops back to repeat the first stanza of the song before adding the following stanza:
The Lord of all creation
Laid down His sweet head
The Savior of the nation
Laid down his sweet head ... .
2. "Away in a Manger" by Martina McBride (1998)
Blessed with a cherubic voice, country songbird Martina McBride delivers this sweet version of "Away in a Manger" that describes newborn Jesus as a "poor baby" who wakes from the mooing (or lowing) of the cows. McBride is regarded as the "Celine Dion of Country Music" for her soprano range and pop crossover success. Although her pristine voice is strong enough on its own, in this tune, the chorus unfortunately detracts from the display of her talent rather than complementing it. She would be better served by dropping the chorus and letting her large voice fill the entire stage.
3. "Away in a Manger" by Third Day (2006)
Contemporary Christian band Third Day emotionally leans into the spiritually meaningful holiday song, and in so doing provide this memorable performance with Southern rock overtones. The Grammy Award-winning group recorded their version live. You can hear the audience applause and then join in toward the song's conclusion. The loud and energetic piano accompaniment attempted to eclipse the lead singer at points, but ultimately, he was feeling the manger scene too powerfully to be overshadowed.
Third Day scored approximately two dozen number one hits on the Billboard Christian charts over music their career lasting more than 25 years. They disbanded in 2018.
4. "Away in a Manger" by John Denver (1975)
Grammy Award-winning folk singer John Denver captures the serenity and simple miracle of Jesus' birth in this impressive cover. His distinctively mellow vocals appear against a backdrop of gentle chiming that one could image are twinkling stars. Denver infuses the lyrics with heartfelt emotion, lovingly depicting the manger scene, expressing his faith, then repeating the first stanza. His version is a humble, hope-filled celebration of baby Jesus' arrival.
Denver was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame Award in 1996. He died the following year when the experimental aircraft he was piloting crashed.
5. "Away in a Manger" by Anne Murray (1981)
With a voice that has been called a Canadian national treasure, Anne Murray offers a warm, poignant version of this classic Christmas song. Her distinctive, richly textured vocals float through the lyrics. She is so effective at communicating the quiet, gentle setting of Jesus in the manger that one barely notices the slight sing-song characteristic she flirts with throughout.
Billboard named the Canadian pop, country, and adult contemporary artist to their list of the 50 Biggest Adult Contemporary Artists Ever. Murray earned Grammy Awards and released 47 albums over her four-decade career in music. In addition, she paved the way for female Canadian singers such as Celine Dion and Shania Twain to become crossover successes in America.
6. "Away in a Manger" by Nat King Cole (1960)
Nostalgia looms large in this rendition of "Away in a Manger," as Nat King Cole's sublime vocals gently lull both the listener and newborn baby Jesus. The quaint chiming of an angelic chorus adds the aura of yesteryear. However, the song also includes some unusual intonations and introduces a vibe that is unfittingly ghost-like for a Christmas carol. If Cole had used a different chorus, he could have made this Christmas number as memorable as his versions of "Frosty the Snowman" or "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)," two Christmas songs that climbed to the Billboard Top 10.
Over his career spanning more than two decades, Cole released in excess of 100 songs that became hits on the Billboard Top 40 mainstream pop and/or R&B charts. He was also inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Jazz Hall of Fame. Multitalented, Cole became the first African American male to host a television show, The Nat King Cole Show.
7. "Away in a Manger" by Pentatonix (2016)
One challenge of singing a capella is that you have to figure out how to duplicate the effect of instruments or simply rely on the voice entirely. Pentatonix opted for a boatload of la da da da's plus knee slaps, finger snaps, and rapid hand rubbing. The result was as awkward as it sounds.
Right out of the gate with their prominent knee slaps, I wondered who was getting spanked or smacked, and the question only slightly subsided as the song progressed. These filler sounds detracted from the group's superb harmonies as well as the tune's spiritual message. In addition, if you watch the song's corresponding video, be prepared to be visually distracted by the inexplicable bathtub and couch in the middle of the woods and the most ginormous earrings ever.
Pentatonix interpreted the classic Christmas carol using an unusually buoyant emotional tone, but it actually works given the holy miracle that has taken place. (Perhaps they could afford to dial down the levity some so that the baby Jesus could sleep?) However, they gallop through their lyrics at a pace too quick for this song, as if they're in a race for the finish line. Then they loop back to repeat the first stanza. It's all just a bit "extra" for this plain Christmas carol.
Formed in 2011, Pentatonix is an a capella quintet that won the third season of NBC's talent competition, The Sing-Off. The group has won several Grammy Awards and boasts billions of views on YouTube. If you enjoy their a capella singing with strong harmonies, I recommend "Mary Did You Know?"
8. "Away in a Manger" by Alan Jackson (2002)
Alan Jackson is a living legend in country music, and his performance in this rendition of "Away in a Manger" represents a solid effort representative of his significant talent. The popular neotraditional country singer begins the tune with a deferential tone against a minimalist instrumental backdrop. Then he joyfully climbs higher in celebration of the Redeemer's birth as the background music grows more complex. Jackson's Georgia accent resists hiding behind the baritone vocals that he is known for. You don't have to be a fan of country music to appreciate this unpretentious yet jubilant rendition.
Over Jackson's career spanning almost four decades, he has earned two Grammy Awards and has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grand Ole Opry, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
9. "Away in a Manger" by Lauren Daigle (2016)
Lauren Daigle has been favorably compared to Amy Winehouse and dubbed "the Christian Adele." Her distinctively husky voice became widely recognizable as a result of her global 2018 hit, "You Say." It was a crossover success on the Christian, mainstream pop, and adult contemporary charts.
As talented as the young artist is, however, some songs just don't work well with certain vocal sounds. In delivering this cover of "Away in a Manger," Daigle's voice comes across less as the soulful "new Adele" and more as if she has a hoarse, scratchy throat from screaming. She tends to deliver this faith-based Christmas carol with an uninspired sing-song cadence that conveys as much meaning as the recitation of a standard lullaby or one's ABCs. Good artists can't be expected to nail every song, and hers is an okayish version.
10. "Away in a Manger" by Home Free (2015)
This a capella rendition by Home Free offers a modest and haunting version of "Away Manger" featuring soft vocals. Although they offer pleasing harmonies, Home Free lacks the vocal pizazz of other artists, such as Pentatonix. Their cover is low key and worshipful, avoiding over-the-top beatboxing and loud filler sounds that might distract from the hymn's religious message. The quintet was formed in 2000 but attracted national attention in 2013 when they won the fourth season of NBC's The Sing-Off.
11. "Away in a Manger" by Faith Hill (2008)
The infant Jesus deserved better than this languid version to commemorate His welcome to the world. The ditty begins with a fiddle solo that feels perplexingly ominous, and the instrumentals throughout the song are more country-sounding than are Faith Hill's vocals. (Thank the banjo for that. A little banjo goes a long way in any song.)
The country star's voice traipses through the lyrics in slow motion, and she fails to convey the miraculous nature of the Christ's birth—it has changed mankind forever. It would be one thing if this effort is all Hill was capable of, but the country star has achieved international crossover success on the mainstream pop and adult contemporary charts, plus she has snagged several Grammy Awards. This is simply not her best work.
12. "Away in a Manger" by Susan Boyle (2010)
Susan Boyle needs to step closer to the microphone and dial up the awe factor in this 2010 version of "Away in a Manger." The Scottish songstress found sudden fame in 2009 when she won series three of Britain's Got Talent with "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Misérables. However, her performance is not as impressive on this song from her first holiday album.
Boyle's rendition is underwhelming. As lovely as her voice is, it sounds far away during the first portion of this Christmas carol, as if she is singing in a tunnel. Because Boyle's enunciation is warbled rather than crisp, I found it difficult to discern her words. Additionally, her version lacks the requisite emotion one would expect to be associated with saluting the birth of the son of God.
Boyle was bullied in school growing up because of what she believed to be a learning disability. As an adult, she was diagnosed instead with Asperger's syndrome. In recent years, she has also been targeted by a group of local teens who bullied her by pelting her with insults, stones, and paper that was lit on fire.
13. "Away in a Manger" by Earth, Wind & Fire (2014)
Whoa! Here's a sensory overload you probably didn't anticipate. Earth, Wind & Fire breathe so much energy and volume into this song that they're not only gonna wake the baby but also everybody else in the barn.
Perhaps you thought Earth, Wind & Fire was a 1970s group resting on their laurels. Maybe you thought they would retire and fade away after being named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Then they went and released a Christmas album in 2014 that included this jolting, re-imagined version of "Away in a Manger."
No one could truly be ready for a cross between "Away in a Manger" and an upbeat combination of disco, soul, and R&B. Un-freaking-forgettable. At some points, there are sexy slow dance overtones while at other points the ditty is more appropriately church-going. Earth, Wind & Fire is known for both its horn section and the eclectic genres of music that it plays. In this three-minute holiday tune, they try to give the audience just about everything. Although the soaring vocals are gorgeously attention-grabbing, the whole effect is simply too over-the-top for this religiously themed song.
14. "Away in a Manger" by Kenny Chesney (2012)
Awww, please no. Could we pretend this didn't happen? There's pickin' and grinning as well as knee-slapping in this twangy country cover. Applying a homespun style to "Away in a Manger" is a surprise but not in a good way (and I like country music). It's as if Kenny Chesney wants to have a hoe down in honor of the baby J. The song's tempo is quick and the mood is joyful, so you might as well slip on your Wranglers and cowboy boots so you can two-step properly to this Christmas number.
Readers Weigh In
Reader Poll: Your Favorite Cover Version
So which CONTENDER do YOU think sang it best?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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