Who Sang It Best? "Mary Did You Know?"
"Mary, Did You Know?" Is a Controversial New Favorite
You don't have to be Christian or even religious to appreciate the raw emotion of this popular song's lyrics, but it certainly helps. Awestruck that Mary gave birth to Christ, the narrator asks her a series of 18 questions about whether she realized at the time the full magnitude of the miracle she was participating in:
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will someday walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you?
Most of us know that songwriters take creative license with their lyrics. However, Biblical purists still object to the song's depiction of Mary as anything less than a fully knowledgeable party.
As a result, naysayers have disparaged this song as "biblically illiterate" and "the hymn that cancels Christmas."1,2 Another critic called it "typically Protestant in sensibility... emphasizing Mary’s ordinariness rather than her extraordinariness."3 Whoa! Throwing shade over a baby Jesus song? Rather than wade into that thorny thicket, I'll just present you with the songs and let you decide for yourself.
The 1991 tune was first released by American Christian artist Michael English, and in the ensuing years, artists of multiple genres have stepped up to cover it. With so many musicians recording, "Mary, Did You Know?" perhaps you wonder, "Who sang it best?" If so, then here's your chance to compare their efforts.
"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 off the list.
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the original version of popular songs that have 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 artist's 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, with up to 14 contenders presented next in ranked order. Vote on your preferences:
- Do you prefer the original song or a cover version?
- Which of the cover versions do you prefer?
The Classic Song
"Mary, Did You Know?" by Michael English (1991)
Michael English's career in gospel music once flew high as both a solo artist and a vocalist in two Christian groups, The Gaither Vocal Band and First Call. The Southern gospel singer released this original Christmas song as a part of his 1991 debut album, and it has since become a holiday classic.
Scandal, however, brought his career to a full stop in 1994. Ironically, this was just a week after English had won four Dove awards from the Gospel Music Association (GMA) and shortly after completing a successful tour for unwed mothers. The woman English had been having an extramarital affair with was pregnant with his child. Both were married to other people.
There was an image to consider, so English publicly apologized and returned his Dove awards to the GMA in shame. He divorced and stayed out of the public eye for several years before successfully returning to gospel music several years later with the help of famous friends and fellow musicians.
Although the song itself is lovely, I found English's performance of this original Chrismas song to be guarded. I wished that he had opened up his voice to sing the song "loud and proud." Additionally, the tune's electronic vibe is retro 1990s and doesn't fit the mood conveyed by song's lyrics. There is plenty of room to improve on this modern Christmas classic!
Which version would you rather listen to -- Michael English's original song or your favorite cover version?
Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Pentatonix (2014)
The real test of whether someone can sing is to strip away the instrumentals and let them sink or swim on the simple merits of their vocals. Based on this 2014 cover version of "Mary, Did You Know?" Grammy Award-winning a capella group Pentatonix clearly deserves all the hype that surrounds them.
Pentatonix is a quintet formed in 2011, subsequently winning the third season of the NBC a cappella competition, The Sing Off. The group has since gained international prominence, particularly for covers of pop and Christmas songs. Pentatonix's music also represents a significant presence on YouTube with total views close to 3 billion.
In their cover of "Mary, Did You Know?" the musical group uses the diversity of their collective vocal ranges to emphasize that a small gathering (rather than one inquisitive narrator) is in awe of Mary and her role. Each of the five vocalists asks her their gotta-know questions. Having multiple curious narrators magnifies the sense of wonder in this cover version, particularly as contrasted to a single querying narrator.
Pentatonix's volume in the Christmas tune ranges from a hushed, empathic whisper to soaring, harmonic celebration. This variety adds emotional depth. In addition, especially pleasing are the instrumental-like vocal effects and the resplendent displays of vocal harmony. Altogether, Pentatonix's impressive performance of this new Christmas classic opens the song up to a more general audience.
2. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Peter Hollens (2016)
Unless you hang out on YouTube, you may not have heard the compelling voice of Peter Hollens, a classically trained American vocalist who has earned recognition on social media for his music covers of popular songs. Hollens has participated in NBC’s The Sing Off. He has also released EPs of his music and made a guest appearance in a Broadway show. Hollens actively publishes an extensive library of creative a capella YouTube videos.
Vocally, Peter Hollens' 2016 a capella cover of "Mary Did You Know?" is extremely sound, but it is the unusual digital portion that will make you do a double take. As the narrator, Hollens begins the Christmas song in hushed tones. Then he chimes in with background vocals. The twist, however, is that this rendition's supporting vocals are all Peter Hollens' voice, a point which is not lost on the YouTube viewer who sees that five doppelgängers narrator are sitting beside him. You'll want to watch more than once.
3. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Anthem Lights (2017)
I like the piano accompaniment and soft vocal harmonies offered by Christian boy band Anthem Lights in this 2017 version of "Mary, Did You Know?" Their voices convey the song's rich emotional texture without becoming rising so much that the narrator is overwrought. It's as if the young men questioning Mary understand that there's a sleeping infant present.
The group was formed in 2011 and was previously known as Yellow Cavalier. They have released several EPs that have performed solidly on the Christian song charts.
4. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Danny Gokey (2015)
Former American Idol contestant Danny Gokey delivers a slow, earnest treatment of "Mary, Did You Know?" in this 2015 cover of the Christmas tune. Violins provide a beautiful complement to Gokey's vocals, and although much of the song enjoys hushed tones, there are notable crescendos that include a choir-backed celebration of the Savior's birth.
Gokey's version found success on the US Christian music charts. A former church music director, he has returned to Christian and gospel music in his post-American Idol career following a period of recording country music.
5. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Voctave (featuring Mark Lowry) (2016)
Have the angels gathered themselves around Mary? In this 2016 cover version of "Mary, Did You Know?" it sounds as if that is the case. Slowly and delicately, they pepper her with questions.
Mark Lowry, co-writer of the original song, leads this gorgeous, fully expressive cover of the Christmas favorite. Lowry is an American Christian singer-songwriter and comedian, and he is joined by the lyrical force of Voctave, an 11-member a capella group. Voctave's group members have professional roots as Walt Disney World entertainers.
Lowry's lyrics for "Mary, Did You Know?" began in 1984 when he was requested to write a script for a church Christmas play. The result was a list of questions that he wished to ask Mother Mary.
By 1991, Lowry found a collaborator to add the musical score. Although he allowed fellow Gaither Vocal Band vocalist Michael English to first record this song, Lowry has released his own version of it several times over the years. This 2016 version with Voctave is especially noteworthy.
6. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Jordan Smith (2016)
Within minutes of becoming available on the iTunes store, Jordan Smith's cover of this tune became a best-seller, knocking Adele's "Hello" out of the top spot. Jordan Smith was the winner of season nine of The Voice.
Smith's rendition here receives bonus points because it's in front of a live audience. With its soaring high notes, this impressive cover conveys an inquisitive, wonderstruck narrator nearly brought to his knees with emotion regarding Mary and the newborn Prince of Peace.
7. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Mary J. Blige (2013)
It's refreshing to hear a female solo of this song, particularly when it's by someone so talented as Mary J. Blige, Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. The Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and actress treats listeners to a tender, soothing rendition of "Mary, Did You Know?"
Her cover of the song features a narrator who empathizes deeply with the experience of Jesus' mother ("Oh, Mary, Mary, Mary"). Although Blige doesn't enunciate a couple of the lyrics, the total effect of her vocal effort is convincing, as she holds no emotion back.
8. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Kathy Mattea (1993)
Known for her traditional country sound, Mattea won a Grammy for Good News, the Christmas album that her cover of "Mary, Did You Know?" appeared on. She was one of the first major artists to cover the Christian tune and bring it to a more mainstream audience.
In her 1993 country version of "Mary, Did You Know?" Kathy Mattea's voice is not too sweet but instead filled with experience and feeling, just as this song requires. The guitar instrumentals are not as effective as some of the instrumental effects used in other songs, but particularly if you appreciate traditional country music, you'll enjoy her version.
9. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Cee Lo Green (2012)
This cover of "Mary, Did You Know?" is a far cry from some of CeeLo Green's other creative endeavors. CeeLo Green is a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, record producer, and judge on NBC's The Voice.
There were points at which I struggled to hear his distinctive voice above the instrumentals. (Project your powerful voice, Cee Lo! The background music is taking center stage!) In spite of this, the 2012 tune performed well on the R&B charts. It was also used for the closing credits in the 2014 major motion picture, Son of God.
10. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Clay Aiken (2004)
Click, click, click. I could have done without the distracting finger snapping in this otherwise tender, sincere cover version. American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken doesn't take many vocal risks here, but he delivers a solid performance. One of the most successful Idol alumni, Aiken found several years of moderate success in country music then seemed to slip from the airwaves.
This cover version appeared on his Merry Christmas with Love album, the best-selling Christmas album of 2004 and best-selling Christian album of 2005.
11. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Zara Larsson (2017)
Young Swedish singer Zara Larsson lends her vocal talent to this 2017 rendition. She recorded it for the soundtrack of, The Star, a Christian computer-animated comedy film portraying the nativity.
Larsson's youthful voice meshes perfectly with the innocent questions that the narrator asks Mary. Larsson adeptly leaps from soft tones to belting it out with equal ease, and her innocent sound can help quiet critics who contend that the narrator's questions are inappropriate. Larsson can easily convince the listener that she is inquiring out of a sense of naiveté and fascination.
12. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Sanam (2014)
There aren't too many Christmas songs about the birth of the Holy Savior that feature electric guitar riffs and Eastern-influenced instrumentals. However, this cover "Mary, Did You Know?" by Sanam, hailed as India's One Direction, manages to do precisely that.
13. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Rascal Flatts (2010)
Although I'm typically the first to line up behind anything released by superstar country group Rascal Flatts, their cover of "Mary, Did You Know?" is an exception. I found the vocals to be overly nasal and wished they had more consistently hit the high notes more effectively. For a better executed Christmas song by Rascal Flatts—a group that is a perennial audience favorite among country music fans—instead try "I'll Be Home for Christmas" (2009).
14. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd (1996)
Country musician Kenny Rogers is one of the best-selling musical artists of all time. He is the winner of multiple Grammy and other prestigious awards, including a lifetime achievement award. Unfortunately, however, this rendition of "Mary, Did You Know?" is not his best work. Sadly, Rogers' voice is flat and unlively, as if he's bored with the questions he's asking Mary.
Thankfully, Wynonna significantly amps up the energy, emotional depth, and quality of the overall cover song with her richly textured vocals. (I'd love to hear a solo version from Wynonna.) Unfortunately, with so many other remarkable covers of this song, you'd probably have to be a fan of either of these artists to choose this version over the many other superior alternatives available.
Readers Weigh In
Reader Poll: Your Favorite Cover Version
So which CONTENDER do YOU think sang it best?
1Scheer, H. (2016, December 21). Why 'Mary Did You Know' Is The Most Biblically Illiterate Christmas Tune. Retrieved from http://thefederalist.com/2016/12/21/mary-know-biblically-illiterate-christmas-tune/
2Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ. (2017, June 8). The Problem With “Mary Did You Know”. Retrieved from https://aleteia.org/2015/12/09/the-problem-with-mary-did-you-know/
3Greydanus, S. D. (2015, December 24). What Did Mary Know and When Did She Know It? Retrieved from http://www.ncregister.com/blog/steven-greydanus/what-did-mary-know
Questions & Answers
© 2018 FlourishAnyway