Little Donkey - how Sunderland composer Eric Boswell created a global Christmas hit

There are two interesting facts about this Christmas carol that you may not have known.

Thursday, 23rd December 2021, 4:55 am

Little Donkey has only been around since 1959. It’s such a mainstay of nativity plays around the world that people wrongly assume that it’s much older.

The second fact is that its writer was from Sunderland. Here’s a potted history of Eric Boswell.

Born Eric Simpson in 1921 in Millfield, he published songs as Eric Boswell and, following the success of Little Donkey, formally changed his name by deed poll. His father was a tailor, his mother a seamstress.

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Little Donkey was sung by the pupils of St Joseph's Primary in Millfield, where Eric Boswell was born, in their critically acclaimed 1975 Nativity play. Picture by Ken Parker.

Aged seven he began music lessons and studied under Clifford Hartley, choirmaster and organist of Bishopwearmouth church, now Sunderland Minster. Eric later became Bishopwearmouth’s organist himself.

He was also a highly qualified physicist, attaining a degree in electrical engineering at Sunderland Technical College, now part of the university.

He joined the Marconi company in Chelmsford during World War Two. Post-war he found more time for music, composing classical and light pieces.

In 1959 he decided to write a Christmas song.

He later said: “I racked my brains to think of aspects of the Christmas story that hadn't been sung about and came up with the idea of the donkey riding into Bethlehem.”

Thus came Little Donkey, describing the arduous journey to Bethlehem of the unnamed donkey carrying the heavily pregnant Mary.

The theme is perseverance. “Got to keep on plodding onwards with your precious load.” Eric had to persevere with the song.

An early recording was by Gracie Fields. Little Donkey originally had a complex tune requiring a decent vocal range. But this proved too much for the Rochdale squawker, who could barely manage more than one octave.

So the song was simplified, helping make it a favourite in schools in several languages (Eric’s favourite version was by a French choir). Both Gracie and the Beverley Sisters made the UK top 20 with their respective versions in 1959.

The biggest hit with the song was by the Danish-Dutch husband and wife duo Nina & Frederik, reaching number three in 1960. it woul later be covered by Vera Lynne, Cerys Matthews, Aled Jones, St Winifred’s School Choir and Patti Page among others.

Eric later wrote songs for Matt Monroe and Ricky Valance. But the Beatles phenomena led to performers writing their own songs; and less demand for Tin Pan Alley type composers.

But he still had further musical successes. The main part of his considerable output was songs of a comedy-folk variety.

He was commissioned to write a song especially for US President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Washington in 1976. He wrote comedy songs for live shows starring Mike Neville and George House.

In the 1980s he turned Catherine Cookson’s Katie Mulholland into a musical. In the 1990s he even wrote one of the first songs about global warming.

But all this was overshadowed by his internationally famous Christmas smash.

Eric Boswell had mixed feelings about Little Donkey. By far his best known song, it paid a few bills too. But he would have preferred to be remembered more for his comedy songs.

He spent his last years in Northumberland. Widowed twice, he died in Hexham in 2009 aged 88 leaving three sons.

But this Mackem’s seasonal contribution will be around for some time yet.

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