More Stories Behind The Best-Loved Songs Of Christmas
The publisher only had room for thirty-one stories in Stories Behind The Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. I had researched and written a lot more than that and hated to see some of my favorite songs get cut. Thanks to readers' demands, I had the chance to include those stories and a lot more in this the third in the Christmas series. I really love the stories behind carols like The Hallelujah Chorus, The Coventry Carol and Carol of the Bells, as well as secular classics such as Here Comes Santa Claus, We Need A Little Christmas and If Every Day Was Like Christmas. Yet the chapter I picked for this book is the story behind one of the most beautiful and touching of the modern American classics — The Star Carol. If you read it, you will likely be awed by the story of the man who wrote it.
The Star Carol
On February 5, 1954, Alfred Burt sensed the end was coming. Though just thirty-three years old, Burt was in the final hours of his fight with cancer. In spite of the fact the horrific illness had robbed him of his energy and strength and left him in agonizing pain, the gentle man resolutely turned his attention to the final song he would ever compose. With a grim determination he took another look at the musical score he had written for Wihla Huston’s lyrics. It seemed right, but he wasn’t sure. Too weak to press the keys of the piano that sat before him, Burt patiently waited for the arrival of his friend, musical arranger Jimmy Joyce.
For more than ten months Al had fought cancer with every fiber of his being. He had suffered through countless cobalt treatments and helplessly watched as the disease ate away at his body. He had dealt with the panic brought on by having to fight for each breath as the cancer invaded his lungs. He had seen the horror on friends’ faces as they viewed his deterioration. He had heard the whispered predictions that he would not live to see Thanksgiving or Christmas, and yet remarkably he had made it through those two holidays and beyond.
Two things had driven him to struggle for every extra moment of life. The first was his daughter, a child too young to understand what was happening to him. He desperately wanted Diane to remember him in a positive way and remember her childhood as a happy one. He wanted to make such a dynamic impression on the little girl that whenever she thought of her father it would be with a smile. Thus, in the face of great agony, he spent time with his only child. He listened to her stories, smiled at her jokes and found ways to make her laugh.
The other thing driving the man to fight through each day was a need to finish composing four songs. That was how many Columbia records needed to release an album of his Christmas music. So, even a month and a half after Christmas, Burt pushed on, trying to put the spirit of all the holidays he would miss into this last project.
Wihla Huston, who had been a musical mentor to him since youth had carefully crafted four sets of lyrics. Each was unique and reflected a different facet of how Al viewed the holidays. Because of Burt’s positive nature, each of the new songs was uplifting, with the verses flowing together in ways that were bright and happy. Thus, just reading over Huston’s words lifted the very tired man’s spirit. Yet even the spiritual message found in Wihla’s contribution could not push back the inevitable end that was coming.
Death had now begun to etch its portrait into Al’s face. His skin was now drawn, his color almost ashen, his lips had become tinted with a gray like cast. Yet as he again reviewed his arrangement, his eyes still possessed an energy and expression that fought against death’s clutches. He had work to do, a goal to reach and an appointment to keep. He had to finish the song that would become the last one ever placed on a Burt family Christmas card.
Over the past few months Al had penned the music for “O Harken Ye,” “We’ll Dress The House,” and “Caroling, Caroling.” Now, as he studied the notes he had scribbled on the line and staffs in front of him, he believed his work was almost finished. Yet he would have to hear Jimmy play it before he would know for sure. Burt was still carefully reviewing one segment of his new carol when Joyce finally walked into the room.
Jimmy had visited Al daily for some weeks now, trying to take care of any needs that Burt, his wife Anne, or their small daughter, Diane, might have. But in spite of the fact it had been less than twenty-four hours since he had last seen him, the close friend was still shocked by how much the frail man’s condition had deteriorated. He looked a decade older and much weaker. Yet as their eyes met, Joyce realized his old friend was still inside that feeble body. Even in the midst of life’s last throes, Burt’s zest for living still somehow hung on.
Al pushed the arrangement to his new song toward Jimmy. No words were exchanged as the musician picked it up and walked over to the piano. As Joyce sat down, Anne Burt studied her husband’s anxious expression. She sensed he wanted to hear the song even more than she did. He had to know if his musical creation lived up to the incredible lyrics Wihla had written for him.
Joyce glanced over the score and then began to play. Suddenly a deeply moving melody filled the room with the joy of all the future Christmases Al would never know. Huston’s spiritual message had been wrapped in a musical package as hauntingly simple but strikingly beautiful as “Silent Night.” It was timeless, perfectly capturing the glorious mood of the first Christmas, as well as the eternal spirit that should be a part of every holiday season. When Jimmy finished the final notes of “The Star Carol,” the room was hushed.
“It’s beautiful,” Anne finally sighed, tears filling her eyes.
“The most perfect thing you have ever written,” echoed Jimmy.
Yet even as those two celebrated the new composition, Al shook his head. It didn’t sound quite right to him. So be with a lifted hand, he halted the praise and asked Joyce to replay the number.
“At that time,” Diane explained, “my dad was a physical wreck. Yet in spite of that he was still very particular about his music. Jimmy played it through and Jimmy told him again it was perfect. But my Dad felt something was not right.”
Al asked for the music. Taking the sheet into his thin fingers, he picked up a pencil and changed one note in the tenor harmonization. He then handed it back to Joyce and waited to hear it played one more time. After Jimmy had finished, he and Anne looked anxiously toward Burt.
“Now,” he sighed, “it is finished.”
Long after the piano had grown silent and Joyce had left, the strains of “The Star Carol” still filled the Burt home. From its beginning line, “Long years ago on a deep winter night,” to its closing, “And when the stars in the heavens I see, ever and always I’ll think of Thee,” even in the midst of February, the message of the perfect Christmas rang throughout the house.
Later that night, Al found the strength to eat supper, watch a few cartoons with Diane and then see the little girl off to bed. An hour later he sat in his wheelchair, lost in thought when Anne appeared before him. She had made one of Al’s favorite Christmas treats, hot chocolate and strawberry short cake. Silently he sipped on the cocoa and took a few bites of the dessert. As she looked over at her husband, the woman knew that he had accomplished what he had to do. The race was over.
Overcome with grief, Anne excused herself and rushed outside. Alone in the yard, she looked up and found herself under the most incredible star filled night sky she had ever seen. No matter which way she looked, it seemed every one of heaven’s lights was shining directly upon their home. Inspired by the display, Anne returned to Al’s side.
“Anne,” he said as she sat down before him, “will you do two things for me?”
The woman nodded her head.
“Take care of our daughter and please take care of my music.”
The next morning, less than twelve hours after hearing his last carol for a final time, Al died. In the ultimate irony, a messenger from Columbia Records arrived at the Burt home a few minutes later with a signed contract to produce an album of Al’s carols.
For every Christmas since 1922, the Burt Family had mailed to friends and family an original carol printed on the front of the card. The first twenty years the songs had been penned by the family patriarch, Bates Burt. In 1942, just before he entered the U.S. Army Air Force, Al took over that creative element. The younger Burt’s first contribution was “O Christmas Cometh Caroling,” “The Star Carol” would be the song that put an end to the tradition.
“It was the most beautiful of all the cards,” Diane recalled. “Columbia Records gave my Mom the picture for the front. It really looked like me. Columbia printed the cards and used them as an announcement for the new album, ‘The Christmas Mood.’ The song that framed the card was my dad’s final work, ‘The Star Carol.’ It was my Mom’s and my way of sharing Dad’s work and his life one more time.”
“The Christmas Mood” did not make a big splash in the music world. There were simply too many new musical holiday offerings for Burt’s carols to gain any airplay. Plus few wanted to push songs written by someone who had just died. And though she had promised to take care of his music, that included Anne Burt.
“Dad didn’t know if anyone would buy the record,” Diane remembered, “he just wanted it out. He needed that to happen to complete his life. At that time, the last thing Mom wanted was to open up her life to the world. So she didn’t want the carols to become well known because she didn’t want to talk about Dad’s death from cancer. And she knew that is what people would dwell on. She just wanted people to listen to the music for the music. At that time she was willing to put them in a drawer and bring them out at Christmas for family and leave them at that.”
Yet even though “The Christmas Mood” did not sell well in 1954, the songs were too special to simply fade away. Buddy Cole, the producer who put the finishing notes on the album, was one who would not let the world forget Al Burt and his music. Though Cole had already established himself as one of the best known musicians in Hollywood, the impact Al had made on his life pushed him to use his contacts to keep the carols in front of the world. Realizing the great spiritual impact found within the songs’ lyrics and arrangements, four years after Al’s death, Buddy took what he viewed as the most dynamic of the Burt carols to one of the most beloved stars of early television, Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Unlike many of the popular music artists of the era, Ford was not afraid of recording music with great spiritual overtones. Though he had started his career as a comedian and scored a monster hit with “Sixteen Tons,” Ernie’s gospel recordings had become the centerpiece of his career. Thus, when he heard Burt’s “The Star Carol” for the first time, the deep impact of the song’s Biblical message, combined with the song’s most beautiful melody, touched Ford as no other carol ever had. He sensed the song was an answer to his prayer to put more of Christ back into the American Christmas.
On October 20, 1958, Capital Records released Ford’s first album of holiday classics. Every cut on the new record reflected the Biblical story of Jesus. Along with such historic carols as “Silent Night” and “O Little Town Of Bethlehem,” Ernie added three contemporary cuts. Burt’s “O Harken Ye,” “Some Children See Him,” and “The Star Carol.”
Capital was so awed by Ford’s performance of Burt’s “The Star Carol,” the label made the carol the new album’s title cut. Just as it was being released to radio and in stores, Ford introduced it on his network television show.
“We had been told that Ernie was going to sing it that night,” Diane remembered, “and Buddy Cole had invited us to his house to watch the show. My mother was deeply moved by Ernie’s performance. Immediately after hearing it, she sent Ernie a telegram that said, ‘Thank you and bless your little carol pickin’ heart.’ This was of course due to Ernie’s catch saying, “Bless your little pea-pickin’ heart.”
Ford’s “The Star Carol” became one of the most requested songs of the new Christmas season. It remained Ernie’s signature holiday number for the remainder of his life.
The release and acceptance of “The Star Carol” changed Anne’s perception of her husband’s legacy. Whereas she had once been content for his carols to be an important element of the Burt family Christmas, now she understood how much they could mean to the whole world. Ford cutting the carol and making it a holiday hit, also caused the woman to appreciate that one of Al’s personal dreams was being realized. He was now recognized by the industry he wanted so badly to be a part of.
Few songs have ever captured the meaning of the season like “The Star Carol” carol has. And though the lyrics are obviously inspired, it is the music which carries this song, sets its tone and has made it so popular with both recording artists and the public. That is why scores of recording artists, plus thousands of churches around the world, have embraced Al’s final carol.
February 5, 1954, was a day when for most the only reminders of Christmas could be found in the arrival of some holiday bills. Though it would also be the last day of Al Burt’s life, it was Christmas one more time at his home. And what a final Christmas day it was! Thanks to this composer’s drive to finish a song, the world took a second look at the meaning of a star that once shown brightly over a manger in Bethlehem. Bathed in the spotlight of that star was not just the subject of Burt’s last carol, but the Lord who inspired and shaped each day of Al’s life. “The Star Carol” was finished on the final day Al Burt’s life, but it paved the way for the man’s gifts of faith to be shared with the whole world each Christmas season.