DAVID MACFARLAND is the original creator of this website. His contribution to our family has been immeasurable. Here is an accounting of his original discovery and growing admiration for the Alfred Burt Christmas Carols in a message he recently sent to us.
In early January of 2009, I gave the message (like a sermon, but secular) at the Mennonite Church in Manhattan, KS. where Charlotte and I are members. It was about how discovering the Burt Carols became a life-changing experience for me. I explained how, in 1966, I had bought the Jimmy Joyce LP out of a "remainders" bin for 50 cents and originally found the music so different from what I expected on a Christmas album that I seldom played it. But then as I matured, married Charlotte, and had children, the music became integral with how we experienced Christmas--and understood life. And that getting to know Al Burt's widow Anne, and later his daughter Diane and son-in-law Nick during Anne's funeral weekend in Marquette, Michigan, was further proof that grace and beauty were very much alive in the world.
"WHILE YOU'RE MAKING OTHER PLANS–THE ALFRED BURT CHRISTMAS CAROLS"
by Dave MacFarland–January 4, 2009
||In two days, on January 6th, it will be Epiphany–the day when the Three Wise Men reached the stable in Bethlehem and finally saw the baby Jesus, the person that the Christmas star had been leading them to. The word “epiphany” literally means “a divine manifestation,” but today we say, “I'm having an epiphany”, when we're just “waking up” to a new idea. Epiphanies can happen slowly over time--or all of a sudden, in a flash of insight. Today I'm going to talk about one of each kind. |
It was the Fall of 1966. I had said goodbye to my family and my fiancé in Florida and had driven my VW Beetle to Michigan State University, where I was starting on a Ph.D program in Mass Communications. Pretty quickly I began to feel I'd made a mistake, because Michigan State's program put WAY too much emphasis on statistical analysis–which wasn't good for a guy who had squeaked through college algebra with a “D”. Of course I missed Charlotte back in Florida--and I missed FLORIDA when a brief beautiful autumn turned into early winter. In Michigan, it's common to go a week or more without seeing a lick of sunlight. I finally decided I needed to study somewhere else. That fall of 1966 was a gray time for me–with uncertainty about doctoral studies that made my future wife, her family and my family uneasy; worries about keeping my student deferment while the Vietnam war was grinding on; and cluelessness about an eventual job. The only sunshine was that Charlotte and I were in love, and planning to be married the next year. But she was a thousand miles away.
One day, trying to distract myself, I visited a record store on the edge of campus, and being a “starving college student” I headed for the “cutout” bin–-the place where they put the records that weren't moving, so they were on sale at a much lower price. And that's where, without playing it first, I bought THIS album for 50 cents, “This Is Christmas: A Complete Collection of the Alfred S. Burt Carols”.
I took it back to my small room in the graduate dorm and put it on the stereo. I was underwhelmed. These didn't sound like what I thought of as Christmas carols at all. A few of them were bright and cheerful, but most seemed downright somber. Many were in minor key, and had odd, almost jazz-like harmonies. And they were all unfamiliar. If you don't know these carols well, maybe you've had a similar reaction. As for me, oh well, I'd only wasted a half dollar. I put the album away.
But next Christmas, I played it again. By the third year, I played it more than once, and re-read the liner notes that briefly told the story of Al Burt's short life. By the time Charlotte and I had children, this record had become one of my favorites. I had experienced a very S-L-O-W epiphany about these carols. I think it took some maturity to understand that Christmas isn't always “...happy holidays...while the merry bells keep ringing...” That the beautiful, hopeful birth of Jesus leads inevitably to the horrific crucifixion of Jesus....and that only going through that terror gets you to the promise of resurrection. That ordinary people's lives aren't always sunny, either. And it required me to grow up enough to understand the truth in John Lennon's phrase that “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” Because, that was the way I had been spending those years in my twenties and thirties: missing the joy right in front of me while I prepared for the future. And the phrase was also true of Alfred Burt's life path, but in his case, it was a much shorter path than mine. Al Burt died at the same awfully young age as Jesus--just 33.
By about the mid-1990s, I had played my LP record so many times that it was beginning to wear out. I had searched everywhere for a CD of all of the carols, but none seemed to exist. I had written letters to the only address I had for Al Burt's widow, Anne, but I never heard anything. Then one day Charlotte phoned me at the office and said “You'll never guess who called! Mrs. Burt!” I couldn't have been more surprised and pleased if she had said it was Mrs. BACH! When I called Anne Burt, she told me that a CD of the carols did exist, and that her daughter Diane and Diane's husband, Nick, were now managing the business side of the carols. We talked for a long time, and eventually I invited her to come stay with us for a few days and meet with my electronic media production classes at K-State, where we would try to produce a website that could help to promote the carols. So in 1998, we had the joy of hosting Alfred Burt's widow in our home, where we recorded hours of remembrances by her, while some students who were much savvier than I am about digital media built a website from scratch. It's still operating today at http://www.alfredburtcarols.com . You can see and hear the whole story online, but I want to bring you parts of it today, along with a sampling of about half of the 15 carols.
Alfred Burt was two when his father, the Reverend Bates Burt, moved his family to Pontiac, Michigan to begin a long pastorate at All Saints Episcopal church. At the age of 10, Bates gave Al a cornet as a bribe before being hospitalized for an appendectomy. Al learned the fingering while recuperating, and the trumpet became his lifetime instrument of choice. One of the traditions Reverend Burt began during his first year in Pontiac was to produce a Burt family Christmas card to be sent to his parishioners, which included a Christmas song he had composed. He supplied the words and the music for those cards from 1926 to 1941, but as a self-taught musician, most of the tunes were unremarkable. That changed in 1942, when son Alfred graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor's in music. For the 1942 family card, Bates invited Al to write the musical setting for "Christmas Cometh Caroling." Bates Burt had discovered the text in a small book of carols by Father Andrew, an English Catholic priest. Al's hometown sweetheart (and future wife) Anne, was there the day in November when Bates reminded Al of the deadline for the printing of the card. Al hadn't yet set the lyrics to music. Al asked Anne if she minded waiting, then went to the family Steinway and in 15 minutes wrote the music that marked the beginning of a father-son team. Alfred's melody for this first carol by him is more from the jazz idiom than from church liturgy, and its almost “mournful” melody line is a strong contrast to lyrics like “and all the merry bells do ring.”
Of course, 1942 marked America's entry into World War II. Al Burt served in the Army Air Force Band. Reverend Bates Burt sent Al the lyrics for the 1943 and then the 1944 carols to wherever Al was based at the time. The 1944 carol, “What Are the Signs?” is both a reflection of the dark times of world-wide strife, and an affirmation that, as the lyric concludes, “hope comes with faith, and with love.” Al and Anne married in 1945, with Al's dad, Bates Burt, officiating. At Christmas that year, the carol, "Ah, Bleak and Chill the Wint'ry Wind" was sent with Anne's name added to the family signatures. In this carol, I think you'll hear echoes of some of the themes in “What Are the Signs?”-- especially the darkness of a world without love. But in this case, the need to express love isn't just toward your fellow man, but also to affirm your love for Jesus, especially on his birthday.
In 1948, Al's dad, the Reverend Bates Burt, died of a heart attack. Suddenly, the lyricist was gone. The 1948 carol ended up using an old English rune of hospitality, “Christ in the Stranger's Guise” as the lyric. The rune was supplied by the Reverend John Burt, who was Al's brother. In 1949, Al joined the popular Alvino Rey orchestra as a trumpet player. Pedal-steel guitarist Alvino Rey was married to one of the King Sisters, a singing group that would later be crucial in helping the carols to become known. Anne stayed in Michigan while the band traveled because Anne was expecting their first child. She asked Wihla Hutson, the organist at the Burt's church, to write a lyric for that year's carol that could also be a lullaby. “Sleep, Baby Mine” was the result. It was natural for Anne to invite Wihla to be the lyricist. Wilha had encouraged the younger Al in his composing, and she and Al had become good friends. She was like a member of the family, and many of them called her “Aunt Wihla.” Now she was half of the carol-writing team.
In 1951, Wihla Hutson's lyric to “Some Children See Him”, one of the most beloved of the Burt carols, became the Christmas card for that year. With the U.S. engaged in the Korean War--following so closely after the Second World War--the simple but moving words to this carol affirmed that children of any nationality could imagine Jesus to be like them, with the underlying message that love is more important than any claim of race or nationality. Wihla's 1952 lyric was also about children. “Come, Dear Children” reflects the happiness that Al and Anne were feeling as they and baby daughter Diane settled into their first home in California's San Fernando Valley. Anne was pregnant with a second child, and Al was in demand as an arranger and trumpeter. Life was good. “Come, Dear Children” conveys that buoyant feeling of children having fun.
In 1953, the Burt family mood changed very suddenly. At Anne's urging, Al finally went to a family doctor to discover why he was feeling constantly tired and short of breath. Al (who was a smoker) was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. In his case, radiation treatments would only be a stop-gap measure. Soon after getting that news, Anne lost the new baby she was carrying. Friends arranged for Al to have a consultation with a cancer specialist in New York City. The prognosis was not good–Al Burt had only six months to a year to live. Anne Burt re-lived that afternoon in The Big Apple in a recording I made of her reminiscences. That moment on the busy New York street, when they realized that Al would never write the great American musical–that all he could hope for as a legacy would be his carols–was the “sudden” epiphany I promised earlier. The disappointment at failing to achieve a life's goal–and then realizing that the melodies and lyrics on simple family Christmas cards–some written in as little as fifteen minutes–might be able to provide some income for his wife and daughter when Al was gone.
Back home in California, Anne recalled that “Al gave up the trumpet first, then the piano, but his creative mind was active to the end. He went from a wheelchair to a hospital bed in our bedroom. Together we worked on the music; together he and Diane shared moments to last her a lifetime; and together he and I hurried to beat the final deadline--death. Our friends in the music business, hearing of the outcome of our trip to New York, alerted James Conkling, brother-in-law of the King Sisters and president of Columbia Records, of the urgency of Al's condition. Jim wanted to record the carols. Now the wheels were put into motion. It gave Al a goal those last few months.”
Because there were only eleven carols at that point, and most of them were quite short, the record company wanted more carols to fill out the recording. Al asked Wilha Hutson to write three new lyrics, and she turned out the verses to "We'll Dress the House", "O, Hearken Ye", "Caroling, Caroling", and "The Star Carol" in no time at all. A volunteer chorus of some of the best singers in Hollywood met in a church where Al led a demonstration taping of the carols from his wheelchair. Anne recalled that, later, “In our home, over a cup of hot chocolate, Al reviewed the (tapes of the) session, thrilled at the turnout for him, the lovely voices on the tape, and the fact something he had written would be released. "This is the happiest day of my life," he remarked. There was no jealousy on my part,” Anne wrote. “Al's first love would always be music.”
For Christmas of 1953, Al and Anne chose the triumphant hymn "O Hearken Ye" as their family card. Anne later wrote, “It was chosen as much to bolster our spirits as those of our friends and family. Al was very tired; the cobalt treatment was taking its toll. But his spirit was high!” Personally, I'm just overwhelmed by this great affirmation of faith, in the face of the Burt family's dire circumstances. Al Burt died in an ambulance enroute to a hospital. Ironically, the signed contract from Columbia Records arrived by special messenger just an hour after his death. His mortal life had ended, but the life of his carols was just beginning–because they would all be recorded for the first time. Several LPs of the carols were released by Columbia Records in the mid-1950s, but they really began to gain popularity when Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded “The Star Carol” in 1958 and named the entire album after it. The Fred Waring choir recorded four of the carols a year later, and in 1960, Nat King Cole recorded “Caroling, Caroling.”
Today, there are hundreds of recordings of the carols, and they are beloved by people around the world. “The Star Carol” graced the final Burt Christmas card in 1954. The last verse of the lyrics is especially poignant to all of us who have made a place in our heart for Al Burt's music and Wihla Hutson's lyrics, and who cannot imagine Christmas without these carols: "Dear baby Jesus, how tiny thou art, I'll make a place for thee in my heart, And when the stars in the heavens I see, Ever and always I'll think of thee."