Wihla Hutson

Wihla Hutson was born in 1901 in East Gary, Indiana. She was an only child. The family moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1913. Her education was in the public schools, but she had a private tutor for piano and organ. Wihla studied at the Detroit Conservatory of Music, and was a graduate of the College of the City of Detroit, now Wayne State University. When Wihla’s father died, Wihla stayed with her mother and worked in the Diocesan office of the Episcopal Church. She did not marry.


In 1929, when she was 28 years old, Wihla became the organist at All Saints Church in Pontiac, Michigan, about 25 miles from Detroit. The pastor at All Saints was the Rev. Bates Burt, Alfred Burt’s father. Wihla retained her residence in Detroit, and drove from there to Pontiac for music rehearsals and services. However, when weather was poor, and at Christmas (when there was both a Christmas Eve service and a morning prayer service), she stayed at the rectory with the Burt family. In so doing, she became like a member of the family, many of whom called her “Aunt Wihla.” She and her mother enjoyed vacations with the Burts at their summer home in Marquette, Michigan.


At his father’s invitation, Al Burt began writing the music for the Burt family Christmas cards in 1942, with Bates continuing to supply the lyrics. (From 1922 to 1941, Rev. Bates Burt had produced both the words and the music). The new collaboration ended in 1948, when Bates Burt died of a heart attack. Al used an old English rune of hospitality, “Christ in the Stranger’s Guise,” for the lyric that year. The rune was supplied by the Reverend John Burt, Al’s brother.


Because Al’s work as a trumpet player and arranger for some of the big bands of the day required extensive travel, Wihla arranged to mail the lyrics for each year’s card to wherever the Burts happened to be. While Al developed the new melody, Anne secured the artwork, arranged to have the cards printed, and updated the lengthy mailing list, which at one time numbered 450 cards.


In 1949, when Al’s wife Anne was expecting their first (and it turned out, only) child, she asked Wihla Hutson to write a lyric for that year’s carol that could also be a lullaby. “Sleep, Baby Mine” was the result, and marked the beginning of the Burt-Hutson collaboration that would last until Al’s death in 1954. The first eight bars of “Sleep, Baby Mine” were used in March of 1950 to announce their daughter Diane’s birth.


The 1950 carol was “This Is Christmas,” sometimes also referred to as “Bright, Bright the Holly Berries, which is the first line of the lyric.” In 1951, Wihla wrote “Some Children See Him,” one of the most beloved of the Burt carols. With the U.S. engaged in the Korean War--following so closely after the Second World War with Germany and Japan--the simple but moving lyric of 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. In 1995, the country of Palau issued a series of stamps (which compose the background to the page) commemorating “Some Children See Him” and its message of tolerance.


Wihla’s 1952 lyric was also about children. “Come, Dear Children” reflects the happiness that Al and Anne were feeling as they settled into their first home in California’s San Fernando Valley. Anne was pregnant with a second child, and Al was in demand in The Golden State as an arranger and trumpeter. But in 1953, Al–a smoker–was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. Soon after getting that news, Anne lost the baby she was carrying. In the midst of this sorrow–or perhaps because of it–the Burts chose for their 1953 carol the triumphal “O Hearken Ye.” That was one of four carols that Al raced to finish before death overtook him. The others were “We’ll Dress the House,” the now widely-popular Caroling, Caroling,” and “The Star Carol.”


“The Star Carol” graced the final Burt Christmas card in 1954. It was the last of the four carols to be written. Anne recalled in an interview that “Al realized that death was near, and he was no longer concerned with all the hustle and bustle of this world. He was closer to spiritual things. ‘The Star Carol’ reflects his state of mind at that time. It is so beautiful and pure.” In “The Star Carol,” Wihla Hutson’s tender, sensitive lyrics are combined with one of Al Burt’s most perfect melodies. He labored over the song right up until his death. 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.”
Wihla Hutson


A few years after Al’s death, Wihla Hutson began to write her own Christmas carols, for which she also composed the music. Eighteen of those carols were printed in 1982. In 1994, she wrote the lyrics for a melody composed by Steven SeGraves called “Away to the Piney Wood.” It carries the dedication “In memory of Alfred Burt.”


When Wihla’s mother chose to move to St. Anne’s Retreat in Southfield, Michigan, Wihla accompanied her there, and remained there for 35 years. She served for many years as organist and choir director of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Southfield. She was honored by the choirs of St. David's and All Saints Episcopal Church from Pontiac in a December, 2001 performance of her work. Wihla Hutson died March 24, 2002 in Southfield, Michigan, just a few days short of her 101st birthday.


(Our thanks to Brenda Huntsinger-Williams, and to Dave Bradshaw for supplying facts and articles on which this brief biography was based. Dave Bradshaw also supplied the most recent photo of Wihla Hutson.)

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