A hospital stay impressed a deep love for Christmas music in this writer’s heart. The hospital was also the beginning of another person’s practice of music. About the year 1930, ten-year-old Alfred Burt received a cornet as a reward for willingly undergoing an appendectomy.
His father, Bates Burt, was a self-taught musician and pastor in Pontiac, Michigan. When Al was quite young, Bates began a tradition of enclosing a new Christmas carol with the family Christmas card. The year that Al graduated with a music degree from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Bates invited him to write the music for the carol. Father and son partnered in this way - with lyrical help from other sources - until Bates died in 1948.
Al and his wife, Anne, continued the tradition. By the time their family settled in California, their Christmas list had grown to 450 names. Anne writes, “We would drop people from the list in order to save postage only to have them write that their carol had been lost in the mail.”
Al was now a professional musician and composer in the bustling Hollywood scene. His wife and young daughter were enjoying the first house they had bought. But his health was deteriorating, and in 1953 they found out why: terminal lung cancer.
“Together, we had foreseen a struggle to establish him in the musical world, but this we had never imagined,” writes Anne.
When Jim Conkling, president of Columbia Records, heard about Al’s condition, he made a way to record Al’s Christmas carols.
“A volunteer chorus of the finest singers in Hollywood met… Al's wheelchair could easily enter from the parking lot into the auditorium where he lead the first demonstration taping. In our home, over a cup of hot chocolate, Al reviewed 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.”
He finished his last carol on the eve of his death, which preceded the arrival of the contract from Columbia Records by one hour.
Alfred Burt died on February 7, 1954, thirty-three years old.
I didn’t know so much as his name until last year when I noticed some of his songs.
“Night Bethlehem” is a favorite of mine on the Singers Unlimited Christmas album.
My father reminded me last year of “Some Children See Him.”
“What Are the Signs” was written during World War II, and its lyrics, Anne writes, are “reflections of the Burts' belief that Christianity, not war, was the solution to the world's problems.”
What are the signs of the morning?
God, who created the light,
speak through the gloom that enfolds us,
when breaks the dawn on our sight,
when comes the end of our night.
These be the tokens of promise:
one is a bright star above,
one a poor child in a manger,
symbols of faith and of love.
Hope comes with faith
and with love!
“The Star Carol” was Al's last song.
With compelling lyrics and lasting melodies, Alfred Burt’s fifteen carols have been recorded by Andy Williams, Julie Andrews, Nat King Cole, Simon & Garfunkel, George Winston, and many others.
And how did this all begin?
It began with an amateur musician dad who wanted to share music from the home.
How was it carried on?
By the son-turned-professional, whose musical journey began with a hospital, and whose journey’s end launched these carols into the world.
All this information comes from Alfred’s wife Anne, whose story is on their website. Do read it if you can. You will also find there these words from Al’s father:
"The secret of joy out of sorrow and gain out of loss is all there in the message of Christmas."
Amen. "He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”