[Symbol] – The Carols
[A Symbol/Song related Story]
Christmas in Hollywood is anything but white, so even though there are Santas on every corner, folks often have a tough time getting into the spirit of the season.
December in Southern California does not conjure up holiday images that are depicted on cards, movies or television. Rather than wearing huge wool coats, hats and mufflers, the locals go on their sun-filled Christmas shopping missions in short-sleeved shirts and open-toed shoes. Sleds are replaced by skateboards and evergreens by palm trees. So when California shoppers suddenly hear awe-inspiring harmonies and turn to see a group of eight carolers dressed in Victorian-era winter garb performing such numbers as “We’ll dress the house” or “Caroling, Caroling,” they usually do a double take. After all, mufflers and long coats are as foreign in Los Angeles as snow. And yet each holiday season, the Caroling Company comes out in full winter regalia, creating through music and attire the atmosphere of a traditional snowy Christmas.
The founder and leader of the Caroling Company is a beautiful energetic brunette blessed with an angelic voice with the power of a steam locomotive. Diane Burt loves the season as much as she relishes each moment of her life. For this southern Californian, this really is the most wonderful time of the year. After all when she sings carols, she is doing more than creating holiday magic for sun-drenched West Coast natives; she is also continuing a Christmas tradition that spans three generations.
Performing original Christmas songs has been a part of the Burt family since 1922. It was during that holiday season Diane’s grandfather, an Episcopal priest, composed and original holiday carol and included it in that year’s Christmas cards. For the next thirty-two years, through wars, depressions and good times and bad, first from the pen of Father Bates, and then later written by Diane’s dad, Alfred Burt, the tradition of writing original carols and sending them out to friends and family at Christmas continued. In 1954, with the death of Alfred Burt, the cards and carols suddenly stopped, but the music lives on as Diane and her company continue sharing the sweet sounds of Christmas.
Diane was just Four years old when cancer took her father. She was far too young to understand his genius or understand how much those in the entertainment industry loved this singer, musician, composer and arranger. While she sensed something special was happening during the final months of his life and while she noted the constant influx of people who seemed to have Christmas on their minds even in the midst of a summer heat wave, she did not know that her father, mother and an important element of the West Coast music industry were all rushing to bring Burt’s holiday carols to the whole world.
This inspiration that would consume so much of Alfred’s last months had been born some three decades before in Marquette, Michigan. In this area of vast virgin forests, tumbling streams and long winters, the holidays came alive each year.
This is where Alfred had been born and raised, where he had learned the importance of the light of Christmas in church and through constant examples of sharing and giving. This is where Christmas had taken a great meaning for him and where thoughts of real peace consumed his goals for life. He thought of that peace often when serving in the military during World War II. His desire to bring that peace to others consumed him even after he married, rejoined civilian life and moved to sunny Los Angeles. In the hustle and bustle of Hollywood, Burt found vast potential as a trumpet player and composer, but he also saw people in too much of a hurry to fully find any kind of meaning in their lives.
One of those who had heavily influenced Burt was the organist for his father’s church. Wihla Hutson had been born at the turn of the century, so she was old enough to be Al’s mother and as a boy, Alfred looked at the unmarried woman as an aunt. But Wihla had become more than just a part of his family; she was also an inspiration. A college-trained musician, Hutson was the boy’s mentor. She helped develop Al’s passion for music. And as she composed her own songs, Wihla also encouraged the boy’s desire to create original music.
Burt was playing Jazz and arranging music for big bands in the late forties when he and Hutson began to collaborate on carols for the annual Burt Christmas cards. Though both had published music, neither considered their card carols anything more than holiday gifts for family and friends. That abruptly changed in 1953. Two different events would turn the Burt family upside down and pave the way for the world to hear some of the most beautiful Christmas music ever written.
In the late winter, Burt had been working long hours on a television show featuring Alvino Rey and the King Sisters. Finishing his arrangements for the network series, he spent several weeks on the road with the Horace Heidt Orchestra. While he never complained, a persistent cough continued to drag him down. Finally when he was unable to perform, he went into the hospital for tests. The diagnosis was lung cancer. There was no chance for a cure and Al’s life was now numbered in months, not years.
For Burt the news was heart breaking in more ways than he could begin to fathom. After nine years of hard work establishing himself, he had almost achieved his dreams. He and his wife had a nice home, his daughter was so young, his career was just taking off and his life in Hollywood had just then moved him into a spot where his music was being noted by the top talents in town. Orchestra’s wanted him to play for them, television producers were seeking his services as an arranger and nightclub performers wanted him to help them with their acts. Now all that was over. He would never write the Broadway musical that had been a part of his dreams, never land a number one hit on Billboard’s music charts and never compose the score for a major motion picture. Worse yet, he would never grow old with his wife or get to see his daughter, Diane, grow up.
As Al came to grips with his cruel fate, he was convinced he would soon be forgotten. He believed his legacy would be little more than a grave and a tombstone. Other men, those who didn’t have a deep faith, would have given up, maybe even taken their own lives. But rather than be despondent, rather than cry out in anger, Burt continued to reach out to others. He was determined that whatever days he had left would be the best ones of his life. He didn’t want anyone to remember him as anything but happy.
Just before Christmas 1952, the Blue Reys, a nationally known singing group, had discovered one of Burt’s annual Christmas card carols. They had happened on it when Alfred had asked the guys to help him check the harmonies of “Come Dear Children”. The Blue Reys were taken by the carol they performed at the annual King Sisters’ Christmas show. James Conkling, the president of Columbia Records, heard that performance. The label executive was so moved he inquired if Alfred had written any more holiday songs. When James discovered Burt had penned an original carol each year since 1942, Conkling asked to review all of them. He was still in the process of studying the carols when he learned of the composer’s illness.
From the moment he first played them, Conkling knew the songs were very good, but he had seen no reason to really push them until he discovered Burt was dying. Yet the carols James had been given would not fill up an entire album. Hesitantly, he approached Al’s wife, Anee, explaining he needed four more carols for the project. He was hoping Burt composed extras in the past that had not been used on the family cards. Sadly, he discovered that Burt had created only one new carol each year and all of those were now in Conkling’s hands. The last thing the record executive wanted to do was ask a dying man to spend his last few months working on music, but if the album was going to include just Burt’s songs, more would have to be created.
While Conkling did not wish to bother Burt, Anne saw this dilemma as an answered prayer. This would give her husband’s life focus. She immediately went to Al’s bed and explained that for the album to be recorded, he would have to create four more Christmas songs. Though he was spending his days in a wheelchair, his voice raspy and his energy level down, the frail man seized the challenge with the vigour of an athlete. Though motivated like he had never before been, he knew he couldn’t do the work all by himself. Picking up the phone, he called Wihla Hutson and asked the church organist for four more sets of lyrics.
“Wihla later told me,” Diane recalled, “that all she needed was Al’s request and the words flowed so fast she could hardly write them down.”
One of the sets of words Hutson created harkened back to Alfred Burt’s childhood. It was a lyrical postcard of all the holiday ingredients that had made the man’s childhood days in Michigan so very special. Even though he was fighting agonizing pain and struggling for each new breath, it took the composer only a short while to brilliantly score “Caroling, Caroling”.
Just before Christmas 1953, with all four new songs completed, a volunteer chorus organized by the King Sisters, Buddy Cole and Jimmy Joyce met in a North Hollywood church to do the initial taping for the album. Al was on hand, thrilled with each rendition these carollers created with his music. Partway through the session, when he finally listened to “Caroling, Caroling” it seemed the pain left his body and he was transported back to the carefree days of his youth. Christmas was alive again and the peace of the season had completely enveloped the dying man.
“This is the happiest day of my life”, he told his wife. Within a month and a half, Al would be gone.
The Columbia album of Burt’s carols was released the next Christmas. The songs were not immediate hits. Few rushed out to purchase the album and no other artists hit the studio to cut Al’s songs. It seemed the songs would live on only at future family holiday gatherings. By the next Christmas, it seemed that even Columbia had lost interest in the project.
In a world of constantly changing tastes, Al was soon forgotten by all except his closest friends. Yet one of those friends, a man who had been dynamically impacted by the musical perfection that came from the man called “The professor”, would not allow the carols to die. Ralph Carmichael, who would become one of the founders of contemporary Christian music and compose such hymns as “The Saviour is waiting” took “Caroling, Caroling” to Nat King Cole’s record producer. Cole, whose version of Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song” had made him one of the most beloved voices of the holiday season, was cutting an album of holiday music. Carmichael wanted Burt’s songs to be featured.
On a summer day in 1961, Carmichael pled his case, but the producer didn’t even allow him to play a demo of “Caroling, Caroling”. He informed Carmichael that Cole’s project would be filled with only traditional carols and Nat’s classic “Christmas Song”. They didn’t want anything new on the album. As Ralph picked up Bert’s song and sadly walked towards the office door, his eyes met Nat’s. Cole smiled, stood up, grabbed the demo and put it on the record player. One spin was all it took to convince Cole that “Caroling, Caroling” was one of the most spirited holiday songs he had ever heard. Cole’s hit recording of that Burt song would help open the door for scores of artists to discover all of Alfred’s Christmas music. The legacy was now assured.
“He heard things others could not hear”, Diane explained. “Dad was a pianist, an arranger, a composer, a trumpet player and a singer and he understood music was from the inside out.”
“The last songs he wrote were all up-tempo. Even though he was dying, he wanted the family’s mindset to be happy. My mom told me that when he was working on ‘Caroling, Caroling’ it reminded him of Christmases in Michigan. He thought again of sleigh rides, sitting on bales of hay in Pontiac and the other wonderful things of Christmas as a child.”
While “Caroling, Caroling” would have been fabulous and timeless if it had included only those elements of holidays long ago, Wihla Hutson knew that for Alfred, Christmas meant something more than secular images on the streets. In the song’s final verse the theme shifts from decorations and merriment to a star and a baby.
“Lo, the king of heav’n is born,
Christmas bells are ringing.”
Dad told Wihla that even though each song could speak of the Christmas of the secular world,” Diane explained, “they always had to go back to the reason for the season. They had to honour Christ’s birth.”
In his first Christmas card after the end of World War II, Alfred Burt’s father had written, “The secret of joy out of sorrow and gain out of loss is all there in the message of Christmas.”
In February of 1954, Alfred Burt died assured by the message found in Christmases he knew and the ones he shared with others through his music. He never realised his songs would be welcomed in concert halls, churches, schools, on radio and television and in homes around the world. He never realised his carols would become some of the most meaningful elements of the season. He never dreamed his goal of helping to bring a spiritual peace to the world would be seen by his daughter. Yet how proud he would have been to have Diane and the Caroling Company continue his tradition of sharing through song the real message of Christmas with others each holiday season. Thanks to “Caroling, Caroling”, even those in Southern California can feel the cold snowy breeze and the bright star of hope that are so much a part of an ideal holiday season. [By Ace Collins]
[Song] Caroling, Caroling
[Scripture] Psalms 135: 3
Praise the Lord; for the Lord is good: sing praises unto his name; for it is pleasant.
[Challenge – Sing Praises] – The Scriptures tell us that it is good for us to sing. When we sing Christmas songs about Jesus, we remember the miracle of His birth. Carolling or singing is a way that we can show our love for Jesus. Today sing or listen to some carols and remember the miracle of our Saviour’s Birth.
[Article relating to the challenge]
Many Christmas traditions take flight on the wings of beautiful songs. What would Christmas be without carols, concerts, and bells? Favourite Christmas songs take us back in time and make certain holiday moments unforgettable. We remember songs our children sang, songs we sang as children, and how those songs shaped our feelings for Christ and for Christmas.
Most well known as the author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the noted clergyman Phillips Brooks (1835–1893), published many sermons and other writings during his lifetime. The following poem reminds us that music was a part of Christmas ever since heavenly angels announced the birth of God’s Son. Brooks—and all believers—“music hear in everything” during the Christmas season.
All Are Vocal with His Name
The silent skies are full of speech
For who hath ears to hear;
The winds are whispering each to each,
The moon is calling to the beach,
And stars their sacred wisdom teach
Of faith and love and fear.
But once the sky the silence broke
And song o’erflowed the earth;
The midnight air with glory shook,
And angels mortal language spoke,
When God our human nature took
In Christ, the Saviour’s birth.
And Christmas once is Christmas still;
The gates through which he came,
And forests’ wild and murmuring rill,
And fruitful field and breezy hill,
And all that else the wide world fill
Are vocal with his name.
Shall we not listen while they sing
This latest Christmas morn;
And music hear in everything,
And faithful lives in tribute bring
To the great song which greets the King,
Who comes when Christ is born?
Media link: [Elder L. Whitney Clayton Christmas Message]
10th Anniversary Advent Throw-Back :
[A Favourite from Previous Advents]
Some of my fondest memories of Christmas involve visiting the homes of the sick and needy and even the lonely. The gift of music can invite the love of Christ to linger a little longer. I found a lovely story about such an event in a young missionary’s life:
It was cold, dark and damp and as we pulled up in front of the small catholic nursing home, our thoughts were centred more on hot chocolate and popcorn than on Christmas Caroling.
We Missionaries had spent a wonderful day singing in hospitals and nursing homes throughout Southern Dallas. But now it was late and our voices were tired. We were glad to arrive at the last stop of the day.
Inside it smelled musty, we huddled for a few moments in one corner of the foyer while the catholic sisters brought their patients in wheelchairs to hear us sing.
As we started the first carol, a remarkable thing happened. In spite of our hoarse throats, our singing sounded more clear and true than at any of the other performances we had given that day.
A feeling of warmth enveloped us. We were filled with a sense of peace and reverence.
After we finished the last song, the nurses asked us to wait, while they returned the patients to their rooms. A few minutes later, the sisters came back to thank us for coming. Sensing that they didn’t want us to leave yet, we volunteered to sing one more song for them. Rather than a traditional carol we sang:
I Know that my redeemer lives, what comfort this sweet sentence gives.
He lives, He lives, who once was dead, He lives my ever-living head.
He lives to bless me with His love, He lives to plead for me above.
He lives, my hungry soul to feed, He lives to bless in time of need.
He lives all glory to His name, He lives My Saviour still the same.
Oh Sweet the Joy this sentence gives I know that My redeemer Lives.
With tears in their eyes, the nuns who were selflessly spending their lives serving others, rushed forward to thank us. One sister, the supervisor of the others, took my hands in hers and said “You’re the future of the World, do you realize that? You young men are the future of the World!”.
As a young missionary I sensed her sincerity and the new hope and faith we had brought into her life. For a moment our differences disappeared and we all received a witness, borne by the spirit of God that Jesus Christ does indeed live.
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