Michigan (particularly Detroit, where I grew up — I still live just outside of it and go to church near downtown), is known for its many glorious musical traditions and artists: Motown, Bob Seger, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Anita Baker, gospel music; it is even a current world center of electronic music.
But I’d venture to guess that few people are aware of the name of the greatest 20th century composer of Christmas carols, or where he came from. That man is Alfred S. Burt (1920-1954), who died tragically of lung cancer at age 33. He was born — the son of an Episcopalian minister — in Marquette, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula, on the shores of Lake Superior, and grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, which is about 20 miles north of Detroit (neighboring Auburn Hills hosts the Detroit Pistons).
His most famous composition is Caroling, Caroling (included on the famous Nat King Cole Christmas album). Some other fairly well-known Burt carols are Some Children See Him, The Star Carol, and O Hearken Ye. He wrote fifteen beautiful, haunting, spiritual carols altogether, in a span of just twelve years.
I don’t know how it was elsewhere in the country during the late 60s and early 70s, when my sister and I were in junior high and high school and both involved in the music programs. But in Michigan (as would be expected) we frequently performed many of these songs in concert, either sung by choirs or in band arrangements. I played a medley of them in junior high band (on either trombone or baritone).
Alfred’s father (according to the Alfred Burt Carols Website, maintained by the family), the Rev. Bates Gilbert Burt, pastor of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Michigan from 1922 till shortly before his death in 1948, started a tradition of including a new Christmas carol every year in Christmas cards. He did this from 1922 to 1941. Then his son Alfred continued this delightful custom from 1942 to 1954 (his father was the lyricist for five of the fifteen carols). The church organist, Wihla Hutson, who lived in Detroit and studied music at Wayne State University in the city (my alma mater), wrote the lyrics for eight of the Burt carols.
Alfred Burt took up the trumpet and later played in the Alvino Rey Orchestra. He majored in music at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (about 30 miles west of Detroit), and after his marriage to Anne Shortt in 1945, later settled in California. Several of his most famous carols were written in the last few months of his life when he knew he was dying. The beautiful Star Carol was, in fact, completed the day before he died (6 February 1954). He is buried in Marquette, Michigan, where he was born.
(dates, lyricists, lyrics, audio MP3 music samples, audio comments from Anne Burt, various recordings, Burt Christmas cards)
[the annual Burt Christmas cards are shown on the lyrics page for each carol with an asterisk in the listing of the lyricist]
Christmas Cometh Caroling 1942 (lyrics by Fr. Andrew: an English Catholic priest) / Burt website music sample
Recorded by: Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians
What Are the Signs 1944 (lyrics by Bates G. Burt) / Burt website music sample
Recorded by: John Williams/Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus / Bing Crosby / Kenneth Jewell Chorale
Recorded by: Julie Andrews with The London Symphony, John Williams/Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Bing Crosby. Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians
Recorded by: Jack Jones, Kenny Loggins, Branford Marsalis/Harry Connick Jr., Andy Williams, John Williams/Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Bing Crosby, Ed Ames, Evie, Don Ho, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, James Taylor, Mannheim Steamroller
Recorded by: Bing Crosby / Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians
Recorded by: Nat King Cole, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians
Recorded by: Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole, Manhattan Transfer, Johnny Mathis, John Williams/Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Kenneth Jewel Chorale, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians
We’ll Dress the House 1954 (lyrics by Wihla Huston) / Burt website music sample
Recorded by: John Williams/Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Kenneth Jewel Chorale
Recorded by: Aaron Neville, Simon and Garfunkel, Tennessee Ernie Ford, John Williams/Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians