Every year on the Hillbilly at Harvard Christmas Extravaganza, we close the show with three records: The Stanley Brothers’ “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem,” Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas,” and (as a special closing theme) The Moms and Dads’ instrumental version of “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Last Saturday I was speculating on the air about the authorship of “Beautiful Star.” The version we play was released by King Records in 1964, their number 918, The Stanley Brothers with George Shuffler: Hymns of the Cross. See here for a listing of the contents. (I took the image from that site [Discogs.com], not having the album here in my office.) Discogs says it was been re-released on CD by Gusto in 2007; see here. I may have to get that! Ralph and Carter and/or King just attributed the song to “Traditional.”
Thanks to Sheila Selby and her quick on-line research, we have some more, if somewhat contradictory information about the songwriter. In an article in the Old-Time Times from 2004, Patsy Weiler writes,
Few people today realize the popular Christmas song “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” was written by the late R. Fisher Boyce in a Middle Tennessee milk barn in the early part of the 20th century. . .
Boyce was born in the tiny community of Link, located in southern Rutherford County, in November 1887. The third of six children, Boyce loved music and was singing solo and in quartets by the early 1900s. In the spring of 1910, he married Cora Carlton from the Rockvale community. They would become the parents of 11 children, five of whom lived to be adults. Only one daughter, Willie Ruth Eads, remains alive. Eads remembers singing as a great source of entertainment for their family.
“The neighbors would come in, and we’d all gather around our family piano,” Boyce’s daughter said. “My sister Nanny Lou (Taylor) would play, and we would sing way into the night.”
In 1911, the young couple celebrated their first wedding anniversary and saw Boyce’s song “Safe in His Love” published by the A.J. Showalter Company, one of the early publishers of shape note hymnals. As did many others from across the Southeast, Boyce later traveled to Lawrence burg, Tennessee, to attend one of the annual music normal schools conducted by the James D. Vaughan Publishing Company, which was founded around 1900. Vaughan was another major publisher of shape note hymnals. . .
In 1940, the Vaughan Company published Boyce’s song “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.” The song was printed in the company’s song-book, Beautiful Praise. Later, the song would be republished in Vaughan’s Favorite Radio Songs. . .
Boyce wrote “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” while the family was living on a dairy farm in the Plainview community, about two or three miles from what is now the Interstate 24 Buchanan Road Exit. The songwriter’s son, the late Franklin Boyce, recalled in a 1996 interview that his dad said he couldn’t concentrate in the house because of noise made by the children. He walked across the road to the barn to find the solitude he needed to write. . .
Dean Boyce, Franklin’s wife, remembers how her late sister-in-law, Nanny Lou, talked about helping her father put down the music for the song. “I believe,” she said, “they worked all morning on the music at the piano, and it rained hard all the time they were working on it.”
Nell McKee, a retired educator who lives in the Buchanan area, attended Mt. Carmel Baptist Church where Boyce was a deacon and song leader when the song was written. Now in her 90s, McKee still attends the same church and recalls that Boyce would sing the lead part and his wife would sing the harmony in her clear alto voice.
“Fisher and Cora would sometimes sing the song at church,” McKee remembers. “Cora would weep every time they sang together. She was very proud of her husband for writing that song.”
Ironically, the family has never received royalties from the song. As was commonplace during that time in history, the legal copyright became the property of the company that published the material. As a rule, the song-writers were paid a one-time fee. To make a living, Boyce taught private voice lessons and worked at a variety of jobs including dairy farming and insurance and nursery sales. . .
This story is corroborated by Jeff Mowery in his blog, “Hymn of the Week”:
I recently was given a copy of the history of this particular song from a great pianist and dedicated “Hymn of the week” reader. It is not a very old song, but one written in 1938 by a Tennessee farmer. Robert Fisher operated a small dairy farm just south of Murfreesboro. He was a religious man and served as a deacon at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church. One summer afternoon, Mr. Fisher felt inspired to sit down and write the words to “Oh, Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.” Although he was a farmer, he did not write this song sitting on his back porch overlooking a pastoral setting. He didn’t write the words sitting under a starry sky thinking about Christ’s Advent. No, he wrote the words inside his dairy barn while seated on a milk stool. His daughter later helped him compose the music to this song, and it has been recorded by several well-known artists including The Judds, Patty Loveless, and Bill and Gloria Gaither. . .
However, the website Hymnary.org: a comprehensive index of hymns and hymnals, lists the Author of “Oh, Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” (clearly the same song, as they list the first line) as Adger M. Pace (1882-1959). A bit more clicking in the Hymnary site, though, does credit R. Fisher Boyce for “Theme by.” And, on another page, Adger M. Pace is listed as “Harmonizer,” while Mr. Boyce is listed as “Composer.” So did Mr. Pace or Mr. Boyce write the song?
Adger M. Pace was member of the Vaughan Radio Quartet, a teacher of gospel music at the Vaughan School of Music in Lawrenceburg, TN, and a writer of some thousand songs. Also, “Beginning in 1920, he served for 37 years as Music Editor for all Vaughan publications.”
Ah-ha! So Mr. Pace was the Music Editor for the company that published “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” (and never paid Mr. Boyce any royalties). Citing the musicologist and folklorist Charles Wolfe, Patsy Weiler writes:
Wolfe . . . thinks the earliest professional recording of the piece was performed by the John Daniel Quartet on their private Daniel label. Initially, this group had been one of the Vaughan Company’s traveling quartets. The job of these traveling musical groups was to perform, for free, the Vaughan songbook compositions in churches through-out the Southeast and beyond so that congregations, once given a sampling of the music, would want to order songbooks.
So my guess is that Adger M. Pace arranged R. Fisher Boyce’s song for the Daniel Quartet and published the arrangement, taking credit variously as “Author” and “Harmonizer.” On lyrics sites (which seem ubiquitous on the Internet) when composers are mentioned, both seem to be given credit. I think it fair to say, though, that the song is well and truly R. Fisher Boyce’s composition.
There does not seem to be a YouTube video of the Stanley Brothers’ recording of “Beautiful Star,” but here are three performances that we don’t have at WHRB. A very merry Christmas to all listeners, and one as beautiful as that song!
The Chigger Hill Boys and Terri
Dailey and Vincent
UPDATE (Dec 2014): The Stanley Brothers’ recording of “O Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” is now available on compact disc! See HERE.
UPDATE 2 (1Nov15): David Boyce’s comment below has been promoted to a new post HERE.