“Beautiful Star of Bethlehem”

Stanleys-Hymps from the Cross  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

Patty Loveless

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.

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21 Responses to “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem”

  1. Robin says:

    I’ve been searching for a Caribbean version of this song, but I’ve been unable to find it on youtube or elsewhere. It is a standard Anglican Caribbean Christmas carrol, but not in the Episcopal church in the States. I heard it in an Anglican church on Eleuthera (Bahamas) last year, and on Nevis (BWI) this year. Any thoughts/information on that? It’s such a lovely tune. I had no idea it was a bluegrass standard. It’s very different and more rhythmic in the islands. But just as sweet.

  2. Robin, are you sure it’s the same song? I guess between its composition before WWII and today it might have migrated from Bible Belt hymn-singing to the Caribbean, but I’d be surprised. Would love to hear an Island version! /CL

  3. Robin says:

    Yes. It’s the same lyrics and tune. There’s always been a culture exchange between the Bahamas and the Carolinas, because of proximity, but not into the Leewards. (Except for Charleston’s close relationship with Barbados during the sugar years.) Somehow, I’m guessing either during the Peace Corps years on Nevis in the 1970s (when there were quite a few Americans on the island who never left) or missionary work by the Methodists or Baptists, the song made its way there. Or it made its way to Nevis via the Bahamas. I would love to find out how that happened. If I can find an island version, I will post it.

    • DebieTucker says:

      I have heard this song for the first time, on Christmas Day – at an East Indian family Christmas celebration, in the Toledo District of Belize, Central America! Belize is considered part of the Caribbean Nations, which would fit with your story, Robin, but extends the territory of its travels. This family is quite musical, and their traditions including entertaining themselves with music and singing together in the evenings. I am so blessed to have been introduced to this new treasure ‘Beautiful Star of Bethlehem”, this Christmas Season, in Belize!

  4. Second Cousin Curly says:

    Wow– So glad to have this rundown on this carol/hymn’s history. I learned it by listening to the Christmas shows of Jim Watson in North Carolina. Watson was a crucial part of the Red Clay Ramblers and has often played bass with Robin and Linda Williams. Thanks for the info!

  5. David Boyce says:

    Hi, My name is David Boyce, son of Franklin and Dean Boyce, and grandson of Robert Fisher Boyce. Thank you so much for the interest you have shown in this song. Oddly enough, daddy said PaPa never intended for the song to be known as a Christmas song. He just wanted to write a song praising his Lord.

    The story I was often told is that Pace would only publish the song if he received partial credit for it. I guess that’s how he got credit for writing over a thousand songs. PaPa didn’t really care about the credit, he just wanted to share the song with the rest of the world. I have heard two stories: one is that he received $25 dollars for the rights and the other is he received $30. Not much by today’s standards but during the Great Depression when roughly 20% of the people were unemployed and others making a dollar a day, it must have seemed like a real blessing.

    I was a little boy when he passed away. I remember seeing a large box full of manuscripts of songs and poems he wrote. Oh how I wish I could look through that box today to see what else he may have written. Once again, thanks for the great write up and your interest.

    God bless,
    MAJ David Boyce
    TN Army National Guard

  6. Pingback: “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem”: The Composer’s Grandson Writes | Hillbilly at Harvard

  7. Many thanks for your recollections, Major Boyce (and thanks, too, for your service). I thought your comment was important enough to elevate to a new post, updating this one. See HERE.

  8. Jane says:

    I like all of them.But Meade Skelton’s version is one of my favorites.

  9. Pingback: Beautiful Star of Bethlehem – WE ARE STAR STUFF

  10. Lydie Vick says:

    I am searching to find out if “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” is under copyright. I absolutely LOVE the song and I would love to use it in a play I am writing. I have quite a few of my own compositions for the show but I want to include several “favorites”. Can you tell me if the song is still copyrighted or is it considered public domain? Thanks so much

    • Howdy— The song was published by the James D. Vaughan Music Publishing Company in 1940. Current law pertaining to music copyright is summarized HERE, p. 6. The relevant point is:

      2. works published, or copyright registered, between 1923 and 1977: duration of copyright depends on whether the copyright was renewed by application to the U.S. Copyright office.

      According to a site called SongSelect, re “Beautiful Star,”

      Copyrights 1940. Renewed 1967 James D. Vaughan, Music Publisher (Admin. by Music Services, Inc.)
      Catalogs James D. Vaughan, Music Publisher
      Administrators Music Services, Inc.

      So you have to get a license from Music Services, Inc. Their song ID is 805816. The relevant page is HERE.

      Happy to do the research. Good luck with the play. Let us know when you’re done. /CL

  11. Ken Wood says:

    Thanks for the article. My name is Ken Wood – my grandmother was Nanny Lou (Boyce) Taylor. My mother had published a article around 2004 talking about the song and the history — not sure if the information for your article came from her article but it is a great story. When my grandmother passed away and family was determining items they wanted and items they would sell. No one wanted her piano because it was a old up right piano that sounded like it was from a western saloon. It is the piano that I always heard she put the music to the lyrics Beautiful Star… Even though my grandmother couldn’t read music somehow she was able to put music to the song. So I told the family I would take the piano and I have it today. Someone in the family has the music sheet work that she had in the piano bench. I have a few pieces but as a kid I remember tons of marked paper sheets.

    • Howdy— Great to hear from another of the Boyce family, augmenting the history of this wonderful song. Neat that you kept the piano.

      When I posted the history I hadn’t seen the article by your mother that you mention. Can you provide a link? I don’t suppose you know where that “large box full of manuscripts of songs and poems” that Major David Boyce describes above is. We can only wonder what other gems might be in it. /CL

  12. Mary says:

    My favorite of this lovely song is by Dr. Ralph Stanley, who left us this past June for the other side of life. I love all covers; they never fail to raise goose bumps all over me. Gorgeous lyrics… and the music that goes along with them, raise me higher and higher every time I hear this song. It is surely a gift to all of us. Now after learning of the history of the song; it makes listening to it even better. Thank you! Wishing all a blessed Christmas.

  13. Sharon says:

    Our choir will be singing this song in service this morning. This song is definitely one of my all time favorites. I just want to thank the Dubois family for sharing their talents with the world. Whether or not your family have received the credits, stand assured that the world have been made a happier place because of this song.

  14. David Beamer says:

    The men’s choir Chanticleer recorded a marvelous version of this a few years ago — it’s the only version I was aware of before I did a little research and wound up here. Their tempo is quicker than I’ve heard elsewhere. Very clear straight 4-part harmony. It ain’t bluegrass, but highly recommended nonetheless.

    • Thanks David. Very interesting. You didn’t provide a link, but here is (are?) Chanticleer with Dawn Upshaw singing “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem”:

      For me the faster tempo makes it pretty, but not soul-stirring. Then, I’ve been listening to the Stanleys (and other country folk) for decades now. But the more the merrier. I wish R. Fisher Boyce were alive to see how popular his hymn has become today. /CL

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