Almost two years ago I posted an article about the history of a hymn we have played on the Hillbilly at Harvard Christmas Extravangaza for years and years: The Stanley Brothers‘ recording on King Records of “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem”; that post is HERE. The credits on the King label listed the song as ‘Traditional’, so I was curious whether there was any information about the composer. With Sheila Selby’s able help, we found that the song was written by dairy farmer, musician, and gospel songwriter, R. Fisher Boyce in 1938.
On some sheet music and recordings the composer is identified as Adger M. Pace. It turns out Mr. Pace was the Music Editor for the James D. Vaughan Publishing Company, which paid R. Fisher Boyce for the rights to “Beautiful Star,” and not a penny thereafter. This was a not-uncommon practice in those days; it probably had something to do with Mr. Pace accumulating a catalogue of perhaps a thousand songs in his name.
Somewhat to my surprise, this post has proven to be the most viewed of any in our little blog, I assume because of the popularity of “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem,” recorded by artists like Emmylou Harris and The Judds in recent decades, and because detective stories like these have an inherent appeal to some of us. But not until yesterday had I heard anything from someone actually connected to R. Fisher Boyce.
That’s when I checked my HAH email before heading to Cambridge for the show, and was delighted to see this comment submitted by the composer’s grandson!
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.
MAJ David Boyce
TN Army National Guard
Thank you, Major Boyce, for the wonderful letter, and for adding a personal element to the story of the song that has touched so many. Of course, we have to wonder what might have happened to that “large box full of manuscripts and songs and poems” that your grandfather wrote. Is there more to be learned?
As a bonus (wasn’t available two years ago), here are The Stanley Brothers with George Shuffler singing “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.”
It’s available on CD from King, as I posted HERE.