Alfred Burt and Wihla Hutson’s Carols Are a Musical Christmas Card

carolers

“Caroling, caroling, now we go,

Christmas bells are ringing.

Caroling, caroling, through the snow,

Christmas bells are ringing,

Joyous voices sweet and clear,

Sing the sad of heart to cheer.

Ding, dong, ding, dong!

Christmas bells are ringing.”  

Reverend Bates Burt Started a Family Christmas Card Custom

Reverend Bates Burt began the custom of sending carols in his Christmas cards when he moved to Pontiac, Michigan, with his family to become pastor of the Episcopal Church in 1922. He wrote both the lyrics and music to his carols. Born April 22, 1920, in Marquette, Michigan, the Burt’s son Alfred was two when the Burts moved to Pontiac.

His parents gave Alfred a cornet when he turned ten, because had a shown an interest in music. Eventually, he learned to play several instruments including the piano, but he spent most of his life playing the cornet and trumpet in bands and orchestras. Alfred studied music at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and he graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1942.

Reverend Burt asked Alfred to write the music for the 1942 carol, “Christmas Cometh Caroling.” From that point on, Alfred wrote the music for the family Christmas cards.

During World War II, Alfred served as a United States Army officer stationed at San Angelo, Texas, and played with the Army Air Force Band. Reverend Burt in Michigan sent him the lyrics for the 1943 and 1944 carols and Alfred wrote the music for them.

The 1947 Christmas card marked the end of the collaboration between Reverend Bates Burt and Alfred Burt, because Reverend Burt died of a heart attack early in 1948. Alfred and his wife Anne Burt continued the family Christmas card tradition in his honor.

Anne Burt Asks Wihla Hutson to Help with Writing the Christmas Carols

Alfred Burt joined the Alvino Rey Orchestra in California in 1949, while his wife Anne remained in Michigan where their daughter Diane Bates Burt was born on March 8, 1950. Anne and Alfred asked an old family friend Wihla Hutson, organist at Reverend Bates Burt’s Pontiac Episcopal Church to write the Christmas poems for their cards while Alfred wrote the music to them.

Wihla Hutson and Alfred Burt seemed fated to be collaborators. She was born in East Gary, Indiana, in 1901 and her family moved to Detroit, Michigan, in 1913. She was educated in the public schools, but she had a private tutor for piano and organ and studied at the Detroit Conservatory of Music. She graduated from the College of the City of Detroit which is now Wayne State University.

In 1929, when she was 28 years old, Wihla became the organist at All Saints Church in Pontiac, Michigan, the church were Reverend Bates Burt was pastor. Pontiac is about 25 miles from Detroit, so when the weather turned bad or during the holidays, Wihla would stay at the rectory. She became like a member of the Burt family.

The Christmas Card List Grows In 1949, after the death of Reverend Bates Burt, Wihla Hutson eagerly agreed to become part of the Burt Christmas Carol Card tradition by writing the words to the card carols. The Christmas card list grew over the years as the circle of Burt friends grew and soon the list had expanded from 50 to 450 people.

Anne Burt recalled that she would periodically drop the names of some people from the list because of the cost of sending out so many cards, but they wouldn’t stay dropped. She said that people would either call or write her and say that the post office must have lost their card. She would put their name back on the list.

The Reverend Bates Burt and Alfred Burt Carols “Christmas Cometh Caroling” (1942)

“Jesu Parvule” (1943)

“What Are the Signs” (1944)

“Ah, Bleak and Chill the Wintry Wind” (1945)”All on A Christmas Morning” (1946)

“Nigh Bethlehem” (1947)

“Christ in the Stranger’s Guise” (1948)- Reverend John Burt, Alfred’s brother, provided the rune.

Life and Friendship Stories in Carols

“Sleep Baby Mine” (1949)

Expecting the Burt’s first child, Anne Burt asked Wihla Hutson to write a lyric that could also be a lullaby. Wihla wrote “Sleep, Baby Mine,” and the Burts used the first eight bars of the carol in March 1950 to announce the birth of their daughter Diane Bates Burt.

“This Is Christmas” (also known as “Bright, Bright, the Holly Berries”) (1950)

“Some Children See Him” (1951)  

“Come, Dear Children” (1952)

This carol reflects Al and Anne’s happiness as they settled into their first home in the San Fernando Valley of California. Anne carried their second child and musicians all over California wanted to use Al’s talents as an arranger and trumpeter.

Alfred Burt finished writing the music for the 1952 carol, “Come, Dear Children,” during the rehearsal of the Blue Reys, the vocal group with Rey’s orchestra. He asked them to sing it so he could make sure the harmonies worked and the Blue Reys liked the carol so much that they asked Alfred if they could sing it at the annual King Family Christmas party.

“O, Hearken Ye” (1953)

James Conkling, husband of Donna King Conkling, and president of Columbia Records organized a choir of Hollywood singers to perform Alfred Burt’s carols. Many of them were recorded in 1953 in the North Hollywood Mormon Church with Burt present.

In 1953, doctors diagnosed Al Burt who was described as a “heavy smoker” with incurable lung cancer. Shortly after getting the news about her husband’s cancer, Anne Burt lost her baby. For their 1953 carol, the Burt’s chose the triumphant “O Hearken Ye.”

“Caroling Caroling” (1954)

“We’ll Dress the House” (1954)

“The Star Carol” (1954)

This carol was the last of the four carols Alfred Burt hurried to finish before he died and the final Alfred Burt Christmas card. In an interview, Anne Burt said that Al realized that death was near and “The Star Carol” reflects his state of mind at the time. It is so beautiful and pure.”He completed the Star Carol on February 5, 1954 and died on February 6, 1954.

Wihla Huston Continues to Write Carols

After Alfred Burt died, Wihla Hutson began to write her own Christmas carols and compose the music for them. In 1982, 18 of her carols were printed and the choir from Reverend Bates Burt’s old Pontiac parish in performed some of them. For many years she was organist and choir director of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Southfield. She died March 24, 2002 in Southfield, Michigan, just a few days short of her 101st birthday.

Alfred Burt and Wihla Hutson’s Carols Live On

Twelve of Alfred Burt’s carols were released in time for Christmas 1954 in an album called The Christmas Mood. The Voices of Jimmy Joyce brought out the first recording of all 15 of the Burt carols in 1964 in an album called This is Christmas: A Complete Collection of the Alfred S. Burt Carols. Artists from Nat King Cole to Andy Williams to James Taylor have recorded the BurtHutson carols.

Alfred Burt’s daughter, Diane, leads “The Caroling Company, in performing her father’s carols and composer Abbie Betinis, Alfred Burt’s grandniece, revived the family tradition of sending Christmas cards with an original carol in 2001. She also introduces the yearly carol cards on Minnesota Public Radio.

“We’ll dress the house with holly bright and sprigs of mistletoe

We’ll trim the Christmas tree tonight and set the lights aglow

We’ll wrap our gifts with ribbons gay and give them out on Christmas Day

By everything we do and say, our gladness we will show.”

References

Burt, Alfred. The Alfred Burt Christmas Carols: 50th Anniversary Edition (Piano/Vocal/Guitar Songbook). TRO-The Richmond Organization, 2004.

Burt, Alfred. The Christmas Mood. Primarily A Cappella, 1954

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