Posts with the tag: Christmas music

The American Christmas Songbook: “Some Children See Him” (1951)

The cover of the 1951 Burt family Christmas Card, which included the carol “Some Children See Him.” Courtesy of AlfredBurtCarols.com.

If you’re a songwriter, and you want to give a one-of-a-kind Christmas gift, what do you give? A brand new Christmas carol, of course! And between 1942 and 1954, that’s exactly what composer Alfred Burt did. Carrying on a tradition started in 1922 by his father, the Rev’d Bates Gilbert Burt, Alfred composed a new Christmas carol to be included in the Burt family Christmas card. These festive songs remained undiscovered outside of the friends and family who received the annual card. All that changed in 1952 when Burt asked the Blue Reys, the vocal ensemble of Alvino Rey’s orchestra (which Burt, a jazz trumpeter, had joined in 1949), to sing through that year’s carol, “Come, Dear Children.” The group was so impressed that they performed it and a few other of Burt’s carols at the King Sisters’ Christmas party that year. With exposure to the Hollywood music scene, word of Burt’s carols began to spread. James Conkling, president of Columbia Records, arranged to have the carols recorded by a professional choir at the North Hollywood Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Burt, whose health was rapidly deteriorating due to lung cancer, composed four new carols to fill the 10″ LP, one of which, “The Star Carol,” was included in the 1954 Burt family Christmas card. The resulting album, The Christmas Mood (Columbia) was released in time for the 1954 holiday season. Unfortunately, Burt passed on February 7 of that year and was not able to see the project to completion.¹

Shawnee Press published Burt’s original arrangements for SATB choir in two sets.

While Alfred Burt’s carols may not top most people’s lists of holiday favorites, a few have been covered several times over the years. One is the tender and chant-like “Some Children See Him,” written in an unusual 5/4 meter with an almost modal, folk-like melody. With verses crafted by Burt family friend and church organist Wihla Hutson, the heartwarming song reminds us that children from all races “[w]ill see the baby Jesus’ face / Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace, / And filled with holy light.” Powerful words, especially considering the song was composed in 1951–less than a decade after the end of World War II, at the height of the Korean War, and at dawn of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Xenophobia and racial tensions in America were strong, and Hutson’s verse stressed that we should learn from the innocence of children that love and tolerance is more powerful than hate and fear.

Following the release of The Christmas Mood, “Some Children See Him” was covered by Andy Williams on his album Merry Christmas (1965, Columbia). Three years later, Perry Como recorded it for The Perry Como Christmas Album (1968, RCA Victor), but it was ultimately cut from the album and not released until 1999, when RCA compiled a collections of Como’s greatest holiday hits. More recently, James Taylor included an intimate and heartwarming rendition on his first Christmas album in 2004 (Hallmark limited edition), which Columbia then re-released with a slightly altered track listing two years later (pictured right). Ten years later, Kenny Rogers recorded the track as a duet with Alison Krauss for his album Once Again It’s Christmas, modifying the tune to fit a more conventional triple meter.

Abbie Burt Betinis, composer and great niece of Alfred Burt. Image from AbbieBetinis.com.

Though Alfred passed away in 1954, the Burt family tradition lives on! In 2001, Alfred Burt’s great niece, Abbie Burt Benitis, renewed her uncle’s legacy of sending Christmas greetings complete with new carols. Now a professor of composition at Concordia University in Saint Paul, MN, Benitis has set music to texts written by her Uncle Alfred, her Great-Grandfather Bates, and Wihla Hutson. Her mother, Emily Burt, has helped each year in the creation and mailing of the cards. Last December, Benitis sat down with John Birge of Classical Minnesota Public Radio to talk about the Burt family tradition and share her new carol for Christmas 2016, “Sing Him to Sleep.” How remarkable that this talented family continues to add new music to the American Christmas songbook!


¹More information about the Burt family tradition of annual carol writing can be found at AlfredBurtCarols.com.

The American Christmas Songbook: “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” (1945)

Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. Courtesy of Getty Images.

On Friday, we learned how composer Mel Tormé and lyricist Bob Wells wrote “The Christmas Song” in an attempt to get their mind off the blistering heat Los Angeles was experiencing in July of 1945. Apparently, they weren’t the only songwriting team in town inspired by the triple-digit figures on the thermometer to dream about winters up north. Over in an office on Hollywood and Vine, the not-yet-famous Broadway composer Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn decided that rather than spending the hot summer day at the beach, they would craft a tune about winter weather. The result was “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” It’s hard to imagine that a song dedicated to frozen precipitation was composed in 100+° temperatures in Southern California.

The first edition of sheet music for “Let it Snow” with a photo of Vaughn Monroe.

The song sets the scene of a fellow who is reluctant to head out into a snowstorm after spending a romantic evening with his sweetheart. He suggests that, since there’s no immediate need for him to leave, the two stay by the warm fire, pop some popcorn (that he had evidently brought with him and withheld until that point), and turn the lights down low. It seems she obliges, as the final verse mentions the fire slowly dying and how they’re still “goodbye-ing.” This vignette sounds awfully familiar to, but much less morally questionable than, the exchange between two lovers in Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Loesser wrote his tune a year earlier (in 1944), but it was not recorded until he sold the song to MGM in 1948 to be used in their upcoming film, Neptune’s Daughter (more on that in a forthcoming post). It’s possible that Cahn and Styne may have heard the song at one of Loesser’s Christmas parties before writing “Let it Snow,” but it’s rather unlikely.

“Let it Snow” was quickly handed off to vocalist and big band leader Vaughn Monroe to record for RCA Victor. It was released in time for Christmas 1945 and reached #1 on the Billboard Best Sellers chart by late January. It’s a lovely recording, complete with full, brassy big band spectacle, but it’s not the most familiar version to ears over seventy years later. Woody Herman released his own arrangement with his orchestra for Columbia Records that reached #7 while Monroe’s was at #1, but it is also unknown to most modern listeners. More popular recordings include Frank Sinatra and the B. Swanson Quartet’s (single, Columbia, 1950), Jo Stafford and the Starlighters’ (on Happy Holiday, 1955, Columbia), and Ella Fitzgerald’s (on Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, 1960, Verve). However, the cover that has best stood the test of time, with its recognizably cheerful piccolo duet in the first few bars, is Dean Martin’s recording featuring an orchestra led by Gus Levene from the 1959 album A Winter Romance (Capitol). The album includes other Christmas standards, as well as Styne and Cahn’s warm-weathered counterpart to “Let it Snow,” “The Things We Did Last Summer.” Much like A Winter Romance, “Let it Snow” was not created with intentions of it becoming a Christmas hit. In fact, nothing explicitly holiday-related is mentioned in the lyrics. Nonetheless, the song has become an essential number in the classic American Christmas songbook.

The American Christmas Songbook: “The Christmas Song” (1945)

Another November has come and passed, and though the church has not yet even begun observing the season of Advent, chances are that you’ve already been listening to (of your own volition or not) Christmas music. In fact, Sirius XM satellite radio subscribers could begin tuning into its two most popular Christmas stations, Holiday Traditions and Holly, on November 1. That’s a bit too early for me personally, but I recall seeing several friends post on Facebook about how happy they were to be hearing yuletide favorites once again. And frankly, who can blame them? This year, more than ever, the lyrics to Jerry Herman’s “We Need a Little Christmas,” (from Mame, 1966) come to mind:

For we need a little music,
Need a little laughter,
Need a little singing,
Ringing through the rafters,
And we need a little snappy
“Happy ever after”
We need a little Christmas now!

And thus, I’ve decided to share posts over the next 16 business days leading up to Christmas in which I’ll shed some light on the conception of some of our most beloved Christmas melodies. As I am admittedly one who can grow tired quickly from hearing the same tunes recycled, re-imagined, and replayed over and over again, I thought that you, like me, might find a new appreciation for them by learning the stories of their origins.


Mel Tormé with the King Cole Trio. Courtesy of Getty Images.

We’ll start with a classic that most people know by the opening line rather than the title, The Christmas Song. According to the composer, Mel Tormé, he and his lyricist partner, Bob Wells, wrote the song in about 45 minutes on a particularly hot July afternoon in 1945. Tormé recalls, in his 1988 autobiography It Wasn’t All Velvet, that he entered Wells’ house in the San Fernando Valley and found a writing pad on the piano with four lines of verse:

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos

By the time Wells greeted his guest, Tormé had already began setting the verse to song. What started as a mental escape from the crushing Los Angeles heat quickly became a lush ballad that was destined for fame. The songwriting duo were so pleased with their spontaneous work that they immediately drove over to Hollywood and performed it for their manager, Carlos Gastel. Among Gastel’s other notable clients were Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, and the legendary Nat King Cole.¹

Cole fell in love the melody immediately, but it wasn’t recorded until a year later, on June 14, 1946, at WMCA Studios in New York City for then-four-year-old Capitol Records. This recording, however, was immediately shelved and only released in 1989–by accident–when Rhino Records included it in a compilation album.² It features only the King Cole Trio with Oscar Moore on guitar and Johnny Miller on bass. Cole insisted, at the displeasure of Capitol Records, that the Trio re-record it two months later, this time adding four strings, a harp, and drums. The organization of the music is essentially the same, with the opening chords played by the strings instead of the piano and Moore’s quote from “Jingle Bells” played with major seventh chords at the end. Perhaps still unsatisfied–probably because he had previously sung the grammatically incorrect “reindeers” in the earlier recordings–the King Cole Trio (now with Buddy Cole taking Nat’s place on the piano, John Collins on guitar, and Charlie Harris on bass) recorded the song again in 1953 at Capitol’s studios in Hollywood, this time with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. This version quickly replaced the August 1946 recording for use on radio and compilation albums, but it is still not the recording most often heard today.

The definitive recording was captured nearly eight years later on March 30, 1961, at Captiol’s studios in New York City for inclusion on the album The Nat King Cole Story, a collection of his hits re-recorded in stereo. This version features a full orchestra conducted by Ralph Carmichael with orchestrations by Charles Grean and Pete Rugolo. The improved recording technology produced a significantly better cut, with much warmer vocals from Cole and a better balance with the orchestra. The same dramatic opening from the strings and the signature closing “Jingle Bells” quote on the guitar from the very first cut remain. This would be Cole’s last studio recording of the song that he made a hit–he passed away in 1965 at the age of 45 from lung cancer.

Since then, the song has been covered dozens (if not hundreds) of times. Mel Tormé recorded many renditions himself, and for an appearance on The Judy Garland Show in 1963, he added an introductory verse with new lyrics and concluded by singing, with Garland, the second half of “Here We Come A-wassailing.” My favorite version, which should come as no surprise to my friends, is from The Carpenters’ 1978 album, Christmas Portrait (A&M). Please enjoy this video of Karen lip-syncing it for their 1977 ABC television special, The Carpenters at Christmas.

Come back Monday when we’ll learn about another song that was inspired by LA’s summer heat wave of 1945!


¹Tormé, Mel. It Wasn’t All Velvet: An Autobiography. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Viking, 1988.

²Various artists. Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits, 1935-1954. , 1989. Sound recording. The liner notes indicate that this is the August 1946 recording with strings, but the track used was in fact the June 1946 recording with only vocals, guitar, and bass.