Sunday, December 23, 2018

Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—O Little Town of Bethlehem

Well it’s the eve of Christmas Eve and time to turn to traditional carols.  Today we feature one of the oldest American carols whose simple melody and humble reverence made it a Sunday school pageant and parlor piano sing-a-long favorite.  The text was written by Phillips Brooks the rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia in 1868 and hastily set to the music Americans still sing today by his organist Lewis Redner.

Christian pilgrims enter Bethlehem circa 1890.  Things were not much change there since Philips Brooks visited in 1865

Brooks was inspired by the memory of an 1865 pilgrimage to the Holy Land which included a visit to the Arab village of Bethlehem which he imagined to be virtually unchanged since Biblical times.  Shortly before Christmas he was moved to write a poem about the village and took it to Redner to be set to music for a Sunday school program just days ahead.  After considering setting the poem to an existing hymn tune, a common practice, he was in a near panic on Friday night before the program until he claimed to have been whispered to by an angel in his sleep.  He got up, jotted down a simple melody and created harmonies for the choir the evening before the service.

Philip Brooks in his olater days as Episcopal Bishop of Boston.

Neither Brooks nor Redner expected the song to be remembered past its first performance.  But Philadelphia bookstore owner Richard McCauley heard it, liked it, and printed it as a leaflet for sale.  From Redner that recalled that “Rev. Dr. Huntington, rector of All Saints. Church, Worcester, Mass., asked permission to print it in his Sunday-school hymn and tune book, called The Church Porch.  Huntington also named the music St. Louis for some reason and it is still identified by that name in American hymnals.    
By the turn of the 20th Century O Little Town of Bethlehem was one of the most popular carols in the United States.  It also made its way to Britain thanks to its inclusion in Episcopal hymnals but in 1906 it was set to a different melody known as Forest Green by Ralph Vaughan Williams from an English folk ballad called The Ploughboy's Dream which he had collected from a Mr. Garman of Forest Green near Ockley, Surrey that tune is now most commonly used in Britain and Commonwealth Countries and has even supplanted the original in some U.S. Episcopal churches.  Later the poem was attached to sill other songs.

Nat King Cole's version first appeared on this 1960 album which was so succeful that it was re-issued under a different title in 1963.  It has also been included on numerous compilations albums issued since then.
But the original is still treasured and sung by Americans.  It has been recorded many times notably by Bing Crosby, Elvis Pressley, and Sarah McLachlan.  But we have a soft spot for the version by Nat King Cole on his 1960 LP The Magic of Christmas and on his 1963 re-issue retitled The Christmas Song.

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