Monday, December 21, 2020

The Star Carol Tennessee Ernie Ford—Murfin’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival

                                                        The Star Carol sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Not only is today the Winter Solstice, it is the much anticipated Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn—the two largest planets in the Solar System early this season.  If your sky is clear the two celestial bodies will seem to merge into a single bright object when observed low in the southwestern sky about an hour after sunset.  This extremely rare event has been hyped as the Christmas Star, and in fact some believe that a much earlier appearance may have been what the shepherds and the Magi saw.

It has been nearly 400 years since the planets passed this close to each other in the sky—1623 just 13 years after Galileo observed them through a telescope and nearly 800 years since the alignment occurred at night so that everyone could see it in 1226, when artisans were still building Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and Genghis Khan held sway over Asia.

Did the Magi see the bright object created by a Great Conjunction?  Perhaps, but it would not have remained overhead leading them for days or weeks.

In the year 7 B.C.E they lined up, as seen from Earth, in May, September and early December in a rare triplet, astronomers say. At those junctures, though, the planets were relatively far apart and would have appeared much dimmer than the one expected tonight.  But since historians have noted that in ancient Israel shepherds only “abided in the fields” in the spring lambing season when wolves threatened the flocks, the May congruence is considered a candidate to be the Christmas Star.

Others, however, have speculated that a much brighter conjunction of Jupiter and much nearer-by Venus in 2 B.C.E. is a more likely suspect.  Since the exact year of the Nativity is not known—it could have occurred any time in a nearly 10 year window on either side of the B.C.E/A.C.E divide.

Tonight the earth well be between the Sun and Jupiter and Saturn in their resective orbits making them appear to conjoin into bright object

Tonight the closest alignment Neptune and Jupiter will appear just a tenth of a degree apart.  Although from our vantage point on Earth the huge gas giants will appear very close together, but they will remain hundreds of millions of miles apart in space. And while the conjunction is happening on the same day as the Winter Solstice, the timing is merely a coincidence, based on the orbits of the planets and the tilt of the Earth.

All in all the excitement is understandable.  That coincidence and the Christmas Star story have brought hope in the darkest hour of the year of the Coronavirus to many Christians, New Agers, and even the conventionally non-religious.

However some Fundamentalist Christians—the sort who deny evolution; insist cosmos, Earth, life, and human beings were all Created by God in seven days; that Jonah lived in the belly of whale; and Joshua stopped the Sun—are angry that anyone would dare suggest that the Star was not a literal star and did not miraculously appear to lead the Magi to Bethlehem.  Their resentment is fueled even further because scientists are members of a satanic elite expounding Fake News about climate change, the global coronavirus pandemic, and vaccines. Trumpism has added a dose of rage to their long-standing science denial.

Jazzman and arranger Alfred S. Brooks wrote 14 carols and sent a new one to his Christmas card list evert year,  The last was The Star Carol.

But all of the Christmas Star chatter is reason enough to trot out The Star Carol, relatively modern American carol.  It was the last of 15 carols composed by jazz musician Alfred S. Burt between 1942 and ’55 which he shared privately as annual gifts to his family and friends.  The lyrics were written by Wihla Hutson, a friend and the organist at the Episcopal church in Pontiac, Michigan where his father was rector.  The only public performance of one of the carols during Burt’s life was in a service at the church.

The Star Carol was the last of the songs, completed just two days before Burt died in 1954 at the early age of 34.

Burt was living and working in California and working as an arranger for the Alveno Rey Orchestra when he asked the Blue Reys, vocal group with the band to sing it to test the harmonies of his latest composition in 1952.  They liked it and played it at the annual Christmas Party of the King Sisters.  One of the singing sisters, Donna, was married to James Conkling, then President of Columbia Records.  He liked it so well that he arranged a recording session with a full choir at the North Hollywood Latter Day Saints Church in late 1953 which the terminally ill Burt directed from a wheel chair.  After Burt’s death additional recordings were made at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Studio City. 

Columbia Records's 12 in LP version of The Christmas Mood featured 12 of Burt's carols and an instrumental medley.

For the 1954 Christmas season Columbia released a The Christmas Mood, 10-inch 33 rpm album including most of the carols and in 1957 came out with a 12 inch LP which included more songs for total of 12 and added an instrumental brass ensemble on a medley of the carols arranged and conducted by Ralph Carmichael.

All 14 of the carols were not issued on one recording until 1964 when James Conkling who had moved on the presidency of Warner Bros. Records released This Is Christmas: A Complete Collection of the Alfred S. Burt Carols by the Voices of Jimmy Joyce.  The album was nominated for a Grammy.

Caroling, Caroling and Some Children See Him are the two most popular of Burt’s carols.  The In 1958, Tennessee Ernie Ford made The Star Carol the title song for his first full-length album of Christmas music.   

In 1947 ex-bombardier Erie Ford was a disc jocky on WOPI in Bristol, Tennessee.  He soon moved up to big city California station.

Ford was a unique country music star.  The classically trained base/baritone, World War II bombardier, and post-war radio disc jockey adopted an exaggerated hillbilly persona called Cousin Ernie with the catch phrasebless his pea-pickin’ heart” for his radio program and took it to other country music shows where he sang.  The character was featured in a three episode arc on the I Love Lucy Show.  He had early recording success with up-beat boogie-woogies and his biggest hit was his memorable version of Merle Travis’s coal mining ballad Sixteen Tons. In 1955 he recorded The Ballad of Davy Crockett which reached #4 on the country music chart.

From 1956-1961 he hosted his own prime-time TV variety program, The Ford Show, which ran on NBC.  On the program he changed his image, toning down and then virtually eliminating the bumpkin act.  He eschewed the cowboy hats and spangled attire of many Country acts for sharply tailored suits, razor cut hair, and his signature pencil moustache.  Despite the objections of both the network and his sponsor Ford Motor Company he ended each program with a gospel song. The hymns like The Old Rugged Cross and Were You There When they Crucified My Lord became the most popular feature on the show.

A closing hymn every week on Tennessee Ernie Ford's weekly TV program proved wildly successful and led to a series of best selling gospel albums and his firs Christmas collection The Star Carol.

That led to an album, Hymns, in 1956 which remained on Billboard’s Top Album charts for 277 consecutive weeks, The Star Carol in ’58, and a string of other religious albums including Great Gospel Songs which won a Grammy1964.

After his prime time series ended Ford moved to Northern California and hosted an ABC daytime talk/variety show from KGO-TV in San Francisco from 1962. 

Ford's voice and health were wracked by heavy drinking in his las years.

Despite all of his success years of heavy drinking began to take a toll on his health and voice.  He left his long-time Capitol Records home in 1975 and never again had recording success despite continuing to show u as a guest star on the Mandrel Sisters, Dolly Parton, and Dinah Shore programs.

On September 28, 1991, Ford suffered severe liver failure at Dulles Airport shortly after leaving a state dinner at the White House, hosted by President George H. W. Bush. He died in a Reston, Virginia, hospital on October 17.

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