Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem is one of my favorite Christmas songs. If you’re a believer it has an awesome comparison between the literal star that led the way to Bethlehem-and an absolute declaration of the Star that still shines forth brightly from that distant manger of long ago.
The song has a folky sound to it-which most certainly appeals to my tastes in music. There’s also more than a few Christmas play memories tied to the song for me-the words are perfect for a nativity type play with Angels, Wisemen, and the Holy Family gathered round.
Chatter and Chitter have been singing the song around the house for the past few weeks, and as I listened to them I began to wonder who actually wrote the song. A quick check in an old Songs of Faith choir book showed me the song was attributed to R. Fisher Boyce as well as Words & harmony-Adger M. Pace. I assumed the 2 collaborated on the song-but a quick google showed me I was wrong.
The December 2004 Issue of Old-Times Times had this to say about the song’s history:
Few people today realize the popular Christmas song “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” was written by the late R. Fisher Boyce in a Middle Tennessee milk barn in the early part of the 20th century. It would go on to become a seasonal standard performed by a variety of artists, and it would eventually be sung in the White House by The Judds during a nationally televised Bob Hope Christmas special.
Boyce was born in the tiny community of Link, located in southern Rutherford County, in November 1887. The third of six children, Boyce loved music and was singing solo and in quartets by the early 1900s. In the spring of 1910, he married Cora Carlton from the Rockvale community. They would become the parents of 11 children, five of whom lived to be adults. Only one daughter, Willie Ruth Eads, remains alive. Eads remembers singing as a great source of entertainment for their family. The neighbors would come in, and we’d all gather around our family piano,” Boyce’s daughter said. “My sister Nanny Lou (Taylor) would play, and we would sing way into the night.”
In 1911, the young couple celebrated their first wedding anniversary and saw Boyce’s song “Safe in His Love” published by the A.J. Showalter Company, one of the early publishers of shape note hymnals. As did many others from across the Southeast, Boyce later traveled to Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, to attend one of the annual music normal schools conducted by the James D. Vaughan Publishing Company, which was founded around 1900. Vaughan was another major publisher of shape note hymnals. After completing his studies, Boyce went on to teach shape note “singing schools” through-out the area. In 1940, the Vaughan Company published Boyce’s song “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.” The song was printed in the company’s song-book, Beautiful Praise. Later, the song would be republished in Vaughan’s Favorite Radio Songs.
Dr. Charles Wolfe, a Middle Tennessee State University English professor and nationally recognized authority on the origins of traditional country and gospel music, said, “Vaughan’s Favorite Radio Songs would be like a collection of greatest hits today.” By the 1940s, radio was an important part of the American landscape and reached a vast audience. Vaughan salesmen would pitch the songs in this book to radio stations and quartets who performed on the stations in an effort to broaden their exposure. Boyce wrote “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” while the family was living on a dairy farm in the Plainview community, about two or three miles from what is now the Interstate 24 Buchanan Road Exit. The songwriter’s son, the late Franklin Boyce, recalled in a 1996 interview that his dad said he couldn’t concentrate in the house because of noise made by the children. He walked across the road to the barn to find the solitude he needed to write. “My father said the song was inspired by the Lord. Otherwise, how could he, a simple country man, ever write a song about such a glorious event in world history?” Franklin Boyce asked. When searching through some old papers, the family found a yellowed article clipped from The Daily News Journal, a newspaper in Murfreesboro. It had been written in the early 1960s. A story by Marie Chapman recounts the elder Boyce’s recollection of how the song came to be written. “I got up one Sunday morning to write it down,” Boyce recalled. When his train of thought was interrupted by a member of the family who entered the room singing, he moved his pencil and pad to the barn, and there “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” was put on paper. “The words and melody got on my mind,” Boyce told Chapman, “till I could hardly sleep at night.” The humble farmer said he looked upon both the words and tune as gifts from God.
Ironically, the family has never received royalties from the song. As was commonplace during that time in history, the legal copyright became the property of the company that published the material. As a rule, the song-writers were paid a one-time fee. To make a living, Boyce taught private voice lessons and worked at a variety of jobs including dairy farming and insurance and nursery sales. During his later years, Boyce and his wife moved into town where he and a nephew, M. B. Carlton, were partners in the Ideal Fruit Market on West College Street. There, Boyce sold single copies of the song for a small amount of money.
After I read the article above I thought-well thats a lovely history of the song-but what about Adger M. Pace-who is he? A quick google found me this page: Preserving the Past to Protect the Future. The short bio had this to say about Mr. Pace:
Born August 13, 1882 near Pelzer, South Carolina, Adger M. Pace soon gained a love and appreciation for music that characterized the remainder of his life. He sang bass for seventeen years as a member of the Vaughan Radio Quartet, singing over WOAN–one of the South’s first radio stations. He was also active in singing conventions, serving as one of the organizers and the first president of the National Singing Convention in 1937.
Pace’s most significant contribution was as a teacher of gospel music. He taught harmony, counterpoint and composition in the Vaughan School of Music in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, educating the first generation of Southern gospel Music leaders. Beginning in 1920, he served for 37 years as Music Editor for all Vaughan publications. He was also a notable songwriter–composing more than a thousand songs in his career. Among his many popular contributions were “That Glad Reunion Day,” “Jesus Is All I Need,” “The Home-coming Week,” “The Happy Jubilee,” and “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.”
Hmmm no mention of R. Fisher Boyce in the article about Adger M. Pace. However you can see the clear connection between the 2-The Vaughan School of Music. One more quick google landed me on the Mudcat music forum. Seems other folks have already been wondering about the true writer of the song Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. You can go here to read all the back and forth-but basically they came to the conclusion that R. Fisher Boyce wrote and composed the song-but as the first article stated-once Boyce sold the song-he also sold the copyright. Doesn’t seem fair somehow does it? R. Fisher Boyce wrote the song but Adger M. Pace got credit too. But actually it is fair. That was the way of the song writing industry at that point in time.
Now that I’ve given you more history than you wanted to know-I give you the song.
Hope you enjoyed the song-and the history lesson.