Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Christmas Song "Behold That Star" & Its African American Composer Thomas W. Talley

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases the Christmas song "Behold That Star" and its African American composer Thomas Washington Talley.

The content of this post is presented for historical, religious, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thomas Washington Talley (1870-1952)

..."The majority of Talley’s teaching career, from 1903 to 1942, was spent at Fisk, where he taught chemistry, biology, and science, and was chair of the Chemistry Department for twenty-five years. Having earned a doctorate from Walden University in Nashville in 1896, he also spent two postgraduate summers, 1914 and 1916, at Harvard. In 1931 he finished a degree from the University of Chicago.

Although Talley’s profession was teaching and chemistry research, he made significant contributions to the study of American music, specifically black folk music. Music was a constant throughout Talley’s life. He joined the Fisk music program in 1888 and sang bass and toured with the New Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1890. He was a member of a quartet, active in the Mozart Society at Fisk, and conducted the Fisk choir for several seasons. Talley also participated in music activities at the Fisk Union Church.

Around the age of fifty, at the end of World War I, Talley began collecting rural black traditional songs. He sought texts from the Middle Tennessee countryside and elsewhere through an active network of friends, family, students, and colleagues, and recalled songs from memory or from his travels. In 1922 Macmillan published these folksongs as Negro Folk Rhymes (Wise and Otherwise) containing 349 secular folksongs (some with music notations), an essay by Talley, and an introduction by Walter Clyde Curry, literature professor at Vanderbilt University. This successful publication was the first serious collection of folksongs from Tennessee, the first compilation of black secular folksong, and the first to be assembled by a black scholar.

In addition, Talley accumulated stories from African American rural communities and compiled a manuscript of folk narratives. The unpublished work was entitled “Negro Traditions,” a version of which was later published in 1993. Talley also wrote an original composition, “Behold That Star,” which has since entered the Christmas music repertoire.

Talley retired from Fisk around 1942. He worked for the War Department during World War II. Talley moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1943 but eventually returned to Nashville, where he spent his last years writing about the sciences."

From "Behold That Star An Original Jubilee Carol by Thomas Washington Talley, Date: First Half of 20th Century"
... "[Thomas Washington] Talley was a gifted musician. He sang bass and toured with the New Fisk Jubilee Singers. He was director of Fisk's Mozart Society and for a time conducted the Fisk Choir. Seeking a Christmas spiritual for the Jubilee Singers to perform and finding none that was suitable, he composed "Behold That Star." At what date is not known.

Marian Anderson (1897–1993) performed Talley's spiritual in a 1916 arrangement made for solo voice and piano by Harry T. Burleigh (1866–1949). In this version for chorus and solo voices I have kept Burleigh's original accompaniment, and have arranged a choral refrain, alternating with verses set in a call-and-response pattern between soloists and choir."

[written by Albert Blackwell, February 2, 2012]

From posted by Mary in Kentucky, Date: 10 Dec 01 - 04:05 PM
"Talley, Thomas W. Negro Folk Rhymes. A New expanded edition, with Music. Charles K. Wolfe. Music transcriptions by Bill Ferreira. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1991. Rev. ed. of Negro folk rhymes, wise and otherwise, published 1922 by the Macmillan Company.* Contains music (ISBN 0-87049-673-5)...

The following are quotes mentioning "Behold That Star" from the introduction [of that book]:

...Florence Hudson Botsford invited Talley to contribute a song to her collection, Folk Songs of Many Peoples, and he sent her an original composition called 'Behold That Star'." (pp. xviii-xix)...

During the [second world] war, Talley did classified work for the War Department; he returned to Nashville during this time and began working on a book-length manuscript entitled "A Concept of the Magnetic Atom." During his latter years, he seemed to view this as his life's work and he produced several drafts of it. It had little to do with folklore. He continued to compose music and completed a mass which was never published. His song "Behold That Star" entered the Christmas music repertoire and was widely reprinted in anthologies. In the early 1970s, the piece was performed on a national broadcast by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, with Leontyne Price singing. By this time the song had become so pervasive that Talley's name had been detatched from it, and Bernstein announced that he regretted that he did not know who had composed the song." (pp. xx-xxi).

The above information was gathered by Masato Sakurai.
* The original 1922 edition of Thomas W. Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes Wise & Otherwise is available online at
Warning: What is now known as "the n word" is fully spelled out in this book.

**Folk Songs of Many Peoples, Volume 1 by Florence Hudson Botsford was published by Womans Press , Harvard University in 1921. It is available online as a Google book

(Thomas W. Talley)

Behold that star!
Behold that star up yonder,
Behold that star!
It is the star of Bethlehem.

1. There was no room found in the inn.
It is the star of Bethlehem.
For Him who was born free from sin.
It is the star of Bethlehem. Refrain

2. The wise men travelled from the East. [1]
It is the star of Bethlehem.
To worship Him, the Prince of Peace.
It is the star of Bethlehem. Refrain

3. A song broke forth upon the night.
It is the star of Bethlehem.
From angel hosts all robed in white.
It is the star of Bethlehem. Refrain

1. Or: The wise men came on from the east.

These examples are posted in chronological order based on their posting dates with the oldest dated exampls given first.]

Example #1: Behold That Star" (1963)- The Patterson Singers

JayEm86, Uploaded on Nov 29, 2008
The Patterson Singers' rendition of Thomas W. Talley's "Behold That Star" is what I call a "gospelized song", that is, a song that is arranged and sung in a manner of African American Gospel song. There are many different types of African American Gospel music, but the tempo is usually increased in a "gospelized" song.

Example #2: Morehouse/Spelman Choirs - Behold The Star

mikep793, Uploaded on Dec 13, 2010

Christmas Concert
"Behold That Star" is often categorized as a Spiritual. However, "Behold That Star" differs considerably from African American Spirituals in that it has a known composer and its lyrics are usually fixed. I describe "Behold That Star" as a Christmas song which was composed in the manner of African American Spirituals.

Example #3: Behold That Star

Bel Canto Singers Bahamas, Published on Dec 19, 2012

Thanks to Thomas Washington Talley for his life worth, including composing the Christmas song "Behold That Star". Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks to the vocalists & musicians who are showcased in this post & thanks to the publishers of those examples on YouTube.

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