The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Behold That Star

An Original Jubilee Carol by Thomas Washington Talley,
Date: First Half of 20th Century
MIDI sequenced by Bill Egan / Noteworthy Composer

Refrain:
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. Return

When Thomas W. Talley was the director of the Mozart Society at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, he was looking for a Christmas number that would capture the spirit of a jubilee song. He wrote, "As the son of an ex-slave, I knew a great many jubilee songs, but none pertained to Christmas." After searching far and wide, he realized he would have to create an original jubilee carol. "Behold That Star" was the result. From Christmas.com.

The work of collecting, harmonizing, and interpreting the spirituals, originally done by northern white men, was gradually taken over by the Fisk students, alumni, and faculty. Authentic dialect was introduced; new songs were discovered and added to the repertoire, among them the present favorites, "Little David, Play on Your Harp", "Witness," "All God's Chillun Got Wings." John W. Work, a member of the University faculty, and his brother Frederick collected spirituals in rural communities, which they published in New Jubilee Songs (1905). Folk Songs of the American Negro (1915), by the same authors, and Thomas W. Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes (1922) also gave this folk music permanent form.

Thomas W. Talley (1870-1952) was recognized during his lifetime primarily as a chemist (he was chairman of the chemistry department from 1902 to 1927), teacher, and administrator at Fisk University. However, he was also Tennessee's first African-American folklorist. A native of Bedford County, he began collecting folk songs about 1900, and published many of them in Negro Folk Rhymes in 1922. The work was republished in 1991, edited by Charles K. Wolfe. One reviewer of the new edition wrote:

Anyone even remotely interested in folklore, folk music, or American history should get this book. It contains over 400 rhymes (some with music) collected in the early 1900s by Thomas W. Talley, a black chemistry professor from Tennessee. Most of the rhymes are American, but there are a few from Africa, Jamaica, and elsewhere.

This alone would be worth the price of admission, but this edition also contains a new essay on the work, plus an updated bibliography and index, plus the original introduction by Thomas W. Talley (an excellent 50-page essay which covers performance practice and even details of instrument construction), plus additional rhymes and music that didn't make it into the original edition.

Great to page idly through or to read cover-to-cover, this book would be a fantastic addition to anyone's collection.

Later, he compiled the state's first collection of Black folk tales, Negro Traditions that was reissued in 1993 under the editorship of Laura C. Jarmon with an introduction by Charles K. Wolfe:

The editors provide an introduction and scholarly apparatus to a collection of previously unpublished tales that constitute a major contribution to the annals of African-American folk narrative. Talley, who was a chemistry professor at Fisk University and a pioneer in African-American folklore, collected these tales during the 1920s from childhood memories of stories told during the post-Civil War era by friends and family in rural Tennessee.

Talley was also a skilled singer and composer.

George L. White, treasurer of Fisk University, first organized the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1867. He recognized the strange, compelling beauty of the songs sung by the students, almost all of whom were former slaves, and believed that the world, too, would recognize and acclaim them. Encouraged by the success of local concerts, he planned extended tours in the hope of winning friends and funds for the young school. The group, then called the Colored Christian Singers, visited practically all the large cities in the North, the British Isles, and the principal countries of Europe in the 1870's. They entertained nobility and royalty, and everywhere their songs aroused first curiosity, then deep interest and admiration.

Counter clockwise from top left:
William Grant Still,
Howard Odum,
Thomas W. Talley,
Louise Pound