TBT: O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting

Christmas is looming large—a mere eight days away—and I have been enjoying an unexpectedly quiet exam week.  After returning from Orlando Monday evening, I’ve enjoyed some sleepily productive time at home, writing Christmas postcards and letters, watching movies, and enjoying the warm glow of my Christmas tree.  I’ll be spending next week with family, and all the hustle and bustle of my niece and nephews, so this quiet time at home has been a welcome calm before the joyous storm.

Despite the lack of serious deadlines (other than waiting for final exams to roll in so I can grade them), I’ve managed to get quite a bit done, and I hope to get a bit ahead on the blog.  I enjoy writing daily posts, but it’s nice knowing I have a few posts squared away some days in advance, as it relieves some of the pressure to produce.  I’ll be doing more throwback posts and the like as Christmas approaches, as it’s the time of year when we’re all scaling back our efforts and taking a bit of a break.

That all goes to the point of this TBT post, “O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting.”  The story behind the sweetly iconic carol is one of last-minute inspiration and hasty songwriting.  There is something about the intense pressure of a time-crunch that turns the coal of writer’s block into glistening diamonds.  Not every songwriter works this way, but I know for myself that a hard deadline does wonders for motivating this songwriter’s pen.

Indeed, during the height of distance learning in the spring, I fully anticipated I’d be churning out new hits, maybe even finalizing a long-delayed follow-up to my piano-and-vocals debut, Contest Winner – EP.  Instead, I squandered my newfound time (well, “squandered” is a strong word—I quite enjoyed taking that time to work on the blog, to travel, and to do the other things I’m usually unable to do).  Without a deadline pushing me to create, I didn’t get anything done!

Or maybe that’s just my excuse.  Regardless, I imagine it’s something many songwriters can relate to, and it’s certainly the story behind “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

With that, here is December 2020’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting“:

Somewhere—I think it was in one of the Civilization games, but I can’t seem to find the exact quotation—I heard a pithy saying, something along the lines of “Genius is a combination of pressure and time.”  It’s one of those expressions that instantly rings true.

Years ago, a coffee shop in a nearby town (it’s now become a hip, upscale dining spot—and it axed the live music) used to host a quirky songwriting competition.  The premise was simple—every month, participants would pay $5 entry fee into a pot, and a “secret judge” would pick a winner, who would win that evening’s pot.  Sometimes there would be a small “second round” of the top three contenders for that evening (I won once, back in January 2014, when I believe I debuted “Greek Fair“; I was surprised, but also thankful that I wouldn’t spend $5 a month for the rest of the year).

After ten months of these mini-competitions, the winners would be invited back for one big songwriting contest.  The winner would take home, among other sponsored goodies, [some] kind of cash prize.

I never won “the big one,” but I set a personal challenge for myself:  I would write one new song for every monthly competition I entered.  In many cases, I would be up into the wee hours of the morning hammering out a song to play that evening.  During the years the competition ran, I wrote some of my best work.

It’s worth noting that, once the contest shut down in 2015—the prime mover behind the event moved to New York City—my songwriting largely dried up.  Without the monthly deadline looming, there wasn’t the same push to get it done.

That’s a lengthy, self-indulgent way of making this point:  the story of the sweet, sleepy carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is the story of time and pressure creating something beautiful, a true diamond of [a] hymn.

The rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, Phillip Brooks, wrote a little poem about Bethlehem following a visit there in 1865.  In 1868, he asked the church organist (it’s always the organist, it seems), Lewis Redner, to set the poem to music a week before the Christmas service.

Like most musicians, Redner put it off throughout the week.  The Friday before the Sunday morning service, at which the tune was to be sung, Brooks asked Rector if he’d cranked out the music.  Rector said no, but that he would have it done in time for the service.

Here is Redner himself on the dilemma (quoted, to the dismay of historians everywhere, directly from Wikipediaitself quoting from Studies of Familiar Hymns):

As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, ‘Redner, have you ground out that music yet to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? I replied, ‘No,’ but that he should have it by Sunday. On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.

My recollection is that Richard McCauley, who then had a bookstore on Chestnut Street west of Thirteenth Street, printed it on leaflets for sale. 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 Porchand it was he who christened the music ‘Saint Louis.’

Every songwriter or creator of some kind, with the exception of those possessing the most diligently Germanic temperament (not usually the artistic types, it should be said), have run into this sort of conundrum; at least, I have.  All of the other pressing work of the week takes precedent, with the gnawing feeling that something important but difficult needs to be done.

The pressure builds and builds throughout the week, as previously neglected tasks of a mundane character magically get accomplished—all in service to avoiding the daunting task of creation.  But as the hours dwindle and pressure builds, creativity bursts forth (well, hopefully).

I’m not endorsing procrastination, but Redner’s story resonated with me, one songwriter to another.

As for the song itself—the purported focus of this rambling post—it is a beautiful tune.  As I wrote yesterday, it’s one that evokes peaceful sleepiness.  I imagine listening to it while falling asleep next to a dying fire on Christmas Eve.

The B section of the Redner setting contrasts appropriately—and powerfully—from the sleepy sweetness of the languid A section (which itself has some impressive intervalic leaps—a hallmark of all good Christmas carols, it seems).  The tune moves into a rousing minor mode (though not enough to wake you from your long winter’s nap), before dissolving back into the lyrical final A section.

Like other carols, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” features some secondary dominants harmonically.  In the key of G—the key in my church’s hymnal—the fifth measure moves from the tonic G to an E major.  E minor is the relative minor of G, so this makes sense, but it also allows for interesting chromatic movement (already established in the first full measure, on the word “town,” when the B in the melody moves to an A#):  the G in the G major chord steps up to a G#, while its B stays consistent and its D walks up a whole step to E.

All that theoretical mumbo-jumbo aside, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is another classic Christmas carol.  It lacks the power and majesty of “O Holy Night” or the exuberance of “Joy to the World,” and it falls behind “Silent Night” in the “sleepy, beautiful” category of carols, but it holds its own.  Little wonder, then, we’re still singing (and dozing) to it well into the twenty-first century.

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