A number of years ago Rockefeller Center in New York City began what has since become a tradition in that city – they paid tribute to what they called “the only two true Christmas carols composed in America.” One of those is “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem” composed by the Reverend Phillip Brooks.
The second was written by someone unknown to New York audiences, and it probably came as a surprise to those sophisticated New Yorkers that this well-known piece of music and lyrics were truly American.
The year 1869 was unusually hard for residents in Utah’s Dixie. The lack of summer rains and irrigation water, and the blazing heat of summer had withered the crops long before they could be harvested. The people of St. George, Washington and Santa Clara had withered too – being able to work only during the early morning hours in the sweltering summer fields.
The autumn had been harsh and dry. Brown corn stocks rattled in the wind and the dust blew soil from the fields. Christmas this year, it appeared, would not be a happy time for the saints. The people of Utah’s Dixie needed encouragement and something to charm the season.
Apostle Erastus Snow was the LDS Church leader in Dixie and he worried about the sadness he saw in the faces he met. Food was so scarce that a holiday feast wouldn’t be possible, he’d have to look elsewhere for something to cheer the holiday.
He called Charles Walker, the acknowledged poet laureate of Dixie to his office, and John Macfarlane the local choirmaster. He called them to write a special number for a Christmas gathering. The two men were excited about the prospect – they had collaborated on pieces for a number of years.
Walker wrote some lyric ideas and took them to Macfarlane at his home in Washington City. John and Anne lived in a small house at 294 East on a street that would eventually be called – Telegraph. The adobe house had only one room and a small lean-to in the back. Inside was John’s pride and joy – a small pump reed organ.
No matter how much he tried, Macfarlane couldn’t come up with fitting music to Walker’s verses. The days were getting close to Christmas and not a single note had been composed. John couldn’t sleep well at night, worrying about his charge. Then one night he woke with a start. Some simple notes were in his mind. The room was cold and the floor icy under his feet. He wrapped himself in a blanket. Rather than disturb Anne, John stepped out his front door and stood on his porch. The sky was filled with soft clouds and a full moon peeked at the earth as the clouds rolled by.
The valley before him was beautiful. The desert of southern Utah lay beyond the fields to the south – much like the desert of Judea on that night centuries ago when the angels filled the skies with their halleluiahs. Suddenly, as John Macfarlane looked out over the desert the complete melody and the words came flooding into his mind. They were not Walker’s words, but he knew he must write them down immediately before they were lost.
“Hurry up, Anne, light the lamp and pump the bellows! I’ve finally got it.”
What a sight they must have made – John, a handsome five-foot ten, and Anne not quite five feet tall – both in their nightgowns. John playing and humming as Anne pumped the bellows. Between them they had produced that second great American Christmas carol – “Far, Far Away on Judea’s plain” and finished it with the angel’s Halleluiahs!