Familiar Songs - Their Authors & Histories

300 traditional songs, inc sheet music with full piano accompaniment & lyrics.

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The name of Dr. Thomas Dunn English is familiar to the readers of the past forty years; but I think it has not generally been associated with this widely popular song. The music appeared with only the composer's name attached, and that has always been given incorrectly.
Dr. English was born in Philadelphia, June 29, 1819. He received the degree of M. D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1839, was called to the bar in 1842, and has been a practising physician at Fort Lee, New Jersey, since 1859. He was for years devoted to lit­erary pursuits, as author, editor, and contributor to various periodicals. His vigorous poem, "The Gallows-Goers/' made a great sensation about 1845, when capital punishment was an exciting subject of popular debate. A selection from his historical poems has recently (1880) been published in New York, under the title of "American Ballads."
"Ben Bolt" was written in 1842. Its author was visiting in New York, and N. P. Willis, who with George P. Morris was editing the New Mirror, asked him for a gratuitous con­tribution, and suggested that it be a sea-song. Dr. English promised one, and on returning to his home, attempted to make good his word. Only one line that smacked of the sea came at his bidding; but at a white heat he composed the five stanzas of " Ben Bolt," as it now reads, betraying the original intention in the last fine of the last stanza. Within a year the poem had been reprinted in England, and its author then thought it might be a still greater favorite if set to appropriate music. Dominick M. H. Hay wrote an air for it, which was never printed; and Dr. English wrote one himself, which, although printed, had no sale. It was written entirely for the black keys. In 1848, a play was brought out in Pittsburgh, Penn., called "The Battle of Buena Vista," in which the song of "Ben Bolt" was introduced. A. M. Hunt, an Englishman, connected with western journalism, had read the words in an English newspaper, and gave them from memory to Nelson Kneass, filling in from his imagination where his memory failed. Kneass adapted a German melody t<> the lines, and they were sung in the play. The drama died, but the song survived. A music publisher of Cincinnati obtained the copyright, and it was the business success of his career. In theatres, concert-rooms, minstrel-shows, and private parlors nothing was heard but " Ben Bolt." It was ground on hand-organs, and whistled in the streets, and " Sweet Alice " became the pet of the public. A steamboat in the West, and a ship in the East, were named after her. The steamer was blown up, and the ship was wrecked; but Alice floated safely in the fragile bark of song. The poem went abroad, and obtained great popularity in England. The streets of London were flooded with parodies, answers, and imitations, printed on broadsides, and sung and sold by curbstone minstrels. A play was written there, based upon it, and as late as 1877 a serial novel ran through a London weekly paper of note, in which the memories evoked by the singing of " Ben Bolt" played a prominent part in evolving the catastrophe.
Nelson Kneass (not Nicholas, as the name has been generally printed), came of a good family, but preferred a semi-vagrant life. He was a teacher of music in New York, and a singer in the Parle Theatre, and afterward became a negro minstrel. He married a Mrs. Sharpe, who lost her life by falling overboard from a Mississippi steamboat. He was a jolly, companionable fellow, " nobody's enemy but his own," and ended a precarious existence in poverty. He always complained that he received but a trifle for the music. The author of the words, in true authorly fashion, never received anything, not even a copy of the published song, and when he complained of mutilation in the words, he was told that they were decidedly improved! I give the original stanzas complete.