The stories behind
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Rob Lutes focuses on the origins of 19th-century parlour songs

By Byron Toben

February 23, 2022

This four-part series has been a Wednesday afternoon delight thus far. Credit to organizer Michelle Lander of the Cummings Centre, who came across Mr. Lutes and arranged for his presenting the series.

In part three, he continues with 19th-century songs. As in part 2, he began with a few screenshots of some of the people featured in the preceding episode. This included Frederick Weatherly, who wrote the lyrics to Danny Boy. Lutes played the humble banjo, featured in many songs of the era, such as Dinah and I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.

Patrick S. Gilmore

Patrick S. Gilmore – Image: Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For 1867, the Year of Canada’s Confederation, Alexander Muir, a school teacher in Ontario, wrote The Maple Leaf Forever, which entwined the Lily, Shamrock, Thistle and Rose with the Maple leaf. It was the de facto Canada’s national anthem until 1980 when O Canada was adopted as the official national anthem. A “traditional” Canadian song folk song, Silver Birch, was popularized in 1920 and adopted by both the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movements, with its emphasis on canoeing.

Rod Lutes then focused on the category of Parlour Songs. The most famous was Home Sweet Home, with melody by Sir Henry Bishop and lyrics adapted from a song in a Howard Payne opera. It became popular during the U.S. Civil War, even though banned by the Northern Army as enticing desertion for the comforts of hearth and home.

The Civil war also inspired When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, written by Irish-American Patrick Gilmore, whose sister prayed for the safe return of her Union soldier friend, John O’Rourke. The tune was based on an old Irish song, Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye.

Stephen Foster contributed to this genre with Hard Times in 1854, as well as his Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, written with his estranged wife Jane in mind. Though not mentioned by Lutes, my mind drifted to the 1950s Spike Jones boisterous parody I Dream of Brownie with the Light Blue Jeans.

Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe – Image: Photographer unidentified, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I awakened as Lutes delved into other songs associated with the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Most prominent was The Battle Hymn of the Republic with lyrics by abolitionist/suffragette/poet Julia Ward Howe. The tune was inspired by the John Brown’s Body song (John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave), which in turn was developed by groups singing in camp meetings, so no one composer is credited. Again, my mind drifted off to the Allen Sherman 1962 parody of that battle hymn, The Ballad of Harry Lewis (Glory, Glory Harry Lewis, a cutter of velvet cloth, who worked for Irving Roth).

Back to Lutes who brought up other key events inspiring songs including the California gold rush of 1849, as exemplified by Oh My Darling Clementine. This American Western ballad was written in 1884 and credited to Percy Montrose with tune unknown. The song mourns the drowning of Clementine, daughter of a miner, ’49er, who falls into a river while her lover on shore can not aid her as he does not know how to swim. This was the era of westward expansion, driven largely by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the theory that America was destined under God to expand and bring democracy and capitalism over all of North America. (Today, one might relate it to ethnic cleansing of indigenous tribes.)

Musically, it inspired such songs as Home On The Range, which became known as “the Cowboy’s Anthem.” It was written in 1874 by Brewster M. Higley who had moved to Kansas from Indiana to take advantage of the Homestead Act. His guitar-playing friend, Daniel E. Kelley, set it to music. In 1947, it was adopted as the state song of Kansas.

The arc of Lutes episodes thus far shows the progression of the selected songs from English roots to Scottish and Irish folk to Minstrel shows to American and Canadian roots. The final part 4 promises to delve into ragtime.

Another itinerant song, Big Rock Candy Mountain, was written in 1890 by street busker Harry McClintock, based on folk tunes of the day, with unknown authors. A long-time hobo, he managed to record it in 1928. Three states – Utah, Colorado and Utah – have dubbed some rock formations in their borders with that name.

Rare photograph of Thomas Dilward in drag

Rare photograph of Thomas Dilward in drag (1866) – Image: Cowan’s Auctions

The arc of Lutes episodes thus far shows the progression of the selected songs from English roots to Scottish and Irish folk to Minstrel shows to American and Canadian roots. The final part 4 promises to delve into ragtime.

I see now that I have been remiss in not noting one of the stars of the minstrel era. As related earlier, most of the performers were white persons wearing burnt cork blackface. One black performer was able to star and make a lot of money on worldwide tours to England, Australia and New Zealand around 1858. That would be the actor, singer, dancer, violinist Thomas Dilward, a 3-foot-tall dwarf billed as “Japanese Tommy”. He wore blackface so audiences, at least in the USA, could not see that he was actually a black man! He even performed some times in drag as a woman.

He was credited for having invented the phrase “hunky-dory.” He also later became known as the “African Tom Thumb.” This would make a great bio film today, although casting might be a problem.

Feature image: Rob Lutes, roblutes.comBouton S'inscrire à l'infolettre –

More articles from Byron Toben

Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.

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