Early printing of Hail Columbia, with a portrait of President John Adams
“Hail Columbia” is not a well-known song today, but it has a prominent place in American history. It became a hit immediately after its first performance and remained popular for more than a century.
Of all patriotic songs before the Civil War, only “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America” rivaled “Hail Columbia” in popularity. The former uses the old English drinking song “Anacreon in Heaven” and the latter the English national anthem “God Save the King.”
Oscar Sonneck, who examined these and many of the patriotic songs that never caught on with the public, noted, “”’Hail Columbia’ holds a position quite unique in the history of our national songs for both the words and the music were written in America.”
The word “Columbia” obviously comes from the name Christopher Columbus. The District of Columbia and Columbia University share the name. Columbia is a lady, by the way. Continue reading →
But how many of those belated hits have been based on music of a British composer working in a completely different genre with words by someone who had never met him? Only “Sleepy Lagoon” by Eric Coates comes to mind. Coates composed it in 1930. It only became a hit twelve years later, and first on the other side of the pond. Continue reading →
Alice Fay singing You’ll Never Know in Hello Frisco, Hello
As World War II raged, Hollywood turned to nostalgia of a simpler, safer time. A common theme in movie musicals portrays young performers trying to find success in the entertainment business. A successful wartime example, Hello Frisco, Hello came loaded with dozens of songs that had been hits at the turn of the century. The team of Harry Warren and Mack Gordon provided one original song, “You’ll Never Know.” Introduced by Alice Faye, it immediately became a hit and won the 1943 Oscar for best original song.
The American Civil War inspired more great songs than any other conflict. George Frederick Root composed a large share of them. Some of them are rousing patriotic tunes, such as Battle Cry of Freedom. But he also composed songs about the devastating impact of the war on American families.
“Just Before the Battle, Mother” is one of the earliest of these. It became such a great hit that it inspired many other songs. Root himself composed more than one of them, including the companion piece “Just After the Battle.”
Louis Moreau Gottschalk became the first internationally famous American piano virtuoso and composer. Given his importance and popularity, it may come as a surprise that he spent so little time in the United States. His most important American concert tour coincided with the Civil War.
All his life, Gottschalk kept a journal, in French. In 1881, his sister Clara Peterson and her husband translated it to English and had it published as Notes of a Pianist. It has proved to be one of the great musical diaries of the nineteenth century. Gottschalk recorded detailed observations with sardonic wit. Continue reading →
People nowadays tend to attribute songs to whichever singer made the most famous recording. That’s too bad if they’re ignoring one of the great songwriters. In the case of “Fly Me to the Moon,” people might as well attribute it to Frank Sinatra or some other singer. It’s the only hit song by the almost unknown Bart Howard.
Bart Howard was born in 1915 in Burlington, Iowa. His birth name was Howard Joseph Gustafson. In 1931, at the age of 16, he started his musical career, touring as accompanist for a dance band that featured Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.
In 1934, he moved to Los Angeles, hoping to write songs for Hollywood. It didn’t work out, but he kept busy playing piano. As accompanist for comedienne Elizabeth Talbot-Martin, he performed at Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room in New York in 1937. New York became home professionally for the rest of his life.
Shortly after moving to New York, he met the singer Mabel Mercer. She had a long engagement at Tony’s on 52nd Street, with Howard as her accompanist, and became famous. She introduced “If You Leave Paris,” the first of Howard’s songs ever performed publicly. For many years afterwards, she sang and promoted his songs.
Howard worked as master of ceremonies at the Blue Angel nightclub. He composed numerous songs for the various performers, including Mercer, Johnny Mathis, and Eartha Kitt. He usually wrote both the words and music, like his idol Cole Porter. Continue reading →