It's been 10 years now since we've featured an article about
Irish songs (March 2002). Since March 17th is St. Patrick's Day, and in
honor of our new green color scheme, we decided it was time to revisit the
subject of songs about Ireland, or those that claim to be. A Google search
for "Irish Songs" will take one to a considerable number of sites that list
titles of "traditional" Irish tunes. While many are, in fact, songs whose
origins go back hundreds of years and are derived from Irish folk music,
one will also find listed songs which have been "appropriated", but which
were not written either in Ireland or by Irish composers. This is not intended
in any way as a criticism. It's quite natural for groups to appropriate
a hit tune and make it their own. Some of these songs were deliberately
written to appeal to the large community of Irish immigrants in America.
Others, however, may surprise you as to their true origins.
What's In a Name?
Even if the word "Irish" or Ireland" appears in the song title,
it is difficult to determine the tune's true origin, partly because of the
use of assumed names (pseudonyms) by composers. In some cases, the reason
for the use of such an assumed name is lost to history. An example was the
use of "Alice Hawthorne" by the composer of Whispering Hope,
Septimus Winner, in 1868. In others, the reason may be inferred. Perhaps
the name change was to make a foreign name more "American", thereby making
it easier to pronounce and remember. In the case of Irish songs, most likely
the composer wanted to present an Irish sounding name in hopes of making
the song more sellable. It may have also been due to ethnic prejudices.
The use of assumed names was not confined to the Tin Pan Alley era, however.
Here are some examples of similar name changes from more contemporary times:
Fred Astaire's real name was…………. .Frederick Austerlitz
George Gershwin's real name was………Jacob Gershowitz
real name was………………. Wladziu Lee Valentino
Matthau's real name was……….. Walter Matuschanskayasky
Twitty's real name was………... Harold Lloyd Jenkins
Humperdinck's real name was.. Arnold George Dorsey
To enjoy the full musical experience, we recommend that you
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player allows you to not only listen to the music but to view the sheet
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allow printing of some of the sheet music featured so for those of you who
play the piano (or other instruments) you'll be able to play the music yourself.
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Music by: Ernest R. Ball, Chauncey Olcott Lyrics by: Rida Johnson
Although Chauncey "My Wild Irish Rose" Olcott's
ancestors came from Ireland,
Ernest Ball was of English descent and was born in Cleveland,
Ohio. Even though it doesn't mention Ireland in the lyrics, it is
the dialect in concert with the tune that clues the listener in on
the nature of this song. It was this collaboration with Olcott and
Young that made his fame, and led to the same team writing When
Irish Eyes Are Smiling two years later. In 1914, Ball would
with J. Kiern Brennan and write what is perhaps the most famous of
all Irish ballads A Little Bit of Heaven (Shure They Call It
Ireland). Like Olcott, Brennan was of Irish extraction, but
he was born in San Francisco. In 1915, Ball would follow with She's
the Daughter of Mother Machree(March
2002 article). However, that tune would not enjoy the same popularity
as its predecessors. The simple line of the Mother Machree melody
makes this song a favorite for Irish tenors.
Hear this beautiful
Scorch format, be patient, all the Scorch files this month are very
large file sizes, this sheet music is printable using the Scorch plug-in)
Little is known about the life and career of George W. Persley whose
real name was George W. Brown. Likewise, we can find no information
about the lyricist, not even his given name. In every publication
and on every piece of sheet music, only his initials are used. Although
written in America, this song is clearly reminiscent of Irish folk
melodies, including the switch to the minor key in the second part
of the verse.
One of the most recognizable of the "non-Irish Irish" songs, this
one will appear on almost every site that lists Irish tunes. It is
immediately clear that Westendorf is not an Irish name. The history
of this song is closely intertwined with the previous one.
Thomas Paine Westendorf was born Feb. 23, 1848, at Bowling Green
(Caroline County), Va. For many years, the history of the song had
it that he was a public school teacher in Plainfield, Indiana, and
first performed the song in the Town Hall there in 1875. "Unfortunately,
no town hall existed here at that time; town meetings throughout the
1870s were held, primarily, at the old Central Hotel. The first village
hall - little more than a small, wooden shed with two small rooms
- was not erected until the late 1870s or early 1880s and Westendorf's
name does not appear on any listing of teachers in Plainfield".1
According to a 1948 article by Richard Hill entitled Getting Kathleen
Home Again,2 research that was later
confirmed in 1967 by Herbert R. Collins, a retired employee of the
Smithsonian Institution, Westendorf actually wrote the song while
employed at the Indiana House of Refuge for Juvenile Offenders, Hendricks
County, Indiana, where he had taken a job in 1872.3
While the town of Plainfield is in Hendricks County, the Juvenile
Home is not in the town of Plainfield.
G.W. Persley, a composer who was a close friend of Westendorf, sent
him a copy of a song called Barney Take Me Home Again
after it was published in 1875. Kathleen was written
as a reply or "answer song" to Barney. Notably, Westendorf's wife's
name was not Kathleen. According to Indiana marriage records, Westendorf
married Jennie Morrow in Hendricks County on May 21, 1873.4
We have no way of knowing whether Persley wrote his song using
his own wife as inspiration and, if so, what her name was. Since Ireland
is not mentioned in Barney, and Westendorf's wife was named Jennie,
we're left with the unanswered question, "Why Kathleen and why is
this considered an Irish song?"
In any event, there's no question the song was an immediate hit.
"During 1876, I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen became
one of the most popular songs in America, second only to Grandfather's
Clock. Henry Ford thought so much of it that he is thought
to have gone to some pains to get an autographed copy for the Ford
Museum. Thomas Edison once wrote a letter to Westendorf commending
the song and, according to Westendorf's brother-in-law, Mancha Bruggemeyer,
enclosed a check for $250.00 that he might feel free to use it on
his phonographs. It was broadcast during Edison's funeral service".5
It is unknown exactly when the song became closely associated with,
and assumed to be Irish. But, that association persists to this day,
undoubtedly influenced by uses such as John Ford made of the song
in the movie "Rio Grande" (Republic, 1950), which starred John
Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Here is the clip from the movie which featured
Ken Curtis and the Sons of the Pioneers serenading O'Hara. Of course,
O'Hara's character was named Kathleen. Ken Curtis played Trooper Donnelly,
a good Irish name if ever there was one. One is left to wonder whether
O'Hara's character was named Kathleen in the original screenplay,
or if it was changed after Ford decided to use this song.
1. Michael Lambert, "Columnist Debunks Plainfield's Connection
To Famous Song", column A Town Called Plainfield, published by
Plainfield Patch.com, Nov. 2, 2011
2. Richard S. Hill, "Getting Kathleen Home Again", JSTOR Notes,
Second Series, Vol. 5, No. 3, published by the Music Library Association
(June, 1948), pp. 338-353
3. Op cit
5. Hill, page 338
THAT'S AN IRISH LULLABY
Words and Music by: J.R. Shannon
Who can forget the closing scene of "Going My Way" (Paramount,
1944), in which Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) has brought from Ireland
the 90 year old mother of Father Fitzgibbons (Barry Fitzgerald), who
he hasn't seen in 45 years. The new church organ starts to play, the
boys choir begins to sing, and there's not a dry eye in the house.
This one's just GOT to be a genuine Irish song, right? WRONG!
This is another example of a composer using a pseudonym to make a
song more sellable. In this case,
Shannon's real name was James Royce, which is the old English
form of the name Rice. Other songs by Shannon were Just An Old
Sweetheart of Mine(1912) and Blue Rose (1917).
But, it makes absolutely no difference. This song will always be thought
of as a true Irish tune, and with good reason.
The vocal track on this video clip features our resident male vocalist,
Rich Beil, singing all the voice parts.
Here's a tune that can't be found listed on any Irish song site,
but should be. The melody lends itself to harmony and, if sung as
a ballad, rather than at the original tempo, would make a great pub
sing-a-long. Little is known about Peters. There are only 2 other
titles that can be found which show him as composer, Morning,
Cy (1907) and The Clock of Life (1909). He was
also an arranger, teaming with Gertrude Lincoff in 1930 on "Drifting"
and with Billy Baskette in 1932 on Same Old Moon. Marvin
Lee seems to be just as obscure as Peters. We do know he wrote both
words and music to the 1917 song Livery Stable Blues
which is distinguished by having been recorded by the Original Dixieland
Band and W.C. Handy's Orchestra. That song was briefly revived in
1938 by Bunny Berigan and his band.
We end our St. Patrick's Day salute with another song
that makes the list on every Irish song site. But, like Kathleen,
it never mentions Ireland, wasn't written by an Irish composer, and
wasn't written in Ireland. Coincidentally, this one was also written
by a school teacher. Seeing the name of composer and lyricist, one
immediately pictures them together at the piano working out the tune
and words. However, like America The Beautiful, this
song began as a poem, with music added later.
George Washington Johnson was born in 1839 near Toronto,
Canada. At age 20, he became a school teacher in Hamilton, Ontario,
where he fell in love with Margaret "Maggie" Clark, one of his pupils.
It turns out that Maggie was suffering from tuberculosis, although
it's unclear whether they knew of the illness before or after they
were married in 1864. In any event, during one particularly harsh
period of her illness, Johnson walked to the edge of the Niagara escarpment,
overlooking what is now downtown Hamilton. There, he penned a poem
to her that was first published in 1864 in his book of poetry titled
Maple Leaves. Maggie died on May 12, 1865 at the age
of 23, less than a year after their marriage.
Austin Butterfield was born in England in 1837 and immigrated to the
United States in 1856, first coming to Chicago where he taught violin
and singing. He later established the music house of J.A. Butterfield
& Co. in Indianapolis, where he issued The Musical Visitor,
the first musical journal published in Indiana. It's unclear exactly
how Johnson's poem came to Butterfield's attention, but in late 1865,
he put music to it and it was published in 1866.
Johnson died in 1917. In 2005, he was inducted into
the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1878, Butterfield became
the second president of the Music Teachers National Association. He
died in 1891. The schoolhouse where the two lovers met still stands
on the escarpment above Hamilton, and a plaque bearing the name of
the song has been erected in front of the old building.
Thanks for visiting us and be sure to come back again later to see our next issue or just to read some or all of our over 130 articles about America's music.
See our resources page for a complete bibliography of our own library resources used to research this
and other articles in our series.
If you'd like to contribute an article to us at Parlor Songs, we'd love to have
your help and contribution. The "rules"
for submissions can be found here, we'd love to have submissions by any of
our readers, anytime and would enjoy having a "reader submission" or
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and write a feature for us!
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