Growing Old and Aging

Music From Cradle To Grave

I could almost just link you to last Octobers tear-jerkers issue, but all songs about aging and death aren't sad, and all sad songs aren't about getting old and dying, so here goes. This month's issue was inspired by some health issues I had last winter. Things are going well now, but as a result I spent at least my fair share of time involved in introspection. Dr. Kubler-Ross observed that there are 5 pretty standard emotional stages to the process of death and dying. Growing old is part of the death/dying process so these stages probably apply to the whole process.

  1. The first stage is denial
  2. The second is anger or resentment
  3. The third is bargaining
  4. The fourth stage is depression
  5. The fifth and final stage is acceptance

I am not sure if I went through stages one and two properly. Stage three lasted about fifteen seconds I jumped to stage five in about 5 minutes and didn't have time to hit stage four, depression until after every thing was ok.

One of the positive things to come out of the incident is that I started thinking about how songs have dealt with the issue of getting old and dying over the ages.

While looking for songs I have tried to stay away from certain subject matter or sources. Songs about war for example. Most of them are artificial constructs written to take advantage of political events of the time, and not too many war songs about getting old on the front-line waiting for a letter from Mary. We have devoted several issues to the songs of WWI and you can review them find them in our 2000 and 2001 back issues. Likewise I didn't look into songs from the various religious institutions as they tend too often have an agenda, or are divorced from the actual physical experience of aging. Black American Spirituals tend to be too abstract and aren't often available in sheet music form. The Blues are about suffering, but not too much on just plain getting old, and almost nothing on sheet music of the era, at least not in our collections.

To enjoy the full musical experience, we recommend that you get the Scorch plug in from our friends at Sibelius software. The Scorch player allows you to not only listen to the music but to view the sheet music as the music plays and see the lyrics as well. Each month we also 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. It's a complete musical experience! Get the Sibelius Scorch player now.

Richard G Beil, March 2012. This article published March 2012 and is Copyright © 2012 by Richard G. Beil and The Parlor Songs Academy. Text, images or music may not be reproduced in part or in total without express written permission of the author..

Bring Back Those Wonderful Days


Music by: Nat Vincent
Lyrics by: Darl MacBoyle
Cover artist: De Takacs

This is the song that started it all. No not American popular music, but Parlor Songs. Those who have been with us for many years will recall that the original site was inspired by The Forward Collection, Rick's early hobby site, based on a collection of music given to him by his parents. Back in 1996 the very first piece of music that Rick scanned was this tune. Since then, we've grown to over 1,400 songs that have been scanned, athough there are many that have yet to be featured in an article.

As we get older we long for the things that gave us comfort when we where young. In 1919, after 4 long years of horror, World War I was finally over. Prohibition was coming, the Roaring Twenties are about to start and, although no one knew it, the Great Depression is just around the corner.

Longing for days gone by is a theme that permeates the history of song to this day. Who doesn't feel the pain and angst of the words of Those Were the Days by Mary Hopkin?

Just tonight I stood before the tavern
Nothing seemed the way it used to be
In the glass I saw a strange reflection
Was that lonely woman really me
Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
La la la la...

In its time "Bring Back Those Wonderful Days" and the many many songs in a similar vein were probably just as powerful.

You've heard of the lamp of Al-lad-din
What won-der-ful things it could do
If I had it to-day I'd rub it and say
Here's all that I want of you,
Oh won't you

Bring back those hap-py days of child-hood,
won't you Bring back the lane down in the wild-wood
that would lead us to the dear old swim-ing pool
Ev-'ry time that we played hook-y on the way to school, oh,

Hear the song that started it all.(scorch format)

Listen to MIDI version







Music by: George W. Persley

Lyrics by: Arthur W. French

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. 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.

Hear this singable song ( Scorch format, be patient, long load time, printable)

listen to MIDI version






Words and Music by:Thomas P. Westendorf


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.

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, who composed Barney A'Leen (shown above), was a close friend of Westendorf and sent him a copy of a song called Barney Take Me Home Again that Persley wrote and 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.

Hear and see the score to this song ( Scorch format, printable, be patient for images to load)

Listen to MIDI version


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

4. ibid

5. Hill, page 338




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.

Listen to and view this song ( Requires the Scorch plug-in, be patient, sometimes a long load time due to graphics)

Listen to MIDI version


When The Moon Shines In Ireland



Music by: Bert Peters

Words by: Marvin Lee

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.

Listen to and view an old song that resonates today ( Requires the Scorch plug-in, be patient, sometimes a long load time due to graphics)

Listen to MIDI version




Music by: James A. Butterfield

Lyrics by: George Washington Johnson


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.

James 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.

Listen to this song of lover's lament ( Scorch plug-in, printable, be patient, long load due to graphics)

Listen to MIDI version



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.


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