Contemporary Commentary on Henry Russell

  The following was written by (the composer) John Hill Hewitt (1801-1890) from his book Shadows on the Wall or Glimpses of the Past (A Retrospect of the Past Fifty Years. Sketches of Noted Persons Met With by the Author. Anecdotes of Various Authors, Musicians, Journalists, Actors, Artisans, Merchants, Lawyers, Military Mes, &c. &c. Met with in Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, and other Southern Cities. Also the Historical Poem of De Soto, or the Conquest of Florida, and Minor Poems.) Published in Baltimore by Turnbull Brothers in 1877, from pages 80-82.

  Henry Russell. The descriptive songs and ballads of
this composer and vocalist are still much in vogue. He
spent much of his time in Baltimore, though New York
was his headquarters. In person he was rather stout,
but not tall. His face was quite prepossessing, of the
Hebrew cast, dark and heavy whiskers and curly hair.
He was an expert at wheedling audiences out of ap-
plause, and adding to the effect of his songs by a brilliant
pianoforte accompaniment. With such self-laudation
he used often to describe the wonderful influence of his
descriptive songs over audiences. On one occasion he
related an incident connected with "Woodman, Spare
that Tree." He had finished the last verse of the beau-
tiful words, written by his highly esteemed friend Gen.
George P. Morris. The audience were spell-boud for
a moment, and then poured out a volume of applause
that shook the building to its foundation. In the midst
of this tremendous evidence of their boundless gratifica-
tion, a snowy-headed gentleman, with great anxiety
depicted in his venerable features, arose and demanded
silence. He asked, with a tremulous voice: "Mr. Rus-
sell, in the name of Heaven, tell me, was the tree
spared?" "It was, sir," replied the vocalist. "Thank
God! thank God! I breathe again!" and then he sat
down, perfectly overcome by his emotions. This miser-
able bombast did not always prove a clap-trap; in many
instances it drew forth hisses.
  Russell's voice was a baritone of limited register; the
few good notes he possessed he turned to advantange.
His "Old Arm-chair," for instance, has but five notes
in its melodic construction. This was one of his most
popular songs; its circulation was outstripped only by
"Life on the Ocean Wave" and "I'm Afloat," two fine
sea-songs. The history of the former is thus related:
  Some thirty years ago, Russell asked Mr. Epes Sar-
gent to write songs for him, leaving the subject to the
author's selection. In a walk on the Battery, New
York, the sight of the vessels in the harbor dashing
through the sparkling waters in the morning sunshine,
suggested the "Life on the Ocean Wave," and the
poet had finished it in his mind before the walk was
completed. Upon showing it to a friend, himself a
song-writer, his criticism was that it was "a very fair
lyric, but was not a song." Sargent, somewhat dis-
heartened, put the verses into his pocket, concluding
that they might do to publish, but not to set to music.
A few days afterward he met Mr. Russell in the music
store of J. L. Hewitt & Co., and showed him the lines,
informing him at the same time that they would not
do, but that he would try again. "Let us go into the
piano-room, and try it on the instrument," said Russell.
They went. Russell sat down before the piano, placed
the words before him, studied them attentively for a
few minutes, humming a measure as he read, then
threw his fingers over the keys; tried once, twice,
thrice, and finally exultingly struck out the present
melody to which "Life on the Ocean Wave" is set.
He certainly was not more than about ten minutes about it,
though he gave a day afterwards to scoring and writing
out the music. The song become immensely popular
on land, and many thousands were sold before the year
was out. In England three different music-publishers
have issued it in various styles. The parodies that
have been made on it are almost innumerable.
  Russell once called on me and asked me to write him
a song on an "Old Family Clock," (he was remarkably
fond of the prefix old; a wag of a poet once sent him
some words addressed to an "Old Fine-tooth Comb.")
I wrote the words. He then changed his mind, and
employed me, promising good pay, to write a descriptive
song on the "Drunkard," to stir up the temperance
people. I pleased him much by beginning the song in
this way: "The old lamp burned on the old oaken
stool." He made a taking affair of it; and he made
money on it too, but I never got his promise to
pay. He slipped off to England, and as nothing has
been heard of him for many years, I suppose he is
"down among the dead men."

Webpage contents Copyright © 2000-2002 by Benjamin Robert Tubb.
Created on 29 January 2000.
Last updated on 7 October 2002.