Henry D. Thoreau
And His Favorite Popular Song

by Caroline Moseley

(transcribed from the Journal of Popular Culture)

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Tom Bowling (MIDI -12k)

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Tom Bowling
by Charles Dibdin

Here, a sheer hulk, lies poor Tom Bowling
     The darling of the crew;
No more he'll hear the tempest howling
     For death has broach'd him to.
His form was of the manliest beauty,
     His heart was kind and soft,
Faithful, below he did his duty,
     But now he's gone aloft.

Tom never from his word departed,
     His virtues were so rare,
His friends were many, and true-hearted,
     His Poll was kind and fair;
And then he'd sing so blithe and jolly,
     Ah, many's the time and oft!
But mirth has turn'd to melancholy,
     For Tom is gone aloft.

Yet shall poor Tom find pleasant weather,
     When He, who all commands,
Shall give, to call life's crew together,
     The word to pipe all hands.
Thus Death, who kinds and tars despatches,
     In vain Tom's life has doff'd,
For, though his body's under hatches
     His soul has gone aloft.

All biographers of Henry D. Thoreau note his special fondness for a song called "Tom Bowling." When a man has a favorite song, it is likely that he has involvement in that song which transcends its value as entertainment. He tells us about himself by the form of expression he chooses (here, popular music), and his selection within that genre (here, "Tom Bowling"). If he performs the song, as Thoreau did, he tells us even more. We say that he "expresses himself" in the song; he distills his personality in the performance. It is significant that Thoreau, in his liking for "Tom Bowling" and other popular songs of the day to a degree at least endorsed the mainstream cultural values which in so many other areas he rejected. In his social-musical behavior, at least, he did "keep pace with his companions," and heard the same "drummer" as did the Concord bourgeoisie.

"Poor Tom Bowling, or The Sailor's Epitaph," was one of many similar nautical songs by the Englishman Charles Dibdin (1745-1814). It is an elaborate tribute to an idealized sailor, and was the most popular son of a very popular composer -- indeed, "Tom Bowling" is still found in anthologies of popular song.

There is no doubt that "Tom Bowling" was Thoreau's favorite song. Thoreau himself mentions it only once in his journal and once in his correspondence, but his friends and biographers all associate the song with him. Concord schoolmaster F.B. Sanborn called it "his unique song of 'Tom Bowline,' which none who heard would ever forget."2 William Ellery Channing, perhaps Thoreau's closest friend, noted that "anyone who ever heard him sing 'Tom Bowline' will agree that, in tune and in tone, he answered, and went far beyond, all expectation."3 A Concord woman said, "I remember his singing 'Tom Bowline' to us, and also playing the flute".4 Another villager remembered the Thoreau family gathered at the piano, "and thrilling was their singing of that gem, 'Tom Bowline'."5 Edward Emerson wrote of Thoreau's rendition of "Tom Bowling," "To this day that song, heard long years ago, rings clear and moving to me."6

Sheet music for "Tom Bowling" is thought to have been given him by the Ricketsons of New Bedford. Thoreau wrote to Daniel Ricketson: "Please remember me to your family, and say that I have at length learned to sing 'Tom Bowlin' according to the notes."7 One wonders what textual or melodic variations Thoreau had introduced to call forth such a gift; certainly he had already been singing the song for some time. Three months earlier he wrote of a spring shower, during which he took shelter under Lee's Cliff: "I sang 'Tom Bowling' there in the midst of the rain, and the dampness seemed to be favorable to my voice."8

Among other songs Thoreau liked were "Pilgrim Fathers," "Evening Bells," "Canadian Boat Song," "The Burial of Sir John Moore,"9 and the Robin Hood ballads.10 His family played "old-time music, notably Scotch melodies."11 He was inspired to dance by "Highland Laddie"12 or "The Campbells Are Coming."13 He rhapsodized over "The Battle of Prague."14 These selections, along with "Tom Bowling," represent the mainstream bourgeois musical taste of their day. It is difficult to describe such composistions fairly, because a song must be heard as well as read, but they are extremely elaborate and sentimental. The instrumental "Battle of Prague" is notorious for its musical excesses. "Tom Bowling" is more skillfully constructed than most of its genre, with a tune which cunningly complements the text, particularly in the ascendiing last line of the stanza. "Tom Bowling" is more effective than average parlor-piano fare. Still, with its labored lyric and florid melody, it does not seem the likely favorite of one whose cry was "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity."15

Perry Miller goes so far as to speak of Thoreau's "musical illiteracy"; he judges -- perhaps harshly -- that Thoreau's musical taste was "pathetic."16 Miller assumes that Thoreau's musical preferences were determined by ignorance of anything more cultivated. Such an assumption, while recognizing the importance of cultural environment, ignores the fact that environment alone does not determine aesthetics. Thoreau's plebian musical tastes tells us something about Thoreau. All of us respond to music as individuals; and that response has both an intellectual and an emotional component.

Intellectually, Thoreau could have liked popular musica as well as any music. Always aware of the ciscrepancy between real and ideal, he makes the same distinction between "music" and "Music." Thoreau says that only if a man has "a poor ear for music" will he attend to "17 Yet, opera or ballad though it may have been, "When I hear a strain of music from across the street, I put away Homer and Shakespeare, and read them in the original"18; and Thoreau himself was a ballad-singer when he performed "Tom Bowling." F.O. Matthiessen says that Thoreau " is never really tallking about the art of music, of which he knew next to nothing, but about [a] close co-ordination, which alone made him feel that his pulse was beating in unison with the pulse of nature."19 True; but further, all inconsistencies dissolve if we regard any particular piece of music as, from Thoreau's point of view, only an imperfect representative of some Universal Harmony. A tinkling music box he called "part of the harmony of spheres."20 In principle, it mattered not if the music box played Beethoven or Dibdin.

Oops! There's more to the article, but sorry, folks,
I just haven't had time to transcribe it yet!

Sheet Music

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