Some of the greatest traditional bluegrass songs were apparently written by someone named “Public Domain” or “Traditional.” What kind of decent mother or father would name their child that? In this article I’m going to acquaint you with a songwriter named Gussie Lord Davis, who has seldom been credited as the composer of such well-known folk and bluegrass songs as “Maple on the Hill” (1880), “Goodnight Irene” (1899),“One Little Word” (1899), “Just Set a Light” aka “Red and Green Signal Lights”(1897), “In the Baggage Coach Ahead” (1896) “He’s Coming to Us Dead” (1899), and “Make Up and Be Lovers Again” aka “Jack and Mae” (1893).
So who was Gussie Davis? Have a seat in this comfy chair and I’ll tell you about him. Small in size, Gussie Lord Davis (1863-1899) was an African-American who grew up in Dayton, Ohio. From an early age he wanted to be a songwriter. He was later quoted as saying, “They tell me that all song writers, as a rule, die in the poorhouse, broken down in health and empty in the pocket." Wanting to avoid the fate of most songwriters, he knew his ticket to success was in receiving a formal musical education. Gussie then applied to the Nelson Musical College in Cincinnati. However, he was denied admission because the college did not admit black students. Not to be deterred, Gussie got a job at the college as a janitor. His wages were $15 a month and he received private musical instruction from several of the instructors.
In 1880, at the tender age of eighteen, Gussie wrote one of his most popular songs, “We Sat Beneath the Maple on the Hill.” Because of his race he couldn’t find a publisher who would publish it, so Gussie paid out of his own pocket to have the song printed and distributed. The phenomenal success of this song opened up the doors and before long he was one of the most successful songwriters in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. Here is how Gussie himself explained it:
“I was just eighteen years old, and not caring to enter in the rear, I set to work to study music, and before long I managed to get together a pretty air and had it arranged. It was the 'Maple on the Hill,' and became quite popular throughout the West. Music publishers are not over generous in taking to publishing or even handling music from an unknown person, and I found a great deal of trouble, but I gave one publisher money to get it out, and he took pity on me. The song proved a great go.”
What was Davis’ songwriting secret? To quote Tin-Pan Alley historian Maxwell F. Marcuse, "Gussie Davis reached for the tender spots that lurk deep within all of us, no matter how thick or tough our outer crusts may be. In an era of 'sing-em-and-weep' melodies, Davis did more than his share to open up the tear ducts of America.”
When asked by a reporter what it takes to make a successful song, Davis’ answer is interesting. “I can best answer you by showing that should a man write a song each day for 365 days and pay ten dollars for each one to the publisher, he would spend something like $3,650, and if one song was a real go he would be a fortunate fellow."
In 1895 the New York World selected the ten most popular song writers in America to compete for prizes. First prize was a five-hundred dollar medal, the second was five-hundred dollars in gold. The contestants were a Who’s Who of popular composers in the 1890s. In addition to Gussie Davis, there was James Thornton, Charles Graham, Felix McGlendeon, Charles K. Harris, Harry Dann, Percy Gaunt, Raymond Moore, Joe Flynn and Charles B. Ward. When the prizes were awarded, Davis won second with his “Send Back the Picture and the Ring.”
To give you an idea of Davis’ impact on early country and bluegrass music, here is a list of some of the musicians who later recorded Davis’ songs: Vernon Dalhart, Ernest V. Stoneman, Bradley Kincaid, Dick Burnett, Al Craver, Posey Rorer and The North Carolina Ramblers, Darby and Tarlton, J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers, Wade Mainer and Zeke Morris, Callahan Brothers, Ernest Thompson, George Reneau, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Lester McFarland and Robert A Gardner, Andrew Jenkins and Carson Robison, Frank Luther, G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, Roy Harvey and Posey Rorer, Carter Family, Dixon Brothers, Morris Brothers, Monroe Brothers, Chuck Wagon Gang, Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley.
You may be wondering why Davis’ songs struck such a chord with these musicians. The answer is that country and bluegrass musicians have always had a soft spot in their hearts for sentimental songs. It's no wonder that bluegrass music has been called “the High Lonesome Sound.” Along with other popular songwriters in the late 19th and early 20th century, the sentimental songs of Gussie Davis, and the feelings they revealed, were woven into the very fabric of bluegrass music, and there it has stayed.
Note: You can find the words and music of Gussie Davis' “Maple on the Hill” in my songbook, The Rural Roots of Bluegrass.