William Shakespeare Who? – The Deep Roots of Bluegrass Songs

His name was William Shakespeare Hays. Even though you’ve probably never heard of him, he was one of the most prolific composers of bluegrass songs ever. The conundrum is that he was born on July 19, 1837 and died on July 23, 1907. So how can someone so obscure be such a prolific songwriter of bluegrass music if he died four years before Bill Monroe was born? That, my friend, is what this article is about.

First, let me tell you about William Shakespeare Hays himself. He spent most of his life in Louisville, Kentucky. His name was really just William Hays, but his classmates insisted on adding Shakespeare to his name because of his penchant for writing poetry and prose. From then on, William Shakespeare Hays was the handle he went by. He did, however, occasionally use the pen name “Syah,” which was Hays spelled backwards. Hays went to college in Hanover, Indiana and Georgetown, Kentucky. While at Georgetown, he became known as the “boy poet.” His first published song was “Little Ones at Home,” which was written while he was at Hanover. This ignited a prolific writing career which resulted in Hays penning innumerable poems and newspaper columns in addition to approximately five hundred songs. In 1895, he published his first book entitled simply Poems and Songs. Among his many occupations was a steamboat captain, a Civil War correspondent and the river editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal. He considered songwriting more of a hobby than a profession.

After the fall of Vicksburg in 1862, Hays piloted the Grey Eagle on the Mississippi River between Vicksburg and New Orleans. On one of these trips he was arrested and put in a New Orleans jail for writing the song, My Sunny Southern Home, a tune that angered General Benjamin “Beast” Butler, commander of Union troops in New Orleans. Hays’ short imprisonment probably had less to do with this song itself and more to do with the fact that Hays was a staunch Democrat who later supported such Democratic candidates such as George B. McClellan, Samuel Tilden and Grover Cleveland.

Even though the song Dixie or Dixie’s Land is generally credited to Daniel D. Emmett, Hays insisted until the day he died that he and Charles Ward composed an early version of the Dixie, which they set to an anonymous Scottish melody. Hays claimed that he sent the song to a local militia group, The Buckner Guards, who took it south in early 1861 after the Civil War began. Since Hays could not offer definitive proof that he wrote it, his claims were dismissed. His wife and daughters tried to pursue it but were unsuccessful.

It’s no secret that bluegrass music is all about lonesome. They don’t call it “The High Lonesome Sound” for nuthin’. Songs like “Mother’s Not Dead, She’s Only Sleeping” are the bread and butter of bluegrass music. As someone recently said, “if she’s alive at the end of the song, it ain’t bluegrass music.” But how did it get to be this way? Why are we so drawn to songs about pain, murder, loneliness, and suffering?

Part of the answer lies in our dark and murky past. The very nature of mankind seems to be that we often share a strange fascination with the dead and dying, the forlorn, the lonely and the dark side of life. That’s why old morbid murder ballads from the British Isles remained popular both in England and in Appalachia long after the silly, shallow and happy songs were long forgotten. These sad and pitiful songs have been an important way for us to work out our deeper and darker emotions. I suppose it’s why cars on the highway slow down at the scene of a wreck. Apparently, many drivers hope to catch a glimpse of the horrific tragedy, even though they may strive to avoid such a fate in their daily lives. By singing or listening to these kind of heart-pounding songs we can sneak a peek at the darker side of life without actually having to experience it first hand. As the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde once wrote, “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”

So how does William Shakespeare Hays fit into all of this? Hang on to your hat! I’m getting around to that.

Mid 19th century literature, art, and music in America and the British Isles was filled with tragic and emotional scenes of orphan children dying in the snow, mothers waiting at the doorstep for their wayward sons to come home, and bedraggled fathers being sent to the poorhouse even though they were blind, deaf, and nearly comatose. The cash registers of the Tin Pan Alley music publishers who sold this type of song were constantly making a loud “ka-ching” as they racked up one hit song after another that feasted on themes of despair and hopelessness. Today, we jokingly refer to this type of song as “tear jerkers.”

Among the most prolific composers of these 19th century “tear jerkers” was none other than William Shakespeare Hays. Along with fellow composers Stephen Foster, Charles Harris and Gussie Davis, Hays’ made lasting contributions to American music as a composer of some of the most popular sentimental songs. His first successful published song was “The Little Drummer Boy of Shiloh,” a song that is still sung today around the campfires of soldiers reenacting the Civil War.

What is amazing about Hays’ prodigious output of songs was the shear variety of themes that he penned. In fact, no other songwriter produced such a great variety of songs as did Hays. He compositions included dialect songs (African-American, German, Irish and hayseed or hillbilly), railroad songs, gospel songs, river songs, Civil War songs, love songs and songs about log cabins. The one thing that most of his songs had in common was more than a pinch of utter sentimentality. In fact, Hays’ success at writing the songs of sentimentality and nostalgia helped to pave the way for other contemporary songwriters who would copy his popular style.

Not only were Hays’ songs popular during his own lifetime, but many went on to become practically immortal. That’s because his sentimental themes of loneliness and despair struck a chord and appealed to the first generation of bluegrass musicians that were drawn to these darker kinds of songs. We’re talking about singers like Bill Monroe, Wade Mainer, the Carter Family, the Stanley brothers and Lester Flatt.

Some of Hays’ songs that were later done in bluegrass style included “We Parted by the River” (1866), “The Little Old Cabin in the Lane” (1871), “Molly Darling” (1871), “You’ve Been a Friend to Me” (1879), “I’ll Remember You Love in My Prayers” (1869) and “Jimmy Brown the Paper Boy” (1875).

Even more important than the Hays songs that were later done by the pioneers of bluegrass music is taking a close look at a list of Hays’ songs themselves. What is revealed is that his songs closely mirrored the themes that would later be so constant in traditional bluegrass music: log cabins, lost love, pine trees, rivers, grave sites, mother and drinking. In fact, it’s quite possible that Hays helped set the pattern or blueprint for the type of songs that would later become the core repertoire of bluegrass music. Scan over this list of some of Hays’ songs and you’d think you’re looking at a list of current bluegrass favorites: “I Have No Home” (1873), “Do Not Turn Me From Your Door” (1873), “My Dear Old Home” (1875), “Lone Grave by the Sea” (1862), “I Will Be Home Tonight, Love” (1875), “We May Never Meet Again” (1863), “When I’m Gone” (1892), “My Southern Sunny Home” (1864), “Down Yonder in the Lane” (1875), “Will You Remember Me” (1864), “The Cabin on the Hill” (1878), “Mary’s Waiting by the Window” (1866), “Little Old Log Cabin in the Woods” (1866), “Take Me Back Home” (1866), “Meet Me By the Riverside” (1877), “Down by the Deep Sad Sea” (1868), “Driven from Home” (1868), “Good Bye Old Home” (1868), “The Old Man’s Drunk Again” (1870), “My Dear Old Sunny Home” (1871), “You’ll Always Find Me True” (1872), “I Have No Home” (1873), “Come Back to the Old Home Again” (1880).

We all know that the core songs of the bluegrass repertoire include many songs about mother. Here again, Hays set the standard with his own many mother songs. This was probably the case because his own mother died when he was just ten years old. His mother songs include: “Mother’s Parting at the Gate” (1884), “Take This Letter to My Mother” (1873), “Is Mother There?” (1875), “Call Me No More, Mother” (1864), “I Am Dying Mother, Dying” (1865, “Kiss Me Goodnight, Mamma” (1874), “Papa, Stay Home, I’m Motherless Now” (1872, “What Will I Do, Mother is Dead” (1869), and “The Mothers of the West.”

Some of Hays’ songs have made an indirect impact on bluegrass music. Take for example his poem, “The Faithful Engineer” that was first published in 1886 and later reprinted in 1895 as “Old Hayseed’s Railroad Train to Heaven.” It is interesting to note that Hays’ poem was the model for M.E. Abby and Charles Tillman’s well-known song, “Life’s Railway to Heaven” aka “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad.” Of course, they didn’t give Hays a lick of credit.

One of Hays’ most important works was his “Little Log Cabin in the Lane.” This song was reworked by Fiddlin’ John Carson and was on one side of his first recording, which marked the very beginning of country music as we know it today. But it doesn’t stop there. This same song was used as the basis of the Western song, “Little Old Sod Shanty
on the Claim.” Hay’s melody was also used for the cowboy song, “Little Joe the Wrangler” and the railroad song, “The Little Red Caboose.”

Even though Hays’ compositions made a powerful contribution to American music, his name has largely been forgotten. It’s no wonder. Practically every time one of Hays’ songs was published or recorded, his name was left off. Even when his songs were hits for the artists who recorded them, you can look long and hard and you won’t see Hays’ name. Examples of this omission include such artists as the Carter Family and Uncle Dave Macon (“You’ve been a Friend to Me,”) Fiddlin’ John Carson, Ernest V. Stoneman, Uncle Dave Macon, Riley Puckett and Vernon Dalhart (“Little Log Cabin in the Lane,”) The Whitstein Brothers as well as Bill Clifton and Red Rector (“We Parted by the Riverside,”) Flatt & Scruggs (“Jimmy Brown the Newsboy”) and Eddie Arnold (“Molly Darling”). No less an expert historian as Carl Sandburg failed to mention Hays’ name for composing “I’ll Remember You Love in My Prayers” that appeared in his well-known book, The American Songbag. Even Hays’ song “Get in the Middle of the Road” was printed in a gospel song collection by Homer Rodeheaver, and listed as a African-American spiritual.

Although William Shakespeare Hays’ name has slipped into relative obscurity, many of his songs continue to be sung and recorded by people who relish the sappy and sentimental songs that would bring a tear to a glass eye.

Note: Below you’ll find a transcription of the original music and lyrics of “Jimmy Brown the Paper Boy.” It’s interesting to compare it with the later adaptations by the Carter Family, Flatt & Scruggs and Mac Wiseman to see how far it strayed from the original.

Jimmy Brown the Paper Boy

I’m very cold and hungry, Sir, my clothes are worn and thin.
I wonder on from place to place my daily bread to win.
But never mind, Sir, how I look, don’t look at me and frown,
I’m selling papers for I am the newsboy, Jimmy Brown.

My father died a drunkard, sir, so I’ve heard mother say,
Before he died, how oft for him I’ve heard her weep and pray;
But I am helping mother now, I journey up and down,
To sell my morning papers, for I am The newsboy, Jimmie Brown.

My mother tells me every night to kneel with her and pray,
She says if I’ve an honest heart I’ll be all right some day;
And when she’s gone to heaven, sir, to wear a starry crown,

Wayne Erbsen

Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really about fifty years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written thirty songbooks and instructions books for banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin. Check out his web site at http://www.nativeground.com/ or email or call for a FREE catalog: (828)299-7031 or banjo@nativeground.com

4 Responses

  • It would be great to know the history of the music for “Life’s Railway To Heaven.” While M.E. Abbey borrowed the lyrics from William Hays, Charles Tillman is credited with the music. However, he borrowed the music from earlier well known hymns. Where the music originated is a mystery to me.

    Eliza R. Snow used the same music for her hymn “Truth Reflects Upon Our Senses” which was first published in 1841 and is still sung to the same tune today by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She often borrowed well known music from other tunes as was the practice of her day.

    So if this music was already in use nearly 20 years before Tillman was born, I wonder where it originated. It is without a doubt classical Bluegrass style. But what we call Bluegrass today was simply called “County Music” by early artists. Many of those (such as Johnny Cash and Ricky Skaggs) discovered the musical link to their Scots-Irish Appalachian roots when they performed in the U.K. They had locals tell them that music for some of their tunes was literally centuries old.

  • Will S. Hays is actually my great grandfather. Kind of interesting how I’ve been a professional musician most of my life. This was an interesting read. Thanks.

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