If you've been following my blog for any length of time, you might remember that I actually wrote a column for the Vintage Reader, called "Memorable Melodies," which explored the historical context of songs featured in the books republished by Legacy Vintage. Those were some of my favorite articles to write. I got thinking lately that I'd like to revive the concept on my own blog, and spotlight a few of the songs that are memorable to me not only because of their own music and lyrics, but because I first encountered them employed memorably in a book. So I give you the first entry in Songs of Old:
Ma's voice and the fiddle's music softly died away. And Laura asked, "Where did the voice of Alfarata go, Ma?"
"Goodness!" said Ma. "Aren't you asleep yet?"
"I'm going to sleep," Laura said. "But please tell me where the voice of Alfarata went?"
~ from Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Little House series is just full of quotes from songs, many of which I've "met" and happily recognized since reading the books. "The Blue Juniata" has always lingered in my memory, but I didn't "meet" it until a year or two ago. I was in the car one evening, with the radio tuned to a Sirius country station that occasionally plays old Western music, and a song came on by Andy Parker and the Plainsmen, a Western group that performed between 1944 and 1956. I recognized it by the lyrics—I was delighted to hear it, because I'd never heard the melody before.
The Sons of the Pioneers also recorded a nice version in 1937, but (wonder of wonders) this version by the Plainsmen that I heard first is my favorite.
"The Blue Juniata," by Marion Dix Sullivan, was first published in 1844, and is often referred to as the first popular "hit" song in American music written by a woman. Little seems to be known of Sullivan's life in general, although she wrote a number of other songs throughout the 1840s and '50s. The only detailed item I came across was a brief biographical sketch published in 1888 in a music anthology, The Franklin Square Song Collection:
"The Blue Juniata" was composed by Mrs. Marion Dix Sullivan, of Boston, who was born in 1802, in Boscawan, New Hampshire, and who died in 1860. She was the daughter of Col. Timothy Dix, and the sister of the late General John A. Dix, of New York. Some years before the song was published, Mrs. Sullivan traveled with her children and a party of friends from Massachusetts, by way of the Juniata valley in Pennsylvania to Ohio, which was then the Far West. The journey was made by packet boat and stage coach. It was on this trip, amid the wild and beautiful mountain scenery of Pennsylvania, that she found the inspiration for her best known song. After a few years in Ohio, her husband's health having failed, she supported herself and her family by teaching music and language, keeping her children at the best schools in the neighborhood. She wrote a number of songs which she sang, with sweet voice and much feeling, to her own accompaniment on the guitar, an instrument she greatly enjoyed. She had a kind, beautiful face, with most genial manner, and her home was always the welcome resort of the friends whom she found everywhere.
You can read the full lyrics to "The Blue Juniata" and view the original 1844 sheet music here.