~ from Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher by Eleanor Gates
I've been over the Mohawk River any number of times in my life, but I'd never heard of this lovely song until I encountered it in Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher by Eleanor Gates, a slapstick-style 1907 comedy about an Oklahoma cowboy with matchmaking propensities. The song is referenced or quoted around a dozen times in the book—serving as a warning to Alec's friends that he has matchmaking in mind, an all-clear signal when his sweetheart's temperamental father is out of the way, a melancholy reminder of home to a tuberculosis patient (or "lunger") nicknamed "Up-State," and the means of a romantic reconciliation near the end of the story. Here's a fine rendition by the Sons of the Pioneers, from a mid-1940s radio show:
"Bonnie Eloise," often referred to under its subtitle "The Belle of the Mohawk Vale," was first published in 1858, with lyrics by George W. Elliott and music by John Rogers Thomas, and in the next decade the melody became a favorite marching tune of both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. (The melody is also said to have been used for two other Civil War songs, "Our Own Starry Banner" and "Heroes of '62.") Click here to view the original sheet music, which includes two more verses not performed by the Pioneers.
I couldn't find a birthplace for George W. Elliott (1830-1898), but I'd hazard a guess he was a native of New York State. A newspaperman and poet, by the 1860s he was the editor of the Fort Plain Mohawk Valley Register (the American Newspaper Directory listed it as four pages, subscription $2, circulation 2,250 in 1872!). As the story goes, he wrote the words to "Bonnie Eloise" on a railroad journey from New York City to Fort Plain, as a tribute to his sweetheart and future wife Mary Bowen, whose father owned Fort Plain's largest and most popular hotel Montgomery Hall. In 1868, the Elliotts played host to Mark Twain when he lectured in Fort Plain, and Twain wrote the following to his future wife Olivia Langdon:
I have been the guest, all day, of my poet-friend, Mr. Elliott, & his wife. He is editor of the paper here. They are very handsomely housed, & I have enjoyed their free & hearty hospitality exceedingly...Mrs. Elliott is a good, genuine little woman...(she is the original of the “Bonnie Eloise” of the old song so popular ten years ago)...According to Volume VIII of the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, published in 1898, John Rogers Thomas (1829-1896) was born in Monmouthshire, Wales, and began his musical career as a singer, making his debut as the bass soloist in Handel's Messiah at age eighteen. A concert and opera singer, arranger, and composer of popular songs, operetta and sacred music, he came to America in 1849 and had his first hit song, "The Cottage by the Sea," in 1856. Among the notes on his career in the Cyclopedia is the mention that 1873, he performed "The Trumpet Shall Sound" from the Messiah at a musical event in Albany, New York, not far from the Mohawk itself.
To read previous entries in Songs of Old, click here.