- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2008

McFarland, $45 softcover

247 pages, illus.

hy has George F. Root been neglected for so many years, when other major songwriters have had useful books written about them?

One reason may be that his songs, and Civil War songs in general, were seldom recorded until comparatively recent times. It’s good to know that a well-researched biography of Root finally has appeared. Before P.H. Carder’s new book, we had only Root’s modest autobiography, but that was published back in 1891.

George Frederick Root was born in Sheffield, Mass., in 1820 and grew up on Willow Farm, North Reading, where his parents were far from prosperous. Indeed, George had to work on the farm while his father was trying to improve the family fortunes in Buenos Aires, eventually returning home disappointed and having to make a fresh start.

In 1838, George obtained humble employment (it later improved) at A.N. Johnson’s music studio in Boston. He was to become an accomplished flutist, a capable church organist and a pianist, although his piano lessons did not begin until he was 18.

His piano playing included hymns, and he was deeply religious, although not a zealot. When vocal training revealed he had a good voice, he became involved with church choirs. He was to become a highly respected teacher of choral singing, and this became his life’s work.

In 1844, he moved to New York City, where his teaching career prospered. He had become acquainted, while in Boston, with Mary Olive Woodman, a chorister with a lovely voice. Marrying in 1845, they settled in New York. She occasionally sang with her husband in a quartet.

Root’s first song, “See the Sky Is Darking,” appeared in 1845, and he soon developed into a talented composer. His work included two successful cantatas, “The Flower Queen” and “The Haymakers.” The blind Fanny Crosby, having been one of his choral pupils, wrote the lyrics for the former. Crosby also provided lyrics for several of his hymns.

At first, as a songwriter, he called himself “George Friedrich Wurzel,” but he soon reverted to his real name. He found songwriting easy, aiming at ordinary people and understanding what would appeal to them. Most of his early songs are forgotten, but “The Hazel Dell” (1853) and “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower” (1855) enjoyed tremendous success. Like many in this genre, they were excessively sentimental, and the girls in them died. Morbidity was greatly appreciated in those days.

In 1858, Root & Cady appeared, formed by Ebenezer Towner Root (George Root’s younger brother) and Chauncey Marvin Cady. This Chicago music publisher, in which George later became a partner, flourished until destroyed by the Great Fire of 1871. Root’s songs were published by Root & Cady.

It was the Civil War that established Root as a highly influential songwriter, a propagandist for the Union cause. He rushed out his first song three days after Fort Sumter fell, but “The First Gun Is Fired” had a poor sale.

A passionate but not vitriolic patriot, he poured out songs. Most of them just came and went, but four are regarded as classics of their kind: “The Vacant Chair” (1861), based on Henry S. Washburne’s poem; “The Battle Cry of Freedom (1862); “Just Before the Battle, Mother” (1863); and “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” (1864). These have his own lyrics.

Root drove himself hard before, during and after the war, and his teaching took him across the country. He was still very active when no longer young, and the end came suddenly. He and his wife were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and they went to their summer home at Bailey’s Island, Maine. On Aug. 8, 1895, he became ill, and early the following morning, he was gone; his wife, children and elder sister were at his bedside when he died.

George F. Root seems to have been a kindly man, but an absence of anecdotes in the book, perhaps unavoidable, prevents us from seeing him “in the round.” Even so, this is a praiseworthy biography, thoroughly readable and a most valuable contribution to Civil War literature in general and musical literature in particular.

c Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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