Stephen Collins Foster and Philip Paul Bliss: American Composers

Two Men, Two Destinies, and Towanda

Have you ever wondered at coincidences? I do.

If you ever saw the film 1776—rated G, by the way—you probably know that at the Second Continental Congress, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were two men particularly essential to its outcome: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Thanks to them, and a few others, a nation was born 4 July 1776. Fifty years later on the nation’s Semi-Centennial or Golden Jubilee, 1826, Adams and Jefferson both died. Coincidentally, that very day, Stephen Collins Foster, father of American music, was born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh was Foster’s hometown; but he spent part of his youth farther north, in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, at the junction of what is now US 220 and US 6. Towanda, the county seat, was incorporated in 1828, when Foster was two, and became the center of the lumbering industry. The name Towanda comes from Native Americans who thought the area a beautiful place to bury the dead.

Not far away—ten miles north—in Rome, lived another man who was also to make history as a songwriter: Philip Paul Bliss. These two young men, Foster and Bliss (both born in July, both married to a girl named Jane, both familiar with Bradford County, one born in the year of the nation’s Semi-Centennial, one departed in the year of the nation’s Centennial, the two bearing the given names of sequential deacons in Acts 6:5), led parallel lives, faced the same financial hardships, chose different paths, and experienced tragic premature deaths—neither lived to see forty.

Foster, son of William Barclay Foster and Eliza Clayland Tomlinson, was privileged to receive a classic education (Greek, Latin, rhetoric, diction, language, history, math) at private academies. A self-taught musician, he learned to play clarinet by ear. He was still celebrating his twelfth birthday in Athens, when Bliss was born to Isaac Bliss and Lydia Doolittle, July 9, 1838, in Rome, another borough in Bradford County. Unlike Foster, Bliss never received a classic education. He never even went to elementary school. He was home-schooled: his mother taught him from the Bible.

When he was thirteen (1839), Foster spent the summer in Towanda, working with his brother William, an assistant engineer. At fourteen (1840) he wrote his first musical composition, the “Tioga Waltz,” and graduated Athens Academy. He spent less than one semester at what is now Washington and Jefferson College, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. At eighteen he published his first song “Open Thy Lattice, Love” (1844). At twenty (1846) he went to Cincinnati, Ohio, to work, as a bookkeeper, for his brother Dunning, who owned a steamboat business. There he wrote “Oh, Susanna” (1846), for which he received $100; it became the anthem of the California Gold Rush (1848-1855).

Bliss was ten before he heard a piano for the first time—his instrument. At age eleven (1849) he left home. For two years (1849-51) he worked on a farm. At twelve (1850), he was converted at a Baptist revival, then baptized by a minister in the Christian Church. He worked (1852) as a cook at Pine Creek, cut logs (1853) at Covington, and worked (1854) at a sawmill in Portage.

About the time that Bliss was getting religion and being baptized, Foster left Cincinnati and returned to Pennsylvania, where he wrote “Camptown Races” (1850), “Old Folks at Home”/”Swanee River” (1851), “My Old Kentucky Home” (1853), and “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair” (1854). He was the first American composer to try to make a living solely off his music, and he was not doing a good job of it. He signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels, but probably due to the way music was printed, and reprinted, in those days, without copyrights, Foster saw little in royalties.

July 22, 1850, Foster, a small, slender man, five-feet-seven, married Jane (Jeannie) Denny McDowell. Jane was the daughter of Andrew N McDowell, MD, a leading physician in Pittsburgh and the grandson of John McDowell, the first president (1799) of St Johns College, Annapolis. For his honeymoon Foster made his one and only trip South, to New Orleans, via the Mississippi River, on his brother Dunning’s steamboat, the Millinger. The couple’s only child, a daughter, Marion, was born April 18, 1851.

Bliss, at seventeen (1855), acquired a schoolteacher’s certificate; he began spending his winters teaching school and his summers in the field. The first winter (1855) he taught in Troy; next winter (1856), Hartsville, New York. In 1857 he was privileged to meet professional musicians J G Towner (father of Daniel Brink Towner), who taught in singing schools, and William B Bradbury (trained in Germany), who composed the music for such songs as “Jesus Loves Me” and “Just As I Am.” It was Bradbury who persuaded Bliss to become a music teacher. Bliss later met George F Root and other influential music mentors; James McGranahan, another Christian composer, was a storekeeper in Rome.

Bliss spent the summer of 1858 in Almond, New York, then the winter back home as schoolteacher at Rome Academy. In the spring he found work on the farm of Oscar F Young, at $13 a month. The Youngs were a Presbyterian musical family: all amateur instrumentalists and vocalists. One among them, Lucille (Lucy) Jane Young, the farmer’s daughter, caught Philip’s eye. There, in Rome, June 1, 1859, still under age twenty-one, he married her, joined her church, and so ended his drifting days.

That summer Bliss wanted to go to Normal Academy of Music in Geneseo, New York (south of Rochester), but he did not have the money. So his grandmother-in-law, Grandma Allen, gave him $30 to attend. For the next several years (1860, 1861, 1863) Bliss returned to the six-week-long summer school in New York, receiving the kind of musical training and opportunity to network, that he could only dream about. Because of this training, he would now be considered an expert.

Foster, probably with high hopes, still trying to support himself with his music, moved to New York City in 1860; but, perhaps because of finances, it was only a year before his wife, Jane, and daughter left him and moved back to Pennsylvania, where Jane secured a job as a telegraph operator. By this time the Civil War was underway, which should have provided him opportunity for patriotic music. It did not.

At 22 (1860) Bliss, astride his horse Old Fanny and carrying a melodeon, became an itinerant music teacher. In 1862 he stayed on the Young farm and did not go to school. That winter he spent in Honesdale, New York. Back to Geneseo in summer 1863, then that winter in Castile, New York.

By 1862 and 1863 Foster, a problem drinker, whose story has been told and retold in film, was on a downward spiral. He was living alone, ill and impoverished, on the Lower East Side, Manhattan. Jane occasionally came to visit, to check on him; his siblings had pretty much turned their back.

In New York Foster was collaborating musically with George Cooper, and photographs suggest he was sober—maybe anxious, but not inebriated. Cooper said the year he and Foster worked together, Foster did not drink. But, as is often true of the poor and impoverished, he did not resist disease well either. One morning that winter, suffering chills and fever (ague), Foster fell out of bed and toppled a washbasin, which broke and gouged his head. He was taken to the hospital, but died three days later, January 13, 1864. He was 37 years old and had 38 cents to his name—35 cents in Civil War scrip and 3 US pennies.

Foster’s colleague, Cooper, wired the family in Pennsylvania: “Stephen is dead. Come on.” Stephen’s oldest brother, Morrison, the most sympathetic sibling, came with Jane. According to Cooper, when she arrived, Jane knelt beside his body, put her head to the floor, and stayed that way a long time. Admirers of his music paid to have the body shipped back to Pennsylvania for burial in Allegheny Cemetery. Foster’s song “Beautiful Dreamer” (1862) was published posthumously.

That same month, January 1864, Bliss’ dad, Isaac, died. Only a few months before, Bliss had taken a savings of several hundred dollars and purchased his parents a humble home in Bradford County. When the dad saw it, he sat on the porch and wept. “I never expected to live in a house so nice as this.”

That year opened a brand-new era of ministry for Bliss, now 26. Working out of Chicago, he did a two-week concert tour, with J G Towner, for which he was paid $100. He could not believe so much money could be made so quickly and so easily. To bring him back to earth, the following week he was drafted to the Carlisle barracks, but the notice was canceled because the war was nearly over. He served briefly with the 149th Pennsylvania Infantry.

Afterward Bliss secured a job with Root and Cady Music Publishers at $150 a month plus expenses. He stayed with them eight years (1865-73) during which time he conducted the music for conventions, concerts, and singing schools and also composed music and gave private instruction. None of Bliss’ compositions was ever copyrighted. Like Foster, he received few royalties.

The story is that Bliss had a wonderful, deep baritone voice, and his wife, Lucy, a rich alto; they often sang together. In 1869 Bliss participated in twelve conventions in Illinois; and at one in Brockton, New York. As was his custom, Bliss, with his wife, returned to Rome in the summer. On June 5 he went to Boston for its Jubilee; June 20, to Brooklyn, where he heard Henry Ward Beecher preach. He was paid $100 for four days of meetings.

Back in Chicago, Bliss happened on Evangelist Dwight L Moody, who regularly held open-air half-hour meetings on the courthouse steps. After Bliss sang, Moody, who coveted a good singing voice in his meetings, urged him to quit his job and become a full-time gospel singer. (It would be another year before Moody teamed up with Ira Sankey.)

Later, May 1870, Bliss met Major Daniel Webster Whittle, who, during the Civil War, had served on the staff of General Oliver Otis Howard and had accompanied General William Tecumseh Sherman on his “march to the sea.” After the war, Whittle had become a preacher. Whittle, who found Bliss “a beautiful, lovable man,” took Bliss with him to Winnebago. Whittle described Bliss as a systematic and orderly man, shrinking from all vulgarity, one who kept his books and papers in order and his desk clear. To him, misspelled words and wrong pronunciations (diction) were like a wrong note in music. He had flawless penmanship, a joyous nature, good humor, and tenderness. His was no sombre piety; he was playful, witty, and generous, full of puns, alliteration, humor, and poetry. He had the delicacy of a woman and the strength of a man, a magnificent physique, most handsome. Though he was a big man, he was perfectly proportioned and graceful.

In July 1870 Bliss became the choir leader for the First Congregational Church in Chicago and served there three years.

The Great Chicago Fire started Sunday, October 8, 1871, and continued to Tuesday, October 10. It changed Moody’s life forever. The night of the fire, Moody and his wife, Emma, handed off their small children to someone to carry away from danger. They themselves stayed behind to guard their personal belongings until even that was not feasible. As she watched the flames, not knowing for sure if the children had made it out, 28-year-old Emma (sister to Fleming H Revell, Moody’s publisher) lost all color in her hair. No Lady Clairol in those days. She was white-headed for the rest of her life. The fire had to have been a shocking experience for everyone, including Bliss. After the fire, the Moodys relocated back to their home, Northfield, Massachusetts, and never again lived in Chicago, though Moody continued to oversee the work there.

March 1874 Bliss gave himself up for full-time ministry and quit his day job. That year he conducted meetings in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In November 1874 Horatio G Spafford, a businessman, received a telegram from Britain announcing the drowning death of his four children; his wife had survived. He afterward penned the words to “It Is Well With My Soul,” and asked Bliss to compose the music; he did. In 1875 Bliss expanded his itinerary to Minnesota, Kentucky, Tennessee; in 1876, to Missouri, Alabama, and Georgia.

The year 1876 was a big year, not only in Bliss’ life, but also in the life of the nation. It was the Centennial: 100 years since 1776—if Foster had lived, he would have been fifty years old. March 7 Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. June 4 the Transcontinental Express went from New York to San Francisco in less than 84 hours (3.5 days). June 25 was the Battle of the Little Bighorn; 300 men of the 7th Cavalry were killed. August 8 Thomas Edison patented the mimeograph machine. The Dewey Decimal System and Heinz Tomato Ketchup were introduced. November was a Presidential election, resulting in the Compromise of 1876. By the end of December the nation still did not know who was going to be their next President (it was Rutherford B Hayes).

Easter Sunday, 1876, Bliss addressed 4,000 people on the courthouse square in Augusta, Georgia. When they neared Atlanta and Marietta, Whittle intentionally took Bliss to Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, and told him the story of how Sherman had signaled his men: “Hold the fort. I am coming.” Out of that story came the hymn “Hold the Fort.”

April 17 Bliss left Georgia for Chicago and packed for a summer in Rome, Pennsylvania. That year the Normal Academy of Music was held in Towanda; Bliss taught. He visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and the Chautauqua Association in western New York; then, in September, he spent one week with Moody at Northfield. Afterward he went to Vermont and New Hampshire, evangelizing, then came back to spend another week with Moody.

Bliss returned to Chicago October 1 and spent three weeks with Ira Sankey, working on composition. Afterward he had meetings in Michigan. On his last night in Kalamazoo, a girl gave him as a gift The Complete Works of John Bunyan with the text of John 14:2, 3, inscribed on the flyleaf. As he left the building, he turned around and said, “Good-bye, Old Methodist Church. I shall not see you again.” To the girl: “I will just say good-night to you; we shall meet again in the morning.” Before he left, “I shall watch for you in heaven.” At the train depot, a group of young singing men serenaded him good-bye. Their last song was “We’re Going Home Tomorrow.” November 20 he preached at the state prison in Jackson, Michigan, to 800 inmates, two-thirds of whom broke down.

November 24 he was back in Chicago with Moody at a ministerial conference. Over 1,000 men were present when he sang in Chicago for the last time. November 25 he left for Peoria with Whittle. He preached at the state prison in Joliet. Spafford, the businessman who had penned “It Is Well With My Soul,” also addressed the prisoners.

Privately, December 4, Bliss and Whittle talked of an evangelistic tour to England and prayed for guidance. Bliss shrank from coming back to Chicago. Anywhere but Chicago. He wanted to go to Boston and work with Moody and Sankey in their next crusade.

Thursday, December 14, Bliss and Whittle took the train from Peoria back to Chicago. They breakfasted with Moody at Brevoost House. It was arranged that Bliss and Whittle would take up the work in Chicago, Sunday, December 31, New Years Eve. After Chicago, then maybe England. Against his will, Bliss yielded.

Friday, December 15, Bliss and his wife left by rail for Towanda and Rome. Traveling together as a singing and preaching couple, they had made a habit of leaving their sons, Philip and George, with her family, the Youngs. Before they left the train depot in Illinois, Bliss and Whittle had prayer together. It was the last time they would see each other on earth. Whittle returned to Peoria for the Holidays; Bliss rode east.

The following Sunday, December 17, Bliss spent with his birth family in Towanda. Monday, December 18, the couple went to Rome to see the Youngs, who were keeping the children. They spent a week, bought gifts, and celebrated. Monday, December 25, they exchanged Christmas gifts. Wednesday, December 27, they went to midweek services, where Bliss, full of the Holy Spirit and power, sang “Hold the Fort,” “Eternity,” “Father, I’m Tired.” He told the congregation it might be the last song he would ever sing to them.

Bliss was scheduled to be back in Chicago Sunday, December 31, but he was trying to get out of it. He sent a letter to Whittle that he would prefer to lay over and come later. When he received the letter, Whittle immediately wired Bliss: “Come now.”

Bliss and wife bought tickets for Chicago via Buffalo and Lake Shore Railway. They left Thursday, December 28, so they could be in Chicago Friday night. However, one of their connections had mechanical problems; they had to change their schedule. They spent the night somewhere, left the hotel Friday morning, now looking to be in Chicago Saturday.

Friday, December 29, 7:30 pm, the unthinkable happened. Had Bliss had a premonition? In Ashtabula, Ohio, as the train was passing a tressel, the bridge gave way, plunging the train 70 feet into icy water, where it caught fire. The incident is known as the Ashtabula Horror or the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster. At the time it was the worst rail disaster in American history; close to 100 people perished.

Naturally, the word spread quickly to Chicago. Saturday, December 30—hoping against hope—Whittle telegraphed Rome to see if Bliss had left yet. He had.

The next morning, Sunday, December 31, the day Bliss and Whittle were supposed to take charge of the church services in Chicago, Whittle himself was in Ashtabula.

The story was that after the initial impact, Lucy, the wife, was killed or missing; Bliss himself had emerged uninjured. He went back into the burning flames to find her and was never seen or heard from again.

Bliss was 38 years old; his wife, 35 (the number of cents in Foster’s pocket). Their bodies were never recovered. Whittle: “There was no sign of them. They were as gone as Enoch.” What ashes or remnants of human remains were found, were buried in a single mass grave in Ashtabula. Whittle, of course, felt responsible for having coerced Bliss on the trip.

Shortly after the tragedy, Moody raised funds, from as far away as England, to purchase a marble memorial, which he placed in a humble cemetery in Rome, across from the simple frame house Bliss had called home. Written around the large marble statue are scripture verses about the Resurrection. This is not the image you see online for Bliss, but it is, nevertheless, his headstone. It is a memorial. Bliss’ body is not there.

Ministers like Moody and Whittle were awed by the composer’s prodigious output. Between 1870 and 1876, alone, Bliss produced seven songbooks, 40-50 songs in sheet music, and many contributions to musical journals. Besides the songs already mentioned, and many others—some known, some unknown—he composed “Almost Persuaded,” “Hallelujah! What a Savior!” “Wonderful Words of Life,” and “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.” Whittle put together what is called Bliss’ Memoirs (available online), giving the fuller story of his life, along with letters and memorabilia. It is a work of love.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul
. ~Horatio G Spafford

Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit


About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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