Sunday, December 12, 2010

Under The Housetop

Hope you've been having a great weekend.

I spent part of mine touring the house of the guy who wrote "Up On The Housetop."

Who knew that he had lived in central Ohio?

Well, I suppose many people did - especially those locals eager to trumpet any connection to fame, however tenuous - but I didn't.

Not until I moved to the area some 10 years ago, anyway.

I finally decided that yesterday was the day to go learn more. It was, after all, one of the few days of the year they were offering free music, courtesy of a local piano player.

They were also offering free cookies, though I didn't know that until I got there. It's a wonder they ever got rid of me, but I digress....

The composer of "Up On The Housetop" (just in case you're one of the billions of people who have managed to get this far in life just fine without knowing) was Benjamin Hanby. Oddly enough, apparently even he didn't know it as "Up On The Housetop" until long after writing it, having simply (and rather unmemorably) entitled it "Santa Claus." The alternate name given to it by The Masses is the one that stuck. (Given the way these things usually go, I'm surprised "The Click Click Click Carol" didn't beat out both in the end....)

During his lifetime, Hanby seems to have been much more famous as the composer of Darling Nelly Gray - an "Uncle Tom's Cabin set to music," as one long-forgotten commentator put it. Apparently it was the big Lady Gaga-like hit of its day, that day being the Civil War years (days being much longer back then). If the video I watched at the ol' homestead yesterday is to be believed, you couldn't visit a Union encampment anywhere between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico without hearing some soldier or other singing or humming it - which is more than I can do despite hearing it several times. I guess "catchy" meant something very different in the 1860s than it does today.

"Darling Nelly Gray" was allegedly so catchy, even Confederate soldiers sang and hummed it non-stop. (Apparently the Civil War years were like an extended episode of "Glee," though historians continue to disagree about how much emphasis to put on the gay sub-plot.) Those Confederate soldiers, however, changed the words so that the song was no longer a melodramatic indictment of slavery. I'm not sure what words they used instead (the video didn't share that version - go figure), but I bet at least some Southerners didn't much care as long as those words allowed them to forget that damn "Dixie" earworm for a few minutes.

The part of the story that I found most interesting was that Hanby sent the words and music off to some big New York City music publisher after being encouraged (and/or endlessly nagged) to do so by a female supporter, and then heard nothing. Well, that is until he heard others in the area suddenly singing it after it had become a big hit among those in the nascent music business. He contacted the publisher again, asking for an explanation - and royalties. The publisher basically replied, "Hey, you get the fame - we get the money." If I'm not mistaken, this is the same basic deal that's been offered by many music publishers ever since.

"Up On The Housetop" was written a bit later. And it was written over near Dayton - not in central Oho, and not in the house I toured yesterday. The folks who run the house *did* have on display a few items Hanby may have touched before or after having written "Up On The Housetop," however, and if that's a good enough excuse for some people to hand out free cookies, well, it's a good enough excuse for me to politely take and eat them.

Hanby, by the way, was an abolitionist (as you may have guessed from "Darling Nelly Gray"). Turns out that this got him into trouble when he became a minister in southwestern Ohio. His church superiors apparently didn't think it appropriate for Christians to go around telling other people it was wrong to own individuals belonging to inferior races, so Hanby resigned ("never to preach from a pulpit again," as the video put it). Just one more tidbit I hope I can remember to share with my Christian friends when they start implying that there's no morality without religion....

Much was made of the fact yesterday that Hanby's homestead was a stop on the Underground Railroad. But every time we were all about to gaze in awe at this building that had allegedly actually held Runaway Slaves, we were brought back down to earth by some troubling comment, like "Of course the house wasn't here then" or "Of course this house has been moved twice since then." As with so much of history, the people who came later apparently thought there was nothing wrong with rearranging those elements they found too inconvenient to deal with. I forget where the house originally stood. I also forget where it stood for a time after that. It wasn't that far away - maybe only a couple miles originally, and maybe only half a block or so before finding a "permanent" home in 1937 - but... I hope visitors to the moon are never told "Yes, these are Neil Armstrong's actual footprints! Just moved from where they were originally so McDonald's could expand their drive-thru...."

How much of the original house made it to the current site, alas, is also more a matter of conjecture than I would like. Apparently it had fallen into quite a state of disrepair before one enterprising woman took it upon herself to save it. The oldest photos they have in the video as well as the photos of the reconstruction left me repeatedly recalling the famous story of Grandpa's Ax - you know, it's had 6 new heads and 5 new handles over the years, but it's still Grandpa's Ax.

Fortunately, there were a few genuine pieces of history on display that my eyes drank in the way a man lost in the desert might drink in water after stumbling upon an oasis. By far the most notable of these was a guest book signed by Orville Wright during a visit to the house in 1947. The signature was perfectly legible and right there on a page you could touch if you wanted without any of that nasty protective glass getting in the way. This really amazed me. I mean, given the number of people who have been killed in horrific airplane accidents and attacks since Orville's first flight in 1903, I would have thought that at least one angry surviving relative would have seen his name there during a chance visit to the house, burst into a rage, and ripped it to pieces, but no. Apparently everyone has been saving up all their rage all these years for TSA workers and their demonic x-ray machines and gloved hands....

One of the tour guides (ever anxious to strengthened even the weakest threads between the site and History) told us that someone in the Hanby family ended up marrying someone in the Wright family. Alas, it wasn't a descendant of Orville or Wilbur (who never married) but a descendant of another Wright brother.

That really lit me up. ANOTHER Wright brother?? It was like learning that Einstein had had a twin. Or that George W. was an only child and the whole Jeb thing is just a frat house gag that got out of hand.

I forget what the brother's name was, but Wikipedia indicates that it must have been either Reuchlin (yes, really) or Lorin (Otis having died in infancy). Bottom Line: There were more Wright brothers than I ever suspected. This gives me hope that there are dozens of unknown Warner brothers out there still, just waiting to produce Bugs Bunny cartoons as good as the ones from the 1940s.

If you ever have the chance to tour the Hanby house for yourself, I hope you'll seize it. Sure, you won't get to set foot in the basement any more than I did unless you're part of an oh-so-special school group, but you almost certainly *will* get a glimpse of the huge roller mounted atop the headboard of the bed that Hanby's father (or someone more or less like him) once used to smooth out the mattress stuffed with genuine corn husks.

You better go soon if you can, though. I bet some Mexican History Cartel is even now plotting to send a few gang members up here to take over the business and start charging exorbitant prices after getting you hooked on a few free facts. That's the way they work. And, as with the shoe, steel, auto, and toy industries, Americans just won't know what they had until it's gone....


  1. I had trouble breathing in Dayton. I don't think I'd go there again, even for free cookies.

    I watched a PBS DVD about the Wright Brothers narrated by Garrison Keillor. Garrison only talked about a Wright sister, no other brothers. Either that or I forgot. Orv sounds like he was a lot of fun. Wilbur was the serious brother.

    The guest-book page reminds me how I'm always amazed when I'm allowed to touch something historical. I touched the Liberty Bell when I saw it. Touched it over and over with different things until it made a musical note. The security guard was asleep. I bet there is better security in this century than that.

    On the same trip to Philadelphia I touched a Renoir painting of fat naked young women. The paint was cracked and dried. I don't think I made it any worse.

    That's funny about Grandpa's axe. The same principle applies to the Bible, doesn't it? I mean nothing an English person sees in it or can touch is original, but it is still venerated because it was Grandpa's.

    I'll stop now.

  2. Awwrrrr. OD seems to be down again. I wonder if its being attacked by Wikileaks supporters. Or Wikileaks opponents...
    Either way, I say thank gOD for this Refuge.