"Ben Bolt" (Roud 2653) is a sentimental ballad with lyrics derived from a poem by Thomas Dunn English. It enjoyed widespread popularity throughout the English-speaking world during the nineteenth century.
Thomas Dunn English wrote the poem "Ben Bolt" in 1842 at the specific request of Nathaniel Parker Willis. While he was then an active participant in the New York City literary scene and lived much of his life in New Jersey, English is popularly believed to have written the poem while visiting Tazewell, Virginia on a hunting trip, as claimed by regional folklorists.
The most popular musical arrangement of "Ben Bolt" was composed by Nelson Kneass in 1848. A widely reported story is that Kneass produced the song as accompaniment to a play about the recent Battle of Buena Vista, borrowing the music from a German melody. However, a search through Ludwig Erk's folk song compilation Deutscher Liederschatz produced no songs with similar melodies, and it is much more likely that the tune was an original composition by Kneass.
The poem, which is five stanzas long, describes nostalgic scenes from the life of the anonymous narrator. The narrator, who addresses each memory to the title character, begins the first stanza by describing the life and death of a woman named Alice.
Don't you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt,—
Sweet Alice whose hair was so brown,
Who wept with delight when you gave her a smile,
And trembled with fear at your frown?
In the old church-yard in the valley, Ben Bolt,
In a corner obscure and alone,
They have fitted a slab of the granite so gray,
And Alice lies under the stone.
Some variation occurs in the beginning of the poem's fourth stanza. In the original manuscript, the stanza begins as follows:
And don’t you remember the school, Ben Bolt,
With the master so cruel and grim,
And the shaded nook in the running brook
Where the children went to swim?
However, when the poem was arranged to music, the lyrics of that section were changed slightly, so that the relevant lines were as follows:
With the master so kind and so true.
And the little nook by the clear-running brook,
Where we gathered the flowers as they grew?
This mild bowdlerization met with some annoyance from the author. Thomas Dunn English, writing to Harper's Bazaar, commented: "I must protest against this change, because the school-masters of between sixty and seventy years since were, to my memory, 'cruel and grim'; they were neither kind nor true. They seemed to think the only way to get learning into a boy's head was by the use of the rod. There may have been exceptions, but I never met them."
I am feeling very well and enjoying life as well as an old man can, but this eternal 'Ben Bolt' business makes me so infernally weary at times that existence becomes a burden. The other night, at a meeting of a medical association at my home in Newark, some one proposed that all hands join in singing 'Ben Bolt,' whereupon I made a rush for the door, and came very near forgetting the proprieties by straightway leaving home. However, I recovered my equilibrium and rejoined my friends. I don't think that General Sherman ever grew half so tired of 'Marching Through Georgia' as I have of that creation of mine, and it will be a blessed relief to me when the public shall conclude to let it rest.
Shortly after being published, "Ben Bolt" vaulted to nationwide popularity, single-handedly establishing Thomas Dunn English's literary reputation and remaining relevant as a classic American song throughout the nineteenth century. It swiftly became the subject of both tribute and parody, with many sets of variant lyrics. "Ben Bolt" circulated widely in unauthorized broadside format and was selected by Rufus Wilmot Griswold for his anthology The Poets and Poetry of America. The ballad was a particular favorite of Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime.
"Ben Bolt" had its popularity rejuvenated in 1894 when George du Maurier published his novel Trilby, which uses the song as a plot point. The title character Trilby O'Ferrall is portrayed as incapable of skillful singing when she delivers a tone-deaf version of "Ben Bolt" near the novel's beginning. Later, the failure of Svengali's hypnotic powers are revealed when Trilby is once again incapable of singing "Ben Bolt" with any degree of skill. The success of the novel and the subsequent Trilbyana craze promoted interest in the songs of Trilby. In his old age, Thomas Dunn English contributed a manuscript copy of "Ben Bolt" to an 1895 Trilby-themed charity auction for the benefit of the New York Kindergarten Association.
As a widely known song of the nineteenth century, "Ben Bolt" was popularly used as a cultural reference in books set during that era, whether published in the nineteenth century or decades later. It is quoted in the novel Dr. Sevier by George Washington Cable and by Laura Ingalls Wilder in By the Shores of Silver Lake. Leopold Bloom contemplated Ben Bolt along with other stories about long-lost loves in James Joyce's Ulysses.
- Norma Talmadge would have the song played in order to get in character for tearful scenes.
- In Gone with the Wind, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara briefly sings several lines from "Ben Bolt."
- In 1931's Girls About Town, Lilyan Tashman as Marie Bailey sings several lines, complaining about having to sing such an "old-fashioned song" to make her much older boyfriend happy.
- James Bellak, Ben Bolt's Waltz (1850)
- Charles Grobe, [Variations on] "Ben Bolt" (1850)
- William Vincent Wallace, Grande fantaisie de concert sur la ballade Americaine "Ben Bolt" (1853)
- John Philip Sousa, "Ben Bolt" March (1888)
- Charles Ives, Central Park in the Dark (1906)
- Gilder, Joseph Benson; Gilder, Jeannette Leonard (1895). Trilbyana: The Rise and Progress of a Popular Novel. New York: The Critic Co. p. 30.
- Kish, Kathy (July 28, 2006). "More history comes to light about 'Ben Bolt,' its author". Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Retrieved August 30, 2020.
- Krohn, Ernst C. (1971). "Nelson Kneass: Minstrel Singer and Composer". Anuario Interamericano de Investigacion Musical. 7 (1971): 37. doi:10.2307/779859. JSTOR 779859.
- Kobbé, Gustav (1906). Famous American Songs. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co. p. 90.
- Krohn, p. 38.
- Gilder & Gilder, p. 31.
- "Said Dr. Thomas Dunn English, the author of "Ben Bolt", the other day..." Crawfordsville Weekly Journal. May 24, 1895. p. 6. Retrieved August 30, 2020.
- Scroggy, Thomas M. (1852). "AH! YES, I REMEMBER. An Answer to "Ben Bolt."". Retrieved August 30, 2020 – via Library of Congress.
- "At Cromer". Punch, or the London Charivari. Vol. 109. October 5, 1895. p. 160. Retrieved August 30, 2020.
- McGill, Meredith L. (September 2016). "What Is a Ballad? Reading for Genre, Format, and Medium". Nineteenth-Century Literature. 71 (2): 166. doi:10.1525/ncl.2016.71.2.156. JSTOR 26377165.
- Lamon, Ward Hill (1911). Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865. Washington, D.C. p. 152. ISBN 9780722287804.
- "180-year-old piano likely heard by Abraham Lincoln to play again". CBS News. Associated Press. February 5, 2016. Retrieved August 30, 2020.
- Dettro, Chris (February 14, 2016). "Lincoln-era piano in tune for concerts". The State Journal-Register. Retrieved August 30, 2020.
- Gilder & Gilder, p. 20.
- Cable, George W. (1897). Dr. Sevier. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 145.
- Wilder, Laura Ingalls (1953) . By the Shores of Silver Lake. Illustrated by Garth Williams. New York: HarperCollins. p. 213. ISBN 0-06-026416-0. LCCN 52-7529.
- Schwaber, Paul (1999). "5: The Odd Couple". The Cast of Characters: A Reading of Ulysses. Yale University Press. p. 177. ISBN 0-300-07805-6. JSTOR j.ctt1dszzxc.9. LCCN 99-013446.
Quite a number of stories there were on that particular Alice Ben Bolt topic, Enoch Arden and Rip van Winkle and does anybody hereabouts remember Caoc O'Leary, a favourite and most trying declamation piece by the way of poor John Casey and a bit of perfect poetry in its own small way.
- Thurber, James (August 5, 1939). "Famous Poems Illustrated--VII: "Ben Bolt"". The New Yorker. p. 22.
- Berg, Charles (1995). "Music on the Silent Set". Literature/Film Quarterly. 23 (2): 132. JSTOR 43796658.
- Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: Girls About Town - 1931. YouTube.
- Bellak, James (1850). "Ben Bolt's waltz, no. 1460". Retrieved July 18, 2021 – via Library of Congress.
- Grobe, Charles (1850). "Ben Bolt, op. 151". Retrieved August 30, 2020 – via Library of Congress.
- Wallace, William Vincent (1853). "Grande fantaisie de concert sur la ballade Americaine "Ben Bolt"". Retrieved August 30, 2020 – via Library of Congress.
- Bierley, Paul E. (1984). The Works of John Philip Sousa. Columbus, OH: Integrity Press. p. 42. ISBN 0-918048-04-4. LCCN 84-080665.
- Sinclair, James B. (1999). A descriptive catalogue of the music of Charles Ives. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. p. 103. ISBN 0-300-07601-0. OCLC 39905309.