Man of many talents — hymnist Daniel de Marbelle

Pam Griffin
Daniel de Marbelle died Dec. 18, 1903, at the age of 85 in Wayne, Ill. He is buried at Bluff City Cemetery in Elgin. [CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]

Don’t you hear the bells now ringing

Don’t you hear the angels singing

’Tis the glory hallelujah Jubilee.

In that far off sweet forever,

Just beyond the shining river,

When they ring the golden bells for you and me.”

A whaler, a drummer, a circus clown.

Just some of the many occupations held by Daniel (Dion) de Marbelle, a hymnist with a most unusual life story.

A man of many talents, de Marbelle was born July 4, 1818, in Seville, France, and spent much of his youth working on whaling ships in the Arctic. He then joined the United States Navy and served as a drummer in a New York company during the Mexican War in 1847 and was a musician with the 6th Michigan Infantry during the Civil War.

After the war, de Marbelle toured America as an actor and musician with an opera company before forming his own theatrical troupe. His life centered on entertaining — as a magician, ventriloquist, musician and writer. But probably his most unusual accomplishment in the entertainment field was his role as a clown.

At the age of 69, De Marbelle became the first circus clown in the James Bailey circus, before it merged with the P.T. Barnum circus. He later organized his own circus, but lost all his equipment and big top in a fire while touring in Canada.

Returning to America, de Marbelle turned his attention to the West and helped Buffalo Bill Cody in his famous Wild West Show.

De Marbelle could play almost any instrument, wrote many songs, organized a brass band, sang in a Methodist choir in Elgin, Illinois, and even called the figures at local square dances. He even claimed he could make an eloquent speech on any subject — without preparation.

Although a talented and capable man, de Marbelle was no businessman and lived his last years in poverty in a schoolroom in Elgin. The royalties from all his songs were stolen from him and he died penniless, near starvation, in 1903. Old soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic buried him, and the government placed a modest marker on his grave with the simple wording, “Drum Major D. A. De Marbelle, 6 Mich. Inf.”

Most of his more than 25 songs have been forgotten, but as de Marbelle neared the age of 70, he wanted to leave something that would endure. It was then in 1887 that he wrote “When They Ring the Golden Bells,” a song which turns a Christian’s mind to the hope of heaven. Versions of the song have been recorded by Loretta Lynn and Jerry Lee Lewis.

“For years I was so busy I didn’t have time for God, and so rich I didn’t need him. God had to slow me down and take my success away so that he could talk to me about the home beyond the river.” — Daniel de Marbelle.

“There’s a land beyond the river,

That we call the sweet forever,

And we only reach that shore by faith’s decree;

One by one we’ll gain the portals,

There to dwell with the immortals,

When they ring the golden bells for you and me.

When our days shall know their number,

And in death we sweetly slumber,

When the King commands the spirit to be free;

Nevermore with anguish laden,

We shall reach that lovely Eden,

When they ring the golden bells for you and me.”