STORY BEHIND THE SONG: From folk tunes to jail to 'Whispering Hope'
“Soft as the voice of an angel,
Breathing a lesson unheard,
Hope with a gentle persuasion
Whispers her comforting word:
Wait till the darkness is over,
Wait till the tempest is done,
Hope for the sunshine tomorrow,
After the shower is gone.” — from "Whispering Hope"
What could the comforting hymn “Whispering Hope” have to do with well known little ditties such as “Listen to the Mockingbird,” “Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” and “Ten Little Indians?”
They were all written by Alice Hawthorne, one of the pseudonyms used by the 19th century songwriter Septimus Winner.
The famous poet, composer and violinist, born in 1827 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was the seventh child of Joseph Eastburn Winner and Mary Ann Hawthorne, a relative of Nathanial Hawthorne.
Winner, a self-taught musician, did study violin briefly around 1853 with Leopold Meignen, a former bandmaster in Napoleon's army and a composer and conductor. Winner could play a variety of instruments, including the guitar and banjo, and became proficient in the violin by the age of 20. After graduating Philadelphia’s Central High School, he opened a music shop and gave lessons on a number of instruments and performed locally with the Cecillian Music Society and the Philadelphia Brass Band.
From 1845 to 1854, Winner and his brother, Joseph, formed a music publishing business, Winner & Shuster, which Winner continued with various partners and names until 1902. During this time, he wrote or edited 200 volumes of music for more than 20 instruments and produced more than 2,000 arrangements for violin and piano plus more than 1,500 easy arrangements for a number of instruments. His book on banjo instruction is still used today.
Winner, who died in Philadelphia from a heart attack in 1902 at the age of 75, was a frequent contributor to Graham’s Magazine, then edited by Edgar Allen Poe, and was the founder of Philadelphia’s Musical Fund Society. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.
It was the ballads written by Winner under the pseudonym Alice Hawthorne that brought him popularity and came to be known as “Hawthorne’s Ballads.” His first successful song, “What is Home Without a Mother?” was written in 1854, and the next year he wrote “Listen to the Mockingbird,” one of the biggest hits of that time. Winner sold the rights for this song, which sold more than 25 million copies of sheet music, for the sum of $5.
It is reported that Winner got the idea for “Mockingbird” after hearing a young black boy, Dick Milburn, whistling and playing guitar on the streets, with the whistling turning into an imitation of a mockingbird. The song became especially popular in the South, where mockingbirds are common.
President Abraham Lincoln said the song “is as sincere as the laughter of a little girl at a play,” and King Edward VII of England said that he whistled the song when he was a little boy.
This song is still popular after more than 150 years, and is one of our old-time, all-time song hits. It was parodied in the film, “The Flintstones,” as a jazz tune called "Listen to the Rocking Bird,” and has been used in Looney Tunes as background music when birds were depicted.
Another of Winner's best-remembered songs, "Ten Little Indians,” was written in 1868 for a minstrel show skit about John Brown, whose Indian boy grows from "one little Injun" into "10 little Injuns," and then back to one. Agatha Christie also used the song in her novel “And Then There Were None.”
During the Civil War, Winner wrote “Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” set to a German folk tune, a song still popular today, especially with children.
One of Winner’s songs, “Give Us Back Our Old Commander: Little Mac, the People’s Pride,” landed him in jail for a brief time during the Civil War. Greatly affected by the political atmosphere of the time, Winner’s song, considered anti-Union in 1862, was written as a plea to President Lincoln to return Union General McClellan to his command. Winner was angry that Lincoln had fired the popular McClellan for his delays in going into battle to attack the Confederate Army.
Winner was arrested for treason against the United States after more than 80,000 copies of the song were sold the first two days, and he was released only after agreeing to destroy all the remaining copies.
The song, however, would not die, and reappeared in 1864 when McClellan was a candidate for president and then again with new words in 1880 as a campaign song for Ulysses S. Grant’s third term run.
It seems hard to believe that the same person who wrote classic folk tunes loved by children and spent time in jail for treason could also write one of the most successful and beautiful church songs of all time.
“Whispering Hope,” published in 1868 and also written under the name Alice Hawthorne, was not meant to be a religious song, according to friends of Winner, but it proved to be his most successful song, a fact that amazed, and even amused, Winner. The hymn gained instant success in churches and has been published in hymnbooks continuously since that time.
Based on Hebrews 6:19, “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the presence behind the veil,” the text of the song refers to the anchor that keeps the soul unwavering — the “Whispering Hope” for all Christians.
This is the work Winner will be most remembered for — the last popular song written before his death.
"Whispering hope, oh how welcome thy voice,
Making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.”