Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Benjamin R. Hanby and his Paper Trail

My adopted hometown of Westerville, Ohio has a nationally prominent, nineteenth century composer as its hometown hero.  Benjamin R. Hanby (1833-1867) died very young, but in his short life he composed simple songs that became worldwide favorites.  His Christmas songs, Up on the Housetop and Who is He in Yonder Stall? are still performed annually and widely.  And while his Civil War era classic Darling Nelly Gray is no longer quite as well known was it was in the century after the war, it is an important historical artifact.  It was sung universally during the war, North and South, and was once so popular that it was mistaken for the work of Stephen Foster, another balladeer of the antebellum Union.

I am neither musicologist nor expert on Hanby, but as a librarian/ historian living in Westerville, I could not keep from noticing when Hanby’s name crossed my line of inquiry.  Hanby is, perhaps, not quite famous enough to attract the attention of our scholarly pinnacles such as the Library of Congress of the National Archives.  Only one print biography, Choose You This Day: The Legacy of the Hanbys by Dacia Custer Shoemaker (Westerville, 1983), has been published.  The archives of Otterbein University, Hanby’s alma mater (Class of 1858), has an interesting collection.  But manuscripts in Hanby’s own hand are as scarce as hen’s teeth.  Almost all surviving letters of Benjamin Hanby are in newspaper articles and journals.

Thus I was all the more surprised when I spotted this in an online auction of rare manuscripts:

“146     Hanby, B. R. (1833-67)
Autographed Letter Signed

American composer of the famous anti-slavery song  “Darling Nelly Gray” and some 80 other songs.  John Tasker Howard writes, in “Our American Music” (1954):  “One song, written before the outbreak of the war…achieved a tremendous circulation.”  Partial ALS, 2 pp., 5” X 5 ½”,np, nd.  Fair.  Verso contains old archival tape.  Consists of three closely cropped, irregular portions of an ALS affixed together, with the front side reading in full:  “When I saw my first song, “Darling Nelly Gray” in sheet form for the piano, I was fairly nervous with delight, but, believing that a man likes his own club footed child better than his neighbors perfectly formed one, I did not pose that others would feel much interest in it.  But I have friends who have felt a deeper interest in that song than ever I did.  Most Sincerely B. R. Hanby.”  Extremely scarce – possibly one of the few samples of Hanby’s handwriting in existence.  Although damaged, its content could hardly be improved.  Accompanied by sheet music for Hanby’s popular (among Northern troops) “ ’Ole Shady’ or the Song of the Contraband,” 6 pp, 10 X 13 1/4",” Boston, MA, 1861.  Fair to good.  A scarce first printing of the Northern favorite.  Bookseller Inventory #autograph – 423.
Price:  US $500.00
Bookseller: Main Street Fine Books & MSS, ABAA
Galena, IL USA 61036 ”

                This advertisement, which appeared around 2004, was way out of pocketbook range for me.  I contacted the seller awhile back, who could only tell me that it was sold to a private collector.  I am posting it now only to make the contents available to future scholars, if any, who might wish to read such text by Hanby as survives. 

                I am not sure what the moral of this story is.  It may be that collectors should make documents available to scholars if asked.  Or, it may be that those of us in the library business should keep up with papers in private hands, if only to print them (or put them online, like this one) in ways that are searchable, online or off.  Or, do not be in a hurry to toss out that old pile of letters.  You never know who might want or need them.