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The Minstrel Man: Thomas Brigham Bishop

By Julia Bricklin
4/26/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

Forgotten songwriter and impresario Thomas Brigham Bishop still casts a long shadow in American culture.

UNION TROOPS WERE IN FIRM COMMAND of Chattanooga, Tenn., by the fall of 1863, and soldiers, traders, adventurers, poor whites, refugees and escaped or newly freed slaves—drifting in on the currents of war—mingled uneasily in the strategic railroad hub. Even after a large portion of the Union occupiers marched off in April 1864 for Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign, some 3,000 soldiers remained in Chattanooga. That spring a show troupe led by gifted songwriter and impresario Thomas Brigham Bishop arrived to entertain the troops. “Bishop’s Varieties and Cumberland Minstrels” set up for a long stay, with a change of program every two nights. 

The show was a success, drawing crowds for a year. On September 29, 1864, the Chattanooga Daily Gazette commented: “There may be those who imagine that because this is a garrisoned town, that therefore a place of public amusement is out of place….To us…where there is little society in which to pass off the idle moments, where the few otherwise obtainable amusements are much more costly and greatly demoralizing, who does not prefer an evening at Bishop’s?” 

Bishop, who traveled in the same circles as Stephen Foster—nine years his senior—aspired to the kind of widespread acclaim Foster received as author of songs such as “Camptown Races,” “Oh! Susanna” and “Old Kentucky Home.” But Bishop would prove to have perhaps even greater ambition and talent, including an enormous gift for self-promotion. Though he worked as a musician, songwriter, impresario, photographer and stock dealer, Bishop was proudest of his musical creations. And while some of his claims to having authored some famous ballads have been disputed, there’s no doubt he contributed mightily to the popularity of “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and even “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“Glory, Hallelujah!”) and experimented with additional verses for those songs at his shows.

 

BORN IN 1835 IN KENNEBEC, MAINE, teaching guitar and penning songs in Newport, R.I., before he was 20. While living in Rhode Island he was likely exposed to the many minstrel groups touring New England in the mid- Bishop began 1850s. Talented songwriters like Stephen Foster, Dan Emmett and Thomas “Daddy” Rice had traveled throughout the South, where they listened to, then adapted, the songs sung by slaves. They brought some of their unique adaptations back north with them, often blackening their faces with burnt cork before shows and singing in a “Southern Negro” dialect. Though such theatrics are seen as derisive by modern standards, in their day those so-called “plantation music” minstrels played a role in humanizing blacks in the eyes of Northerners, energizing the growing antislavery movement.

Bishop’s first commercial success came at age 21, when G.P. Reed & Co. published his “Blue Eyed Bell” about the death of a young maiden, a popular theme within the parlor music genre. By 1859, Bishop was known all over New England for his thoughtful ballads, such as “Ella Fay” and “Bishop’s Serenade,” but also as a major contributor to Christy & Wood’s minstrel tunes, and a writer for burlesque acts like Boston’s Shakers.

By the time war came, Bishop had expanded his repertoire. His parlor music even tentatively touched on slavery, such as “Cloe Bell,” about a man who mourned the death of a bride given to him by his master:

When spring first dawn’d up on the lea
And scattered flow’rets o’er each dell
Then dear old massa gave to me
My Georgian bride sweet Cloe Bell

Where the birds are sweetly singing, sweetly singing,
Far away within a southern dell
There my heart is every clinging
To the grave of my sweet Cloe Bell

Once the fighting began, Bishop often incorporated military themes into his music, writing songs like “The Young Volunteer.” In 1862 he produced “Bishop’s Great Exhibition of the Present War” in Boston, featuring “Panoramas, Dioramas, Dioptrics, Music, Mirth and Magic” for tony audiences far removed from the horrors of the battlefield. In 1863 he appeared as “Colonel Bishop” in a New England minstrel show. When he was drafted that fall, Bishop paid a substitute to serve in his stead, then headed to Tennessee, where he managed to establish himself as an assistant and toastmaster to the 1st United States Veteran Volunteer Engineers, under Captain James R. Slayton.

On April 25, 1864, Bishop debuted his Chattanooga variety show, billed in the New York Clipper and Nashville Daily Union as having been sanctioned “by authority of Major-General [George H.] Thomas.” By the end of June, the Cumberland Minstrels boasted a “Constellation of Talent” in its advertisements. It included headliners Billy Sweatman and Joe Davidson, popular banjoists, ballad-singers and “blackface” comedians. Another rising performer in the troupe, John Addison (“Add”) Ryman, was becoming well known as a “stump orator,” who could ad-lib in rhyme about current events and politics.

Some members of the 73rd Illinois Infantry who saw that show characterized the program as a “complete bore.” For the most part, however, Bishop’s show apparently thrilled his customers. One reporter from the Chattanooga Gazette lamented that even standing room was at a premium at some performances.

Within months of the production’s arrival in eastern Tennessee, word had spread through the region: The Clipper blared that Bishop had “control of the Varieties, not just in Chattanooga, but also Knoxville and Nashville.” Ever mindful of amusing his consumers, the impresario infused his show with music, short plays, parodies and solo acts, making it a continuous draw for citizens craving levity and normalcy in time of war. He performed with his troupe rousing morale-boosters that he had composed, such as “Abraham the Great and General Grant His Mate” and “We’ll Go Marching.”

In midsummer 1864, Bishop further expanded his Tennessee entertainments, even though Confederate forces under General John B. Hood were then nearby. Singer and dancer “La Belle Louise” Sweatman and her sister Lottie now joined their brother Billy on stage. Clog dancer Ike Collins also joined the troupe, as did violinist and music director Eddie Fox and a number of harpists, bassos and singers. The Knoxville troupe was now billed as a “combination minstrel show,” with “Ethiopian comedians”—a raunchier show than the one presented at Chattanooga, aimed squarely at young soldiers. Stars Dan Shelby, Harry Haydon and Billy Boyce sang songs and told jokes poking fun at “high-brow folks” and mocking political figures. They also savagely parodied blacks, acting out stereotypes such as a carefree slave and a free black trying to rise above his station.

One of America’s most famous folk songs can be directly tied to Bishop’s Chattanooga production. Accounts of his inspiration vary, depending on the source, but the basic idea remains the same. Sometime in the summer or fall of 1864, an African-American soldier was standing guard at Bishop’s show tent. When another soldier from the detail approached and started teasing him, the first man called out, “Shoo fly, don’t bodder me!” Overhearing the exchange, Bishop quickly supplied a refrain, “For I belong to Company G!” The songwriter quickly jotted down more lyrics—most of which were offensive, by today’s standards, and were revised generations ago—and taught them to the men of the guard detail. Bishop later maintained that other regiments regularly gathered around to “hear his darkies sing,” and claimed that the performers became extremely popular.

While “Shoo Fly” is generally credited to Bishop, he had difficulty getting recognition for some of the war’s best-remembered musical hallmarks. He is little known as an American songwriter largely because melodies he claimed to have written became famous only after others set different lyrics to them. One example is the melody for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Bishop claimed that he wrote a drinking song, “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl,” during a stint as a guitar teacher in Providence, inspired by his nights at Johnny Bowers’ tavern. In The Author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a flowery biography commissioned by Bishop himself, public relations man John J. MacIntyre relates that Bowl was “at large” until 1863, when bandmaster Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore wrote the new words, “When Johnny comes marching home” to the melody. Bishop and Gilmore then took this revised version of Bowl to the publishing house Tolman & Co. in Boston, which suggested they use a nom de plume to disassociate Bishop with the melody because it had “played itself out” with Bowl. It seems more likely that Tolman did not want to have any royalty discussions with either man.

Late in life, Bishop spent considerable time trying to gain credit for “Glory, Hallelujah!” claiming to have authored the song upon which it was based, “John Brown’s Body.” He reportedly said: “The melody, as far as I can find out, was original with me…and the line which suggested it was spoken to me upon my return from St. Louis in ’58 by a brother-in-law of mine….[He remarked] that my songs were all written for the devil. Then he exclaimed: ‘I am bound to be a soldier in the army of the Lord; glory, glory, hallelujah!’”

Bishop’s wife’s brother was indeed fervently religious, and it is possible that the musician attached these lines to a stanza he claimed to have written after abolitionist John Brown’s execution:

John Brown’s body lies a mould’ring in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a mould’ring in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a mould’ring in the grave,
His soul’s marching on!

We know that Bishop’s troupe was working in Roanoke, Va., in 1859, the year that Brown was executed after his raid on Harpers Ferry. It’s not unreasonable to think the songwriter might have responded to the news by producing his revised lyrics.

In 1866 Bishop divorced his wife and married an actress from his show. Thereafter they traveled the United States and Europe, staging séances and minstrel shows. He composed a number of well-received works during this period, but by the 1880s his songwriting output had slowed. He was then managing one of the biggest investment schemes of the Gilded Age. Bishop was arrested for fraud in 1890 and spent time in a New York jail, but the couple managed to retire in luxury in 1892.

Bishop continued throughout his life to seek credit for his contributions to “Shoo Fly,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Glory, Hallelujah!” In 1897 he hired MacIntyre to write his biography and also generate newspaper articles about his songwriting career. He also tried to capitalize on rising tensions be tween Spain and the United States over the Philippines as a pretext for publishing new patriotic songs like “It Takes a Man to be a Soldier” and “I’m Uncle Sam the Yankee.” Bishop’s ulterior motive for those rather predictable compositions is fairly obvious: The wording on their cover pages and in newspaper ads promoting the songs made it abundantly clear that their composer was the same Bishop who had composed “Johnny,” etc., a generation before.

T. Brigham Bishop clearly helped to define the musical culture of his era. His cultural footprint even extended into country music in the 20th century: “Kittie Wells,” the title of one of his 1861 songs, which told the tale of a lovelorn slave, inspired the stage name Kitty Wells, adopted by a pioneering singer and the first real female country star, Ellen Muriel Deason. Bishop collaborated with composer Charles Atherton to write that song, but it was the former’s guitar and banjo versions that made the tune popular. In addition to his musical contributions, Bishop took up photography during the war, creating several acclaimed portraits of commanders as well as common folk.

Ironically, Bishop’s greatest contribution to the Civil War era may have been less quantifiable than royalties or fame. During his stay in eastern Tennessee in 1864, his shows provided relief for a war-weary populace. As Gilbert Govan and James Livingood, authors of The Chattanooga Country, wrote: “The troops here ever dreamed of civilian pleasures, seized every opportunity for recreation, in which they were joined by the remnant of the town’s civilian population, and merriment for brief moments took precedence over the grim business of war.”

 

California-based Julia Bricklin holds an M.A. in history and writes about 19th-century pop culture and economics for various publications.

Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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