“Sweet By and By”
After dinner Pa played hymn tunes on his fiddle, and all the afternoon they sang… — The Long Winter, Chapter 13, “We’ll Weather the Blast”
Sweet By and By” holds a special place in Laura Ingalls Wilder lore. In her Pioneer Girl memoir, Wilder wrote: “Pa played by ear and a tune once heard, he could play and never forget. He loved to play the hymns we had sung in the little church in Walnut Grove, ‘Sweet Hour of Prayer,’ ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ ‘Let the Lower Lights be Burning,’ but of all, ‘The Sweet By and By’ was his favorite, so much that it was sung at his funeral.” In “First Memories of Father” (see A Little House Reader, edited by William Anderson), Wilder paid tribute to Charles Ingalls, saying: “I am sure that when I come to die, if Father might only be playing for me I should be wafted straight to heaven on the strains of ‘The Sweet By and By,’ for the pearly gates would surely open.” In both published The Long Winter and the surviving manuscript, Pa sings this and other hymns at night while a blizzard is raging.
“Sweet By and By” (or “In the Sweet By and By”) was written in 1867 by Sanford F. Bennett, with music by Joseph P. Webster. “Sweet By and By” was included in Webster’s songbook, The Signet Ring, published in 1868. Many arrangements were published into the twentieth century. One of the first men to hear Webster’s playing of the song remarked, “That hymn is immortal.” It was sung in public and within two weeks, children on the street were singing it.
Sanford Fillmore Bennett (1836-1898) was born in New York and began writing poetry in the early 1850s. He was superintendent of schools in Richmond, Illinois for two years, then moved to Elkhorn, Wisconsin, south of Jefferson County. He served as 2nd Lieutenant in the 40th Wisconsin Infantry; following the Civil War, he ran a drugstore in Elkhorn and studied medicine. He graduated from Rush Medical College in 1874 and worked as a physician for over twenty years. Through all, he wrote poetry.
Joseph Philbrick Webster (1819-1874) was born in New York. He was a composer and performer who wrote over a thousand ballads and hymns during his lifetime. He lived in a number of states, including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois. In 1859 he moved to Elkhorn, Wisconsin, where he met and became friends with Sanford Bennett. Prone to depression, Webster was often asked to write music when Fillmore noticed he was feeling melancholy. On one occasion, Webster came into Bennett’s store without speaking. When asked what was the matter, Webster replied, “It’s no matter. It will be all right by and by.” Fillmore immediately wrote the words to “Sweet By and By” and handed them to Webster, who within thirty minutes had composed the music and was playing it on his violin.
1. There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar,
For the Father waits over the way,
To prepare us a dwelling place there.
[chorus] In the sweet (by and by) by and by (by and by),
We shall meet on that beautiful shore (by and by),
In the sweet (by and by) by and by (by and by)
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.
2. We shall sing on that beautiful shore,
The melodious songs of the blest,
And out spirits shall sorrow no more–
Not a sigh for the blessing of the rest.
3. To our bountiful Father above,
We will offer the tribute of praise,
For the glorious gift of His love,
And the blessings that hallow out days!
There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar…
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Click on the images above to view a copy of 1868 sheet music of “Sweet By and By.”
Click on the above images to view a copy of 1868 sheet music of “Sweet By and By.” This music is archived in the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, part of Special Collections at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library of The Johns Hopkins University. The collection contains over 29,000 pieces of music and focuses on popular American music from 1780-1960.
In 1885, E.P. Dutton published Sanford Bennett’s booklet of illustrated lyrics and music for “Sweet By and By.” With a lithographed cover and violet silk fringe, it sold for $1.75.
“Sweet By and By” (TLW 13; PG)
“There’s a land that is fairer than day”