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“Ben Bolt”

And Pa would play some of the old songs, ‘to go to sleep on,’ he said… — By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 22, “Happy Winter Days”

The poem “Ben Bolt” was written by Thomas Dunn English in 1842; it was set to music by Nelson Kneass and first performed in 1848 in a play called The Battle of Buena Vista. Kneass’s music wasn’t original; he adapted a German melody to fit the words of his poem. The 1848 music was published by W.C. Peters in Baltimore, Maryland, W.C. Peters & Son in Cincinnati, Ohio, and others.

Thomas Dunn English (1819-1902) was born in Philadephia and lived in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and New Jersey. He was a medical doctor as well as an attorney, plus he ran a daily newspaper, edited a literary magazine, and wrote over one thousand poems during his lifetime.

Nelson Kneass (1823-1868) was a English singer, sometimes considered a wandering minstrel in America. Although “Ben Bolt” was wildly popular from the beginning, Kneass earned almost nothing from the music, and he died in relative poverty. He was buried in Chilocothe, Missouri, where he died after a short illness; his Nelson Kneass Company was performing in America and he both went bankrupt and became ill after arriving in Missouri from performances in Colorado. His wife placed a small marker on his grave, which fans chipped pieces from for souvenirs until it was no longer readable. In the 1920s – with “Ben Bolt” still a popular song – residents of Chilocothe collected money to erect a granite memorial to Kneass in the cemetery.

(by Thomas Dunn English)

Don’t you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt,
Sweet Alice whose hair was so brown,
Who wept with delight when you gave her a smile,
And trembled with fear at your frown?
In the old church-yard in the valley, Ben Bolt,
In a corner obscure and alone,
They have fitted a slab of the granite so gray,
And Alice lies under the stone.

Under the hickory tree, Ben Bolt,
Which stood at the foot of the hill,
Together we’ve lain in the noonday shade,
And listened to Appleton’s mill.
The mill-wheel has fallen to pieces, Ben Bolt,
The rafters have tumbled in,
And a quiet which crawls round the walls as you gaze
Has followed the olden din.

Do you mind of the cabin of logs, Ben Bolt,
At the edge of the pathless wood,
And the button-ball tree with its motley limbs,
Which nigh by the doorstep stood?
The cabin to ruin has gone, Ben Bolt,
The tree you would seek for in vain;
And where once the lords of the forest waved
Are grass and the golden grain.

And don’t you remember the school, Ben Bolt,
With the master so cruel and grim,
And the shaded nook in the running brook
Where the children went to swim?
Grass grows on the master’s grave, Ben Bolt,
The spring of the brook is dry,
And of all the boys who were schoolmates then
There are only you and I.

There is change in the things I loved, Ben Bolt,
They have changed from the old to the new;
But I feel in the deeps of my spirit the truth,
There never was change in you.
Twelvemonths twenty have past, Ben Bolt,
Since first we were friends- yet I hail
Your presence a blessing, your friendship a truth,
Ben Bolt of the salt-sea gale.

(from By the Shores of Silver Lake)

Oh, do you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt?
Sweet Alice with eyes so brown,
Who wept with delight when you gave her a smile,
And trembled with fear at your frown?

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Click on the above images to view a copy of sheet music of “Ben Bolt.”

This music is archived in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library of Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708-0185 USA.. The Historic American Sheet Music Program provides access to music published in the United States between 1850 and 1920.


“Ben Bolt” (LTP 8)
     “Oh, do you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt?”