The Sweet Singer of Michigan

  Jerome Shea       January 10, 2009      Weekend Wonk

Take heart, Gentle Readers! I have found William Topaz McGonagall’s soulmate! (Surely you remember McGonagall, “World’s Worst Poet”?) I sing of Julia Ann Moore, aka “The Sweet Singer of Michigan, “ and I take special pride in that she was from our own American heartland. A lifelong Michigander, she was born in 1847 and died in 1920.

She married Frederick Moore, a farmer, in 1865. Eventually they became decently prosperous, but their lives were typical of the time and place. Farm work could be grindingly hard, and death was a fact of life: only six of their ten children survived to adulthood. Small wonder that death was a constant inspiration for her. She began writing poems and songs in her teens, “mostly [to quote one source] in response to the death of children she knew, but any newspaper account of disaster could inspire her.”

But I have dawdled past your patience. Hearken to this funeral stanza for Little Libbie:

While eating dinner, this dear little child
Was choked on a piece of beef,
Doctors came, tried their skill awhile,
But none could give relief….
Her friends and schoolmates will not forget
Little Libbie that is no more;
She is waiting on the shining step,
To welcome home friends once more.

I find the image of eternal play dates especially touching. And some of her rhymes are only “close enough for government work,” but that’s good enough for Julia. More? Ok.

Carrie’s age was twenty-three
A married lady, too, was she—
A mournful parting had to be
From Carrie Munro.

It’s just before her spirit fled
Her husband stood beside her bed;
Prove faithful, birdie, to me,” said
Sweet Carrie Munro.

(Yes, she will surprise you sometimes, as with that rhyme scheme (aaab, cccb?) and the echoing couplets. But meter is often a bit of a challenge. And “birdie”?)

In many ways, Moore was a product of her time. The worst of the Victorian ethos found its way to our shores. The age celebrated children, innocence (think Little Nell, think Little Eva), sentimentality run riot and the perverse beauty of death. The great desideratum of the age was a good cry. This was a time, after all, when cemeteries were becoming beautiful parks: you could grieve and picnic at the same time. Mark Twain found all this richly ridiculous, and Moore is said to have been the inspiration for that sentimental young ghoul, Emmeline Grangerford, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Here’s Emmeline, memorializing the late, lamented, Stephen Dowling Botts:

O no. Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly
By falling down a well.

They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.

(As I recall, Twain wrote that when there was death in the neighborhood, Emmeline was often there before the undertaker.)

With youngsters dropping like flies, it is understandable that some get just a lick and a promise from Julia—

Minnie May House she had to go,
And leave her friends that loved her so—
She was a girl in her teens,
As lovely a flower as e’er was seen.

—but perhaps “short life, short poem” is the operant principle here. Too bad she couldn’t spare a couple of extra syllables for that third line, though.

McGonagall had his Tay Bridge disaster, and Julia had her Ashtabula (Ohio) Bridge disaster (“Have you heard of the dreadful fate/ Of Mr. P.P. Bliss and wife?”). But unlike McGonagall, and to her credit, she at least does not offer gratuitous engineering advice.

Like McGonagall, she performed her art, reciting and singing in concert halls. At first she persuaded herself that the snickers and catcalls were directed at the orchestra.* Finally even she faced the truth, that the jeers were aimed at her. But at the end of these performances she would fix the audience with a flinty glare and let them have it:

“You have come here and paid twenty-five cents to see a fool; I receive seventy-five dollars, and see a whole houseful of fools!”

You go, Julia!

*Her being dubbed “The Sweet Singer of Michigan” had been a bit of sarcasm.

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