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Joseph Philbrick Webster was born near Manchester, New Hampshire, on 18 February 1819. He was the son of Major John Webster, who fought in the Revolutionary War and died when Joseph was quite young. Webster showed musical talent at an early age and taught himself to play the instruments that were available to him: violin, flute, and drum. At age fifteen, he used his earnings to attend a thirteen-night singing school, where he learned to read music. While attending Pembroke Academy, he studied music and military drills, and paid for his studies by teaching music.After graduating from Pembroke Academy in 1840, Webster moved to Boston, studying at the Boston Academy of Music, possibly with Lowell Mason, but also with George Webb and B.F. Baker, the latter the dedicatee of one of Webster's earliest publications, "There's a change in the things I love" (Oliver Ditson, 1844). Following this educational period, Webster moved to New York City in 1843 and was musically active there and in New Jersey and Connecticut. In 1848, Webster suffered a severe case of bronchitis, which caused him to lose his singing voice. About this time, he became the producer of a musical ensemble called the Euphonians, an ensemble similar to the then-popular Hutchinson Family. Webster handled the bookings and business affairs of the group, as well as composing many songs for their use. Some of these songs were published between 1848 and 1850 under the collective title "Songs of the Euphonians."
In the winter of 1850-51, Webster and his family moved to Madison, Indiana, where he worked as a sales agent for the Lighte & Bradbury piano firm. Located on the Ohio River, Madison was then one of the most prominent towns in Indiana, and attracted a concert by the Swedish singer Jenny Lind on 11 April 1851, for which, Webster's firm supplied the piano. In Madison, Webster established himself not only as a businessman, but also as a music teacher, composer, and piano tuner. While Webster prospered during these years, he was also increasingly distressed by the use of slaves by the local landowners. Webster was apparently involved in some way with the Underground Railroad and the social disapproval caused by this activity prompted his move to Chicago about 1855. Webster moved his family to Racine, Wisconsin, in 1856 and finally settled in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, in 1859. The house that Webster purchased there is now the home of the Walworth County Historical Society.
During the early 1850s, Webster concentrated on his business activities and wrote few songs. After moving north, however, songwriting became his main livelihood and his production increased accordingly. His songs during this period were published by Midwestern firms, including W.C. Peters of Cincinnati, A.E. Jones of Indianapolis, and D.P. Faulds of Lexington. Starting in 1855, Webster published exclusively with Higgins Brothers in Chicago for many years.
By early 1856, Webster had already established a singing school in Elkhorn, and it was then that he met the Universalist minister Henry D.L. Webster (1824-1896), at that time a teacher and the principal of the Elkhorn schools. Rev. Webster collaborated with J.P. as lyricist for several songs over the next few years, most notably Webster's first hit, "Lorena." The poem written by Rev. Webster recounted his feelings about his unsuccessful love for Ella Blocksom of Zanesville, Ohio. Following its publication by Higgins Brothers in 1857 (and many other pirated editions), this sentimental song became one of the most widely loved songs of the Civil War period, in both the North and the South. The song's popularity continued after the war; the name Lorena appearing as names for train engines and steamboats, as the name of many young females of the time, and continuing its life as period color in twentieth-century novels and films.
During the war, along with his teaching, performing, and other entrepreneurial activities, Webster was the captain and drill instructor of the Elkhorn Wide-Awakes, the Elkhorn home guard militia unit. While he was unable for health reasons to join an active Wisconsin regiment, he spent most of the war years working as a drill instructor for troops, not only in Wisconsin, but also in Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota.
The decade of the 1860s was Webster's most productive as a songwriter. He gradually moved away from Higgins Brothers and published with Lyon and Healy, Root and Cady, both of Chicago, and H.N. Hempsted of Milwaukee. On average, Webster appears to have published at least a song per month for the entire decade. Some of these became popular, but none as much as "The sweet by and by," composed to words by Dr. Sanford Fillmore Bennett (1836-1898), a friend and colleague of Webster's in Elkhorn. The song was written for Webster's collection of hymn tunes, Signet Ring (Chicago, 1868), but quickly established itself as an enduring monument of religious Americana.
Another song of the early 1860s to have a long and varied life was "I'll twine 'mid the ringlets" (Chicago, ca. 1863), to words by Maud Irving. The song passed into oral tradition and was recorded, and copyrighted, under the title "Wildwood flower" by the Carter Family on 10 May 1928. The words, as performed by the Carters, show evidence of inaccuracies generated through oral transmission. Webster's manuscript for this song is contained in this collection.
The Chicago Fire in 1871 caused the loss of many of Webster's manuscripts, as well as some instruments and other possessions, which were stored at the Lyon and Healy offices. It also substantially deprived Webster and his family of the royalties from "The sweet by and by" and other songs due to confusion in the transfer of Lyon and Healy's assets to Ditson around the time of the fire. Webster's heirs filed suit in 1906, but did not receive their settlement money until 1921.
Following the Chicago Fire, Webster's mood and health gradually declined, as did his songwriting and other activities. He died on 18 January 1875 and is buried in the Hazel Ridge Cemetery in Elkhorn. His marker displays the tune and words of his song "The sweet by and by."
Additional papers related to Webster family are located in the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives in Whitewater.
See the Webster Image Gallery at the Wisconsin Electronic Reader.
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"How a song came to be written." New York Times (2 December 1895).
"'In the sweet by and by': its history." New York Times (29 June 1901).
Appelstein, Aaron. "Joseph Philbrick Webster: nineteenth-century American songwriter." Master's Thesis, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1975.
Beckwith, A.C. History of Walworth County, Wisconsin ... Indianapolis: Bowen, 1912, pp. 1152-57. (Google Books)
Bennett, S. Fillmore. The sweet by and by. Illustrated. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1885. (Available at Openlibrary.org)
Emurian, Ernst K. The sweetheart of the Civil War: the true story of the song "Lorena." Natick, Mass.: W.A. Wilde Company, 1962.
Epstein, Dena J. "Music Publishing in Chicago before 1871," Notes, 1, no. 3 (1944) through 3, no. 3 (1946). A nine-part study, in which Webster's works are noted in various contexts.
"Joseph P. Webster." Walworth County Historical Society website. Accessed 22 October 2008.
Lawson, Marion. "Ballad maker: Joseph Philbrick Webster," Wisconsin Magazine of History 37, no. 2 (1953-54): 103-8. (Available at the Wisconsin Historical Society website)
Sanjek, Russell. American popular music and its business: the first four hundred years. Vol. 2, From 1790 to 1909. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, pp.134-35.
Spottswood, Dick. "Wildwood Flower" in The NPR 100: The 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century, available at NPR (Accessed 5 November 2008).
Thyng, J. Warren, "The sweet by and by: story of the author." Granite State Magazine 1 (1906): 21-28.
Mills Music Library call number: WMA I, Boxes 5-6