Saturday, June 9, 2012

John H. Payne wrote Home, Sweet Home

John Howard Payne
It is the birthday of actor, poet, and playwright John Howard Payne (1793), who is remembered for one song, Home, Sweet Home (1822), a lyric for which he initially received no credit.

Payne wrote numerous plays and translated many from French, but most are ignored today. He was a child prodigy, who started working in theater at age 16 to help support the family after his mother died and his father went bankrupt and became ill. He was immensely successful, the toast of New York, Boston, Baltimore, and other cities where his company toured.

He went to London as a young man and was well received there, too, though not as popular as in the United States. He was commissioned to go to France to watch live theater and write English translations that could be quickly produced in Britain, a practice that created a hubbub in England and public debate about plagiarism. While he was in Paris and growing homesick and a bit melancholy, he wrote the verses that became his signature song.

 He also wrote plays—more than 60 all together— and in one instance, a package of three for Covent Garden Theatre that he sold for 230 pounds. One of them was already being presented by another theater so he reworked the plot, added some songs (including Home, Sweet Home) and turned it into an opera titled Clari; or the Maid of Milan. The production was wildly popular, especially Home, Sweet Home. The song made the Covent Garden and the music publisher very wealthy. The tune, based on an Italian folk song Payne had heard and suggested to the arranger, Sir Henry Bishop, was credited to Bishop when it was published. Payne wasn't mentioned.  Some 100,000 copies were sold out immediately. After two years, the publisher’s profit was said to be 2,000 guineas.

Later, when Payne returned to the United States, he toured with artist John James Audubon, and stayed with the Cherokee tribe in Georgia, studying their culture.  It was a time of great unrest, and the Cherokees were being encouraged by the federal government to move to Indian Territory west  of the Mississippi River. Payne liked to tell an anecdote about being arrested by Georgia state militia while meeting with Cherokee Chief John Ross. One of the soldiers guarding him often whistled Home, Sweet Home. When Payne told him he wrote the song, the soldier told him he was sure that wasn't true. He had seen it in a songbook.

At some point, Payne gained recognition for the song. When he was in Washington, D.C., Payne sat in a box seat at a concert by Jenny Lind.  She sang her program of classical pieces then, acquiescing to the audience's wishes, performed Home, Sweet Home. She stood right in front of Payne’s box seat. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. Even the hard boiled secretary of state, Daniel Webster, wept.

 Payne served as the American consul in Tunis for 10 years, and he died and was buried there. Such was his fame in America 30 years later (because of the song), that a wealthy industrialist paid to have his remains disinterred and brought home. The arrival in New York was chronicled in all the papers and a huge crowd turned out as a band played Home, Sweet Home. Amid much pomp and circumstance, and the attendance of thousands, including the President and high government officials, he was laid to rest in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, near Washington, D.C. on his 91st anniversary of his birthday.

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