Joseph Philbrick Webster

joseph-philbrick-websterJoseph Philbrick Webster (February 18, 1819 – January 18, 1875)

Often known more simply as J. P. Webster, American composer Joseph Philbreck Webster was born on the outskirts of Manchester, New Hampshire. He showed promising musical talent from an early age, learning to play the violin and flute. He was, however, drawn to singing and, aged just fifteen, used his simple earnings to pay for a two-week singing course. He went on to study for three years in Boston before moving to New York City in 1843.

Here he enjoyed a successful career until tragedy struck in 1848, when a strange and rare case of bronchitis (known rather unpleasantly as “Lake Michigan Throat”) brought an abrupt end to his vocal endeavours. Focusing his energies on composition, he quickly became a prolific writer of ballads, patriotic songs and spiritual hymns. He worked as producer, manager and composer for the popular “Euphonians” musical ensemble before relocating to Wisconsin, first to Racine and then in 1859 to Elkhorn.

He served as a drill sergeant during the Civil War and, when the conflict drew to a close, founded something of an agency for lyricists, some of whom would later compose the texts for some of his most famous songs.


Musical Style and Influences

His musical style was influenced directly by the ‘ballads’ and ‘parlour songs’ which were sweeping the nation in the years before the war. Simple harmonies often move only between tonic and dominant chords. Light, folk rhythms serve as accompaniment to the more important aspects of his works: memorable melodies and texts which either told inspiring, American stories or conveyed soulful, Christian prayer.

Although his output was large (and numerous songs continued to be used into the 20th Century and beyond), J. P. Webster certainly has a handful of works which have become truly beloved American songs or hymns. It is also unfortunate that he is remembered as having lost many of his manuscripts in the Chicago Fire of 1871, when publishing firm Lyon and Healy (who had taken charge of a great deal of his work) was reduced to ashes.


What was Joseph Philbrick Webster Known For?

The Music of Joseph Philbrick Webster

One of his most popular hymns, “The Sweet By-and-By”, is still widely sung today. A collaboration with literary writer Sanford Fillmore Bennett was founded in Webster’s musical salon following the war. This Christian song was a triumph of that collaboration, perhaps due in no short measure to singable melody and a thoughtful reprise:

In the sweet by and by,

We shall meet on that beautiful shore.

The parlour song “Willie’s Grave” of 1857 is still heard in various arrangements today, as are “My Heart is Still in Michigan”, “My Father’s Grave”, “The Old Man Dreams”, “Our Own”, “Don’t be Sorrowful, Darling” and “Brave Men Behold Your Fallen Chief”.


Joseph Philbrick Webster Most Famous Works

Perhaps his greatest hit, however, remains “Lorena”. Published in 1857, the sad and reminiscent song became immediately popular. Indeed, it is accounted that troops from both north and south would sing the sorrowful ballad whilst thinking of their sweethearts at home.

The 1939 movie classic “Gone With The Wind” features an instrumental version of the song, and it is similarly quoted in various 20th Century film and popular music material. It was selected as one of the ‘Top 100 Western Songs’ of all time by members of the Western Writers of America.

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