William Shakespeare Hays

william-shakespeare-haysWilliam Shakespeare Hays (July 19, 1837 – July 23, 1907)

Newcomers to the poetry and songwriting of William Shakespeare Hays might rightly question how a boy born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1837 came to be named in such a way. They would then learn that it was not parental humour, but literary prowess which earned William Hays the nickname from the legendary English playwright at the age of around twenty. Most pleased with this sign of obvious respect shown to him by his peers, he adopted the name formally.

Whilst little is known of his early life in Louisville, it is clear that his style of poetic writing quickly made an impression whilst he attended school in Georgetown, Kentucky. His writings for the school newspaper led to a short career in journalism with the Louisville Democrat, during which time he also published a number of works under his pen name “Syah” (his surname spelled in reverse). An unrelated career move saw him captaining steamships on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, before his beloved songwriting became his principal vocation.

Musical Style and Influences

His musical style closely followed prevailing tastes, although he was one of the few songwriters of the period whose output ranged from the frivolous and popular ‘parlour’ songs right through to the early gospel style of setting Christian texts to warm, inspiring music.

What was William Shakespeare Hays Known For?

The Music of William Shakespeare Hays

Aside from a wonderful catalogue of around 350 songs, he is remembered for some slightly unusual life events. He was jailed in New Orleans during the Civil War for supposedly writing songs which were in support of the southern, confederate cause. Moreover, in later life he entangled himself in a (sometimes bitter) legal battle regarding the authenticity of the popular song “Dixie”. Hays claimed to have personally written the song in 1858, a whole year before it had been performed by Bryant’s Minstrels, a popular music group.

Evidence was initially lacking, although when Hays died in 1907 it had been reported that his team were able to produce an earlier copy of the song. This never transpired. Further legal challenges were made on his behalf after his death and long into the 20th Century, all to no avail.

William Shakespeare Hays Most Famous Works

Many of his songs remain popular in modern music-making. “My Sunny Southern Home”, “Little Old Log Cabin in the Rain” and “Evangeline” all became country music hits in the nineteen-hundreds, and worship songs such as “I have found a friend in Jesus” continue to be used today.

However, it was his “Mollie Darling” which secured his position as one of the most important songwriters of the day. Published in 1871 it went on to sell over one million copies – an enormous figure for the period. Today, Mollie Darling has been played on almost every instrument. It has been transcribed for guitar players, bass players, and pianists.

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