Marion Ballou Fisk entertained thousands with her lectures under Chautauqua tents.Her drawing of the campground illustrated one of America’s most famous songs.
I rushed to get in my PJs and pull the comforter up to my chin while she unbraided her long gray hair and placed her false teeth in a glass of water.
Then the stories began. My favorite was about a boy, born in New Hampshire years ago, “who would rather die than hoe beans, but his father and mother taught him that it was ‘work first and play afterwards.’”
Moms said that with the boy’s talent for music, “He took a hollow reed and fashioned a flute. His father felt that such genius should be encouraged.
“So, the boy and his sister learned to play on a pump organ. They played everything they knew, then they made up their own songs.
“When the man was twenty-one years old, he went down to Boston, purchased a horse and wagon, and a little melodeon organ and drove through the countryside giving concerts in schools and churches.
“Then the time came,” she said, “when Uncle Sam ordered, ‘Come, follow me.’ It never occurred to him to seek an excuse why he shouldn’t enter his country’s service.”
I knew who Uncle Sam was, and the air raid sirens told me we were fighting the Germans and Japanese. But she was talking about some long-ago war and I was quiet.
“He was away the night the summons came, and all the way home the words and music to a little song kept running through his mind. When he had reached home he took an old violin and wrote a simple little piece.
“A few days later, he went down to Concord, New Hampshire, to report for service. He was found physically unfit and was dismissed. But there was a demand for a song by which the soldiers might march and sing in camp. The Oliver Ditson Company advertised for such a song, and the young man sent down the simple song he had written the night of his draft, offering to sell it to them for fifteen dollars.
“They were disgusted because of its simplicity and refused to have it at any price. Instead, they hired a musician of considerable note to write a song for them. But, the soldiers simply wouldn’t sing it. Then, they remembered the little song they had refused, purchased and published it, and in less than six weeks it was being sung by every Southern campfire and in every Northern home.”
Moms would make sure I was still tucked in — and still awake — before she continued.
“I remember when I was a little girl, seeing an eccentric looking man come into our yard. He was driving a brown horse hitched to a pink express wagon, and in the back was strapped a melodeon. My father and mother — your great grandpa and great-grandma— received him with joy in the kitchen.
“I was allowed to sit up late while I listened to them talk, often about things I couldn’t understand. But I liked to listen to his kindly voice.
“At last they sang songs, and sometimes my father and mother joined him, and he told us this story of his boyhood and sang the song he had written the night of his draft, the song that made Walter Kittredge known and loved all over our country.” And she began to sing softly, sadly.
“We are tenting tonight on the old camp ground,Give us a song to cheer,
Our weary hearts, a song of home,
And the friends we love so dear.
“Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,Wishing for the war to cease,
Many are the hearts, looking for the right,
To see the dawn of Peace.
Tenting tonight, tenting tonight,Tenting on the old camp ground.
Moms passed away in that bed in 1961 at the age of 86. The bed is now in the guest bedroom of my house.
Marion Ballou Fisk — my Moms — had traveled the Chautauqua Circuit across the United States week after week between 1906 and 1926 to support her family. She was billed as America’s Foremost Lady Cartoonist when musical entertainment and uplifting lectures were delivered under the large tents. In small towns across America, this was the only source of culture and respite from weary, rural chores.
I finally dug through cartons of her papers and found her hand-written stories — including this one — and a photo of her as she told crowds about Walter Kittredge who wrote one of the Civil War’s most famous ballads.
I’m sure that one of the most rapt audiences Moms ever had wasn’t a real audience at all. Just a small boy sleeping under the “tent” in her four-poster bed.