Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 1: No 2) >> Simms's Musical Settings >> Page 1

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Secondary Scholarship | 1993

Deborah Bowden Henson

It is a little known fact that a number of Simms's poems have been used
as texts for musical compositions. At least thirteen of his works were set to music
by five composers during his lifetime. Of these, eleven appeared in a series
entitled Songs of the South published in Charleston, South Carolina and
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania between 1841 and 1843; one appeared as a work for
guitar and voice published in Charleston and Philadelphia in 1846; and another
was published in Godey's Lady's Book in 1848. As of this writing, four
musical settings written after the poet's death are known to exist, bringing the
total number of compositions to seventeen.
Simms's role in the history of the American parlor song is particularly
interesting when we consider that a number of musical settings of his poetry
preceded the earliest published work by Stephen Collins Foster ("Open thy Lattice,
Love," 1844) and that Simms and Foster would share the same publisher: George
Willig of Philadelphia. It is hoped that through this article the musical settings
of Simms's poetry will become more widely known and that other musical
settings which were written during and following his lifetime will be located.
Simms's musical interests are well-documented in the biographies written
about him, in his own letters, in the musical references in his fictional works, and
in the titles and subject matter of his poems. Simms's mother, Harriet Singleton
Simms, is described by biographer William Trent as having had a good ear for
music. The same biographer states that Simms's father could sing and improvise
songs.' The Poetry of William Gilmore Simms: An Introduction and Bibliography
reveals that Simms's second wife, Chevillette, and her father sang in the choir of
St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Chevillette was skilled as a performer on the piano
and guitar. Simms wrote songs and sang with both of them, though none of the
songs are known to have survived. Many an evening at Woodlands was spent in
such a manner.2
Simms, in writing James Lawson on 27 June 1845, requested: "Present me
devotedly to Miss Sinclair, with the expression of my desire to hear my words
wedded to her music. May the union be as immortal as indissoluble. I trust that
she will recover the MS. Songs from your Musical Genius."3 In another letter to
Lawson on 17 March 1846, Simms again expressed a desire that Miss Sinclair
compose music for his poetry: "I have in press a little volume of 'Songs of the
South' which I will send you shortly --- particularly that you may persuade
Margaret Sinclair to the full completion of one effort. I have included one song