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Caught My Ear: A Song Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

The following was written in collaboration with AFC’s coordinator of reference, Judith Gray.

Michael Mayosky’s 2013 “Lincoln the Surveyor” mural of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois capital city of Springfield, photographed by Carol Highsmith. Young Lincoln was a surveyor in Illinois’ Sangamon County in 1833 prior to taking up the practice of law in Springfield, only a few years after he is supposed to have written the “Adam and Eve Wedding Song.” Find the archival scan at this link.

An archive is a place where surprises lurk. You never know what the next item you encounter might contain.

Now that the Folklife Center has been engaged in mass digitization of many of its recordings, we’re able to discard old analog reference copies on open reels and cassettes once we’re sure that the digital files are accessible. Judith was doing that sort of checking when she stumbled on a collection identified as AFC 1965/016. According to the Library’s online catalog, that collection is “The Adam and Eve Wedding Song.” When she looked further, she saw this caption: “Song written by Abraham Lincoln, performed by the U.S. Army Chorus.

A man in a dress uniform conducts a chorus of men, also in dress uniforms. They are outdoors, and there is a microphone on a stand between the conductor and the singers.

The U.S. Army Chorus, Ca. 1954. The chorus, now referred to as “The Soldiers’ Chorus,” is a unit of the U.S. Army Field Band, and is stationed at Ft. Meade. The photo is from the U.S. Army Field Band Archives, and we believe it to be in the public domain.

The catalog record adds further information: research on the song was done by Capt. F.M. Van Natter; the song was arranged by John Alden Finckel; and the performance was recorded on February 14 (Valentine’s Day), 1958. The collection was given to the Library by Mrs. F.M. Van Natter on January 19, 1965.

A song written by the President of the United States? According to Van Natter, yes, though long before Lincoln was President. This was intriguing enough to Judith that she did some research and passed it along to Steve Winick, who did some more. Together, we present the song to you in this post.

The announcer for the Army Chorus performance heard on the recording provides an introduction, noting that “there are many sides of Lincoln not too well known.” Among those were the writing of songs and parodies. This particular parody is described as having been composed when Lincoln was 17 for the marriage of his sister Sarah to Aaron Grigsby in 1826. According to the account in William Henry Herndon’s Herndon’s Lincoln (ca. 1889), which also includes the text of the song, the entire Lincoln family sang the song in honor of the event. The Army Chorus announcer indicates the song’s setting is an “old English and Scotch folksong.” And while the song is thus described as a parody, the performance is one of total sincerity!

Hear it in the player below, then read on for more about the song!

The recording — all of 3 minutes 24 seconds in length — consists of the opening announcement, and then seven verses sung by male chorus with piano accompaniment. The text of the song is as follows:

Captain Francis Marion Van Natter, a decorated veteran of World War I, was a freelance historian in the 1950s. According to his obituary in the Washington Evening Star, he was working on a book about Lincoln’s years in Indiana when he died in 1960.

When Adam was created
He dwelt in Eden’s shade
As Moses has recorded
And soon a bride was made

Ten thousand times ten thousand
Of creatures swarmed around
Before a bride was formed
And yet no mate was found

The Lord then was not willing
That man should live alone
But caused a sleep upon him
And from him took a bone

And closed the flesh instead thereof
And then he took the same
And of it made a woman
And brought her to the man

Then Adam he rejoiced
To see his loving bride
A part of his own body
The product of his side

This woman was not taken
From Adam’s head, we know,
To show she must not rule him
‘Tis evidently so

This woman was now taken
From under Adam’s arm
So she must be protected
From injuries and harm

The same version of the song is found in the Hathi Trust online copy of The Works of Abraham Lincoln. Here, however, the song is described as having been written on the “occasion of a wedding in his neighborhood.”

Interestingly, the sung version leaves out one of the verses included in both printed accounts. That verse expresses the view that woman should not be abused:

The woman was not taken
From Adam’s feet we see,
So he must not abuse her
The meaning seems to be

Print shows Abraham Lincoln and his son Thad looking at album.

Abraham Lincoln and his son Thad. Print by L. Prang & Co., lithographers, 1860. See the archival scan here.

So what is the story of this particular song? When we start searching online resources, we find many different text versions and some tune variations of what is variously entitled “The Wedlock Song,” “When Adam Was Created,” “Song of Creation,” etc. And some of the texts have even more dubious sentiments regarding the role of women!

You can see its Roud Index entry at this link, or read a thread bringing the collective knowledge of musicians and historians in the Mudcat Café discussion group to bear on the song here.

From the Roud index we learn that the song, given Roud number 728, seems to have been printed on broadsides by 1814, when Lincoln was 5 years old, and was collected from oral tradition in England by 1840. This makes it unlikely that Lincoln was really the author of the song, though he may have contributed distinctive elements to his version.

In England, the song remained in oral tradition to be recorded in 1971 by The Copper Family, from Rottingdean, Sussex. Their version, “Old Adam,” is yet another and lengthier variant. You can hear it in this licensed YouTube video. Bob Copper’s comments after the song indicate that he learned the words from the book Folk Songs of the Upper Thames by Alfred Williams, and the tune from his father Jim. Jim didn’t sing the song often, and Bob wouldn’t have known his father knew the song if he had not come across it in Williams’s book.

Four men stand outdoors by a stone wall.

L-r: Bob, John, Ron, and Jim Copper. Bob found “Old Adam” in a book and asked his father Jim about it; Jim knew the song and taught it to Bob and Ron. Promotional photo given to AFC by the Copper Family when they visited in 1994.

In the United States, we find out that the song was collected by Cecil Sharp from Rev. Jasper Robertson in Burnsville, North Carolina on September 29, 1918. We can find words and music of that version in Sharp’s English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, Volume 2. It was also published by George Pullen Jackson in White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. Jackson reports that it was in The Sacred Harp (see it in the 1860 edition) and other shape-note hymnals. Jackson’s version, derived from these sources, was also published in John and Alan Lomax’s 1934 book American Ballads and Folk Songs.

We also learn about a book published in 1918, Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Letters by Luther Emerson Robinson, which attributes an original “Song of Creation,” to William H. Bozarth, 8 years earlier than the almost identical song was reported to have been composed by Lincoln. Resources like Hymnary.org follow Robinson in attributing the song to Bozarth.

It’s hard to know whom to believe. Herndon, who had been Lincoln’s law partner, gathered up Lincoln’s papers after his assassination, and apparently was given some of the early writings from a neighbor. However, Herndon was not always reliable, and is responsible in part for various Lincoln biographical controversies. His assignment of the poem to Lincoln needs to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

But the attribution to Bozarth may also be wrong. Robinson’s evidence is a manuscript of the song signed and dated on the back, with the inscription:

The Song of Creation wrote by
Wm H Bozarth August 14th 1818
For Miss Ally Grieves
Grayson County
Kentucky 1818
William H Bozarth

The manuscript also came with an affadavit from Bozarth’s granddaughter. But this is not conclusive since “wrote” can mean either “composed” or “written down,” and since the granddaughter might not have known which meaning was intended.

Even more damaging to Bozarth’s claim is the fact that still earlier broadsides of the song seem to exist. The Roud index, for example, cites some examples belonging to the American Antiquarian Society, one of which is online at this link. While the text on this broadside is not identical to Bozarth’s text, it has the same general idea and several verses in common with Bozarth, so it establishes that the song was not entirely original to either Bozarth or Lincoln.

So what is the recording now in the American Folklife Center collection? Is it in some way a folksong? The song in all its variations has certainly become part of folk repertory – to be sure, not usually performed in 4-part harmony by a male chorus accompanied by piano. Still, by many definitions it qualifies as a folksong.

Was the text written by Lincoln? Probably not. But it certainly makes for an interesting tale connecting a folksong to such an important figure in our history. And it was definitely a surprise to find it among the collections at the American Folklife Center.

One Comment

  1. Martha Burns
    February 19, 2022 at 9:02 am

    Interesting!

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