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Learn About American Folk Composer Benjamin Hanby

Benjamin Russell Hanby was an American pastor, educator, and composer born on the 22nd of July,1833. He was the eldest son of William and Ann Hanby and went to craft almost 80 songs.

Benjamin Hanby (Portrait)

Early Life

William was a harness and saddle maker in Rushville, Ohio, who later became a minister of the United Brethren Church. The young Benjamin helped his father’s business by delivering newspapers in the countryside. He did so throughout southern Ohio on horseback, and while riding, would make up tunes and songs. He purchased his first flute at the age of fourteen using his delivery earnings.

He joined the Otterbein University at the age of sixteen. His father, William, was one of its founder members. Ben divided his time between teaching school and college classes to afford his expenses. He didn’t have any “formal music training” until then and played his flute by utilizing his “ear.” He exemplified his adulation for music by frequently traveling to Central College, which was about 3 miles away, to practice piano. It was the only piano in the locality and is now preserved at the “Hanby House” in Westerville.

Benjamin Hanby's house

A Musical Journey 

Benjamin, as a teacher, could not accept the discipline and strict regulations in place. He encouraged art, especially storytelling and singing, among his students. He even incorporated music into the multiplication tables to make them exciting. He took added interest in the new “Infant Schools,” the predecessor to modern-day primary and kindergartens. He also edited a student newspaper at Otterbein University. He would gather his students on the campus during free time and share stories, recite poems, and sing songs together. 

Ben and his friend rented stayed in an old log cabin to save money. Ben even built some furniture there, which are now preserved at the “Hanby House.” He later moved to Grove Street with his family, where his father William bought him a piano. This allowed him to concentrate more on music, as was evident through his performances during numerous house parties. He would even sing and play for his siblings. During that time, slavery was an important national issue, and Ohio was an escape route that the southern slaves used to travel to Canada. It had the Underground Railroad, which offered a safe and fast route for the runaway slaves. The Hanbys, among other families, risked their lives to help the slaves escape. The story of one such slave, Joseph Selby, had a huge impact on Benjamin. In 1842, Joseph took refuge at the Hanby home. He was extremely ill but planned on earning enough money to free his love Nelly Gray, who was sold as a slave to a plantation. The incident took place only a day before their wedding. Unfortunately, Selby had passed away before fulfilling his dream. 

In 1850, Benjamin Hanby crafted the melody and first verse of his famous song titled “Darling Nelly Gray.” In 1855, while on tour in Kentucky, he further witnessed a slave auction that reminded him of Nelly Gray. It further motivated him to craft a chorus and add four more verses to his song. He completed it in 1856. He dedicated the song to his music teacher, Cornelia Walker. The song was also performed by Ben and his siblings at a party in honor of Miss Walker. She was extremely impressed and suggested that Ben should publish it. Benjamin sent the song to Boston’s Oliver Ditson Company. Although the song became an instant hit, he was never notified about the publication, and the company even refused to pay him. However, Benjamin Russell Hanby and “Darling Nelly Gray” were suddenly on everyone’s lips across the nation. Ben had to undertake legal action to receive $100 and 12 free copies as compensation. In 1858, he married Kate Winter, his college sweetheart, after his graduation day at Otterbein. In 1861, he was appointed as the principal of the “Seven Mile Academy.”

At the Academy, he composed “Ole Shady,” a song that encouraged slaves to acquire their freedom. It became extremely popular during the Civil War and was again published by Boston’s Oliver Ditson Company. Hanby received $300 and other royalties. However, a trustee of Seven Mile didn’t like the song’s anti-slavery vibes and forced Hanby to resign. In 1862, Benjamin followed his father’s footsteps and became a pastor of the United Brethren Church. He also started crafting hymns and songs part-time for a music company in Cincinnati. Soon, the popularity of his music scorned the conservative members of the Church, who considered musical instruments to be “Satan’s tools.” Subsequently, the Church prohibited the usage of instrumental music and choirs and again forced Hanby to resign.

Ben joined another church in New Paris and continued working for the music company. His musical sermons and songs were highly popular among the young people. As his services flourished, he again faced opposition from the conservative members. He finally resigned and started a singing school for the children and youth. It quickly became famous as the “Singing Church” of New Paris. However, it scarcely provided any income, with Hanby frequently falling ill during this period. He still managed to craft “Up On The Housetop,” a Christmas song that still remains popular among children around the world. He was the first composer who suggested through his song that Santa Claus’ sleigh actually land­ed on rooftops. In 1865, the Hanby family settled in Chicago. He went on to compose numerous other songs and albums, mainly under the Chicago-based music publishers “Root & Ca­dy” during the 1860s. “The Blue Bird: A Col­lect­ion,” “Chapel Gems for Sun­day Schools,” “The Robin: A Col­lect­ion,” “The Red Bird: A Col­lect­ion” etc.

Usage in Popular Culture

  • In 1926, the song “Darling Nelly Gray” featured in the short animated movie titled “Darling Nelly Gray.” 
  • In 1936, “Darling Nelly Gray” was again featured in the comedy movie titled “General Spanky.” 
  • The 1939 drama “Let Freedom Ring” also featured the song “Darling Nelly Gray.” 
  • In 1945, another comedy titled “Roughly Speaking” used the song “Up On The Housetop.” 
  • In 1990, “Up On The Housetop” was again featured in the movie titled “The Best Christmas Ever!” 
  • In 2003, the drama “Bad Santa” used the song “Up On The Housetop.” 
  • In 2102, the movie titled “Chilly Christmas” used Hanby’s song “Christmas Joy.”
  • In 2015, another drama titled “Long Story Short” featured “Darling Nelly Gray.”

The Gift of Music   

Benjamin Hanby organized numerous concerts and singing schools for children throughout Mid-Western USA. His quarterly publication titled “Our Song Birds,” along with his hymns and songs, made him an instant favorite among the young generation. He was the musical Santa, the one gifting inexpressible and boundless joy to the audience. A musical genius who regularly collaborated with his contemporary evangelists to compose beautiful melodies. In 1866, he was down with a  severe cold in Wisconsin, but still managed to craft what is considered his best hymn, titled, “Who Is He In Yonder Stall?” in 1867, he received almost $3000 along with royalties for his life’s work which solved his financial problems. However, the illness persisted, and he failed to fully recuperate. On the 16th of March, 1867, Benjamin passed away at the mere age of thirty-three.

Benjamin Russell Hanby is buried at his hometown Westerville’s Otterbein Cemetery in the state of Ohio. His grave is marked with a stone shaft that contains the following inscription - “Over the silent sea passed Benjamin R. Hanby.” He had returned to the one place where it all started, the place where he offered everyone the gift of music.



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