While out walking on May 30, 1857, a rain came up and Henry Thoreau took shelter under an overhanging rock at Lee’s Cliff. In his journal he notes how his vision has changed, how he looks at the landscape differently, as though it were framed by a window and the cliff had “bec[o]me my house.” He further observes that birds, though not visibly disturbed by rain, tend not to sing while it falls. Then he notes:
“I sang `Tom Bowling’ there in the midst of the rain, and the dampness seemed to be favorable to my voice.”
In a footnote, the journal’s editors report, “This was Thoreau’s favorite song.” The name of the song meant nothing to me but this is hardly surprising, as few things are so ephemeral and soon forgotten as popular music. We know Thoreau was a musician of sorts. His sisters played piano and he learned to play the flute. His family owned a music box, and Thoreau listened to it on his death bed. Louisa May Alcott wrote an elegy, “Thoreau’s Flute,” that begins:
“We sighing said, Our Pan is dead;
His pipe hangs mute beside the river;
Around it wistful sunbeams quiver,
But Music's airy voice is fled.”
But what is “Tom Bowling?” One biographer I consulted dismisses it as “a lugubrious ballad…which he seems to have sung and danced with tremendous gusto,” but never mentions the name of the songwriter – Charles Dibdin (c. 1745-1814), an English musician, novelist and actor. Here are the lyrics:
“Here, a sheer hulk, lies poor Tom Bowling
The darling of the crew;
No more he'll hear the tempest howling
For death has broach'd him to.
His form was of the manliest beauty,
His heart was kind and soft,
Faithful, below he did his duty,
But now he's gone aloft.
“Tom never from his word departed,
His virtues were so rare,
His friends were many, and true-hearted,
His Poll was kind and fair;
And then he'd sing so blithe and jolly,
Ah, many's the time and oft!
But mirth has turn'd to melancholy,
For Tom is gone aloft.
“Yet shall poor Tom find pleasant weather,
When He, who all commands,
Shall give, to call life's crew together,
The word to pipe all hands.
Thus Death, who kinds and tars despatches,
In vain Tom's life has doff'd,
For, though his body's under hatches
His soul has gone aloft.”
Go here for more on Thoreau and Dibdin. Lines from “Tom Bowling” are inscribed on Dibdin’s grave marker. Go here for a photo of the grave and to hear tenor Robert Tear sing “Tom Bowling,” accompanied by Andre Previn on piano. The song is sentimental but as performed by the aptly named Tear, not lugubrious. It's mournful and romantic, and the melody is quite lovely. I can see why Thoreau liked it. On January 13, 1857, he noted in his journal:
“When I hear music I fear no danger, I am invulnerable, I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times and to the latest.”
Charles Dibdin’s surname sounded familiar and I remembered Charles Lamb’s friend, John Bates Dibdin, who turns out to have been the "Grandson of the Songster," as Lamb writes in a June 3, 1829, letter to Bernard Barton. In one of my favorite passages in all of Lamb’s writings, he writes to Dibdin on June 30, 1826:
“Mary bids me warn you not to read the Anatomy of Melancholy in your present low way. You'll fancy yourself a pipkin or a headless bear, as Burton speaks of. You'll be lost in a maze of remedies for a labyrinth of diseasements a plethora of cures. Read Fletcher ; above all the Spanish Curate, the Thief, or Little Night Walker, the Wit Without Money, and the Lover's Pilgrimage. Laugh and come home fat. Neither do we think Sir T. Browne quite the thing for you just at present. Fletcher is as light as soda-water. Browne and Burton are too strong potions for an Invalid. And don't thumb and dirt the books. Take care of the bindings. Lay a leaf of silver paper under 'em as you read them. And don't smoke tobacco over 'em the leaves will fall in and burn or dirty their namesakes. If you find any dusty atoms of the Indian Weed crumbled up in the Beaumont and Fletcher, they are mine. But then, you know, so is the Folio also. A pipe and a comedy of Fletcher's the last thing of a night is the best recipe for light dreams, and to scatter away Nightmares.”