In Michael Burlingame’s excellent two-volume biography Abraham Lincoln: A Life, the author recounts songs that Abraham Lincoln loved and used to sing as a young man. Lincoln loved poetry, so it is not surprising that some of the songs came from poetry. Burlingame also recounts Lincoln’s fondness for poems and songs that focused on mortality and death, perhaps because Lincoln’s mother had died when he was young and because one of his first loves, Ann Rutledge, died at the young age of 22 on August 25, 1835.
The biographies list several songs Lincoln used to sing. In some cases, the titles may be all that are remembered while in other cases some of the lyrics are recalled. As a young attorney, he often sang songs called “Mary’s Dream,” “The Soldier’s Dream,” and “Lord Ullin’s Daughter.”
Burlingame recounts that Lincoln’s favorite song was the ballad, “Twenty Years Ago,” which was written by by William Willing. Lincoln sang the song often in Illinois and continued to sing it while in the White House.
In the song “Twenty Years Ago,” the singer looks back on those who have passed away. Some of the lines from the song that Lincoln especially loved included: “I visited the old churchyard, and took some flowers to strew / Upon the graves of those we loved, some twenty years ago.” The recording below features Matthew Sabatella and the Rambling String Band performing the song.
One song Lincoln sang as a young attorney is “Lord Ullin’s Daughter,” which is based on a poem by Thomas Campbell. In the poem and song, Lord Ullin pursues his eloping daughter and her lover to punish the young man who stole his daughter. But Lord Ullin ultimately regrets his pursuit when it leads to the young couple drowning: “The waters wild went o’er his child,/ And he was left lamenting.”
In this video for “Lord Ullin’s Daughter,” the music that accompanies the song was written in more modern times. Still, this version gives one an idea of what Lincoln sang.
As a boy, Lincoln used to sing another song about death, the hanging ballad called “John Anderson’s Lamentation.” He even made up additional verses for the song, including:
Much intoxication my ruin has been,
And my dear companion hath barbarously slain:
In yonder cold graveyard the body doth lie;
Whilst I am condemned, and shortly must die.
Another source claims that the young Lincoln also enjoyed and sang the song “William Riley.” Apparently, it is the same song that also went by the name “Riley’s Courtship,” about a man named William or Willie Riley.
“Riley’s Courtship” tells a story that is similar to “Lord Ullin’s Daughter,” but it has a happier ending. In the song, Riley courts a squire’s daughter but is banished to Ireland. The young woman, Colleen Bawn misses her love and becomes insane. Unlike some of Lincoln’s other favorite songs, though, this one ends on a lighter note. Riley returned and rescued Bawn, who regained her sanity upon seeing her love. And her father repented and gave the couple lots of money.
When we think of Abraham Lincoln, we usually think of him as the Great Emancipator and our greatest president, as if he came out of nowhere. But it is interesting to imagine him also as a boy and young man, joyfully singing songs that might one day prepare him for dealing with sad and serious issues as an adult.
Photo of Lincoln in 1846 (around age 37) via public domain. For discussion of a popular Lincoln campaign song, check out our post on “Lincoln & Liberty Too!” Leave your two cents in the comments.
Lincoln & Liberty Too!(Almost) Every Photo of Abraham LincolnThe Civil War and Conan O’BrienThe Honored Dead and the Gettysburg SurvivorsAbraham and Thomas Lincoln: Sons and Fathers in History and SongWatch Night, Emancipation, and “Mary Don’t You Weep”
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)