Abraham Lincoln The Singer

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.

Lincoln iographies 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.”

Lincoln’s Favorite Song

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.

“Lord Ullin’s Daughter”

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.

Ultimately, Lord Ullin regrets his pursuit.  His chase 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.

“John Anderson’s Lamentation”

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.

“William Riley”

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.

A Young Boy’s Sad Songs

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 Lincoln
  • The Civil War and Conan O’Brien
  • The Honored Dead and the Gettysburg Survivors
  • Abraham and Thomas Lincoln: Sons and Fathers in History and Song
  • Watch Night, Emancipation, and “Mary Don’t You Weep”
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    (Almost) Every Photo of Abraham Lincoln

    As we celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, check out this video of “Every Known Photograph of Abraham Lincoln.” While there has been a few discoveries of additional photos since this video was made — including a possible young Lincoln photo from a few years ago and another photo in 2013, it still is a cool collection of almost all of the known photographs. Check it out.

    Photo via Library of Congress.

    What is your favorite photo of Abraham Lincoln? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • Abraham Lincoln The Singer
  • The Civil War and Conan O’Brien
  • The Honored Dead and the Gettysburg Survivors
  • Abraham and Thomas Lincoln: Sons and Fathers in History and Song
  • Watch Night, Emancipation, and “Mary Don’t You Weep”
  • The Sound of “Lincoln”
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    The Civil War and Conan O’Brien

    On November 6, 1860, the United States affirmed that a democratic system of government can work when the country elected what many consider the greatest U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln. The election occurred during a time the country was greatly divided, and three other candidates also appeared on the ballot splitting the vote: John C. Breckinridge, John Bell, and Stephen Douglas. Lincoln won with 40% of the popular vote. But the nation had to endure President James Buchanan for several months because Lincoln would not be inaugurated until March 4, 1861.

    Lincoln had little time in office before the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. As the nation went into the bloody war, citizens had no idea what the future held — or that one day Conan O’Brien would visit with a group of Civil War reenactors.

    What is your favorite Civil War story? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • The Honored Dead and the Gettysburg Survivors
  • Anniv. of Civil War’s Start: Elvis’s American Trilogy
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Lincoln’s 1st Inaugural
  • Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln
  • A Lincoln Portrait
  • Ten Sentences: Gettysburg Address
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    The Honored Dead and the Gettysburg Survivors

    On July 1-3, 1863, Union and Confederate soldiers fought on the fields near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. During that time, between 46,000 and 51,000 men on both sides were injured or killed.

    The battle was a significant victory for the Union, having repelled General Lee’s entry into the North, but the Civil War was far from finished. The battle’s significance, and the war’s meaning, was further solidified several months later on November 19 when the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg was dedicated, featuring President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

    Of course, there are no survivors of Gettysburg on this anniversary. But on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle in 1913, some of the survivors of the war from both sides did attend a reunion. Ken Burns’s wonderful documentary The Civil War recounts that reunion as well as the seventy-fifth anniversary in 1938.



    Have you been to Gettysburg? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • Gettysburg in Four Minutes
  • The Civil War and Conan O’Brien
  • Anniv. of Civil War’s Start: Elvis’s American Trilogy
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Lincoln’s 1st Inaugural
  • Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln
  • A Lincoln Portrait
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    Abraham and Thomas Lincoln: Sons and Fathers in History and Song

    As in the excellent movie Lincoln (2012), we generally picture Abraham Lincoln full-grown as the great president so that it is easy to forget that he grew up as a child living in the wilderness dealing with normal family issues. One of the struggles of the young Abraham’s life was that he and his father Thomas Lincoln were very different.

    Michael Burlingame’s detailed two-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2008), noted that many contemporaries of the Lincolns reported that the father and son did not get along, perhaps partly because Thomas lacked ambition and disdained the fact that his son sought to educate himself. The young Abraham was not afraid to speak up around strangers to ask precocious questions, and his father would often whip the young boy for his assertiveness. One time, the young Abe received a beating for releasing a bear cub from one of his father’s traps.

    As the young Abe grew into a man, he continued to dislike his father. When Lincoln became a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, he never invited his father to visit him. And, when Thomas was dying in 1851 and asked his son to visit him, the son refused, telling his step-brother to tell Thomas, “if we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would be more painful than pleasant.” Lincoln did not attend Thomas’s funeral or put a tombstone on the grave. Two years later in 1853, though, Lincoln named his fourth son after his father. The beloved child would soon be nicknamed “Tad.” (Burlingame, pp. 10-11.)

    It is mere speculation to wonder how Lincoln’s relationship with his father affected his later life, but the father-son struggle helps us humanize a man we know as an icon etched in stone. His father-son dynamic is not unusual, as sons strive to find their places in the world, and this struggle occasionally appears in films like Field of Dreams (1989), as well as in popular songs such as Harry Chapin‘s “Cats in the Cradle.”

    One of the best father-son songs is by Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam. The beautiful “Father and Son,” which appeared on Tea for the Tillerman (1970) and which Yusuf Islam originally wrote for a play that was never completed, is a conversation between father and son where the son tries to explain to his father why he is leaving. When Yusuf Islam recorded the song, he had only experienced being a son, but by the time he did the following performance, which appears to be from 2015, he was a grandfather, giving the song new meaning.

    Bruce Springsteen has spoke openly about his own difficulties with his father Douglas “Dutch” Springsteen, while capturing that complicated relationship in songs such as “Adam Raised a Cain,” from Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), “My Father’s House” from Nebraska (1982), and “Independence Day,” from The River (1980). The latter song, like “Father and Son,” is about a son leaving his father.

    Springsteen’s “Independence Day” is slightly more bitter than “Father and Son,” perhaps because Springsteen had a rockier relation with his father than Yusuf Islam did. But it is also a heavyhearted father-son conversation.

    In the above video from 1980, Springsteen begins by telling the audience how the music he heard on the radio inspired him to seek a different life, just as Lincoln’s books inspired him. Similarly, as in Lincoln’s message to his dying father, the singer in “Independence Day” tells his father “Papa go to bed now, it’s late. / There’s nothing we can say can change anything now.”

    As Springsteen learned as he got older, the sins of the father also makes the man that the son becomes. So, for this celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, remember the man’s first years with his father. One may look back on Thomas Lincoln for his faults in the way he treated our beloved Abraham Lincoln. But the father, struggling to carve out a place for his family in the wilderness, did something right because his son turned out pretty well.

    Ultimately, the son Abraham, perhaps remembering Thomas’s lack of ambition or remembering his own beatings, carried his concerns for the suffering of others with him when he left on his own Independence Day and when he went to the White House. And although Abraham Lincoln had a long way to travel for his own education, maybe The Great Emancipator contained a little of the boy who saw a suffering bear cub and freed it, knowing he would face his father’s wrath but defying his father anyway.

    {Photos via: me, taken around the 1990s. The statue is located at New Salem, Illinois. The farm is the place of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in Hodgenville, Kentucky.}

    What is your favorite song about fathers and sons? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • J.T. Van Zandt Remembers His Father Townes Van Zandt
  • Fathers, Birth, and Rebirth In Springsteen Songs
  • Abraham Lincoln The Singer
  • (Almost) Every Photo of Abraham Lincoln
  • The Civil War and Conan O’Brien
  • The Honored Dead and the Gettysburg Survivors
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)