Pioneer American Pop Star: Nelson Kneass

Tenth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

With the 19th century concluding in America, as the first musical notes of jazz and “ragtime” rose along the Mississippi River, a pioneer pop artist was remembered again for his great old song.

Nelson Kneass was famous before the Civil War, playing his hit Ben Bolt on piano and banjo, when the sheet music sold thousands in America and abroad. The legend revived during the 1890s, long after Kneass died in rural Missouri. A popular novel and stage drama featured Ben Bolt, the “plaintive melody” sung by comely heroine Trilby O’Ferrall—under hypnosis of the evil Svengali, no less—and suddenly fans worshipped a dead pop star in Kneass.

Kneass was a Pennsylvania native who sang Ben Bolt as early as May 1847, according to advertisements of the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, although initially he might’ve used music of other composers. Various musicians were adapting the song from a poem, in forgettable versions, until Kneass arranged his smash hit. “Kneass was not only an excellent singer but also a very capable pianist, a versatile banjoist, and a talented composer [presenting] first-class entertainment,” observed historian Ernest C. Krohn.

Vocalist Joseph H. McCann said Kneass produced his golden take of Ben Bolt during a riverboat trip they shared from Memphis around 1847, steaming up the Mississippi then eastward on the Ohio. Kneass finished his composition on a landing at Grahamton, Ky., and summoned McCann, according to Will S. Hays of The Louisville Courier-Journal. “If we are not mistaken, Mr. McCann was the first person who ever sang [Ben Bolt by Kneass]… He did so from the manuscript,” reported Hays, a noted lyricist and columnist. McCann toured with the famed Kneass Operatic Troupe and other companies, but ceased in the early 1850s to open a music store in Louisville, among his successful business ventures.

Kneass continued in entertainment but his name faded in the war period. Struggling financially, Kneass complained of receiving paltry royalties for Ben Bolt, a tune beloved in America like Home Sweet Home and the classic Oh Susanna—which Kneass had introduced, incidentally, on stage. A wife died in a riverboat accident while his drinking and declining health caused problems. One story had Kneass arriving at his own funeral, after missing for days, to stun family members and friends gathered round a corpse they’d mistaken for him, fished from a river.

The performer felt illness creeping by September 1869, stomach malaise, while a Kneass troupe toured northern Missouri. His condition worsened on a train ride and he succumbed that night, Sept. 8, at a boarding house in a railroad town named Chillicothe. Nelson Kneass died virtually penniless at about age 46, leaving a young wife and children. His widow could afford $6 for the burial but no gravestone, and the family relied on charity for money to travel home in the East. Surviving troupe players made do from Missouri, largely on their own.

Publicity, praise revived for the showman in his wake. “Nelson Kneass… is dead,” announced a theater critic, unidentified, in The Memphis Appeal. “He was one of those men that worked hard, lived poor and died miserably. He was a genius.”

“He was a fine musician and composed much…,” saluted a newspaper commentary, widely printed. “Ben Bolt was sung in the lordly mansions and in the lowly cottages all over the land. There was a sadness and sweetness that touched all hearts alike.”

“He was the author and originator of very many popular songs,” said Sam S. Sanford, American stage legend, in remembering Kneass. “He and Stephen Foster are the two bards of the minstrels… Kneass belonged to Philadelphia, and as a boy was dressed in petticoats [impersonating girls] on the stage. He was with the Wood’s [minstrels] at Park Theatre in New York, when English opera was first produced. He died poor and unattended by friends… The publishers of Ben Bolt made $50,000 from that one song alone, and its author often needed bread.”

Eventually a modest granite marker was placed on the Kneass grave in Missouri, and the site stood undisturbed a few decades. Then came the “Trilby” sensation, 1890s, the sexy storyline made fashionable through a magazine serial, a best-selling book, and a stage production.

Neo-fandom for Kneass was vogue and visitors to the Chillicothe cemetery cracked into his tombstone, carrying away pieces. “Kneass’s grave was marked until within the last year or so, when curiosity and relic hunters have chipped souvenirs from the slab,” reported The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1899, adding that “scarcely enough of it remains to show that a headstone had ever been there.”

Select References

A Monument To Be Built at Chillicothe, Mo., in Honor of Nelson Kneass, Composer of “Ben Bolt.” (1899, May 21). St. Louis Post-Dispatch MO, p. 34.

Amusements. (1869, Sept. 19). Memphis Daily Appeal TN, p. 4.

Andrews’ Eagle Ice Cream Saloon [advertisement]. (1847, Aug. 12). Pittsburgh Daily Post PA, p. 2.

Ben Bolt. (1869, Oct. 1). Fort Wayne Daily Gazette IN, p. 1.

Ben Bolt. (1894, Oct. 21). Washington Post DC, p. 4.

“Ben Bolt” Author in Missouri Grave. (1913, March 9). St. Louis Star and Times MO, p. 24.

Chillicothe Cullings. (1883, Dec. 11). St. Joseph Gazette-Herald MO, p. 3.

Chillicothe’s 1897 Yesterdays. (1928, June 8). Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune MO, p. 2.

Death of The Author of “Ben Bolt.” (1869, Sept. 25). Clarksville Chronicle TN, p. 1.

Free Concerts Every Evening This Week At The Eagle Saloon [advertisement]. (1847, May 27). Pittsburgh Daily Post PA, p. 2.

From Thursday’s Daily, Sept. 16. (1869, Sept. 18). Weekly Atchison Champion KS, p. 3.

Grise, G.C. (1947, August). Will S. Hays: His Life and Works [master’s thesis]. Department of English, Western Kentucky State Teachers College: Bowling Green KY.

Hays, W.S. (1883, May 26). The Late Joseph McCann. Memphis Public Ledger TN, p. 1.

Krohn, E.C. (1971). Nelson Kneass: Minstrel Singer and Composer. Anuario Interamericano de Investigacion Musical, 7, pp. 17-41. University of Texas Press: Austin.

Missouri Points. (1897, Feb. 18). Kansas City Journal MO, p. 4.

Most Melancholy Accident—Death of Mrs. Kneass, Late Mrs. Sharpe. (1848, Feb. 26). Poughkeepsie Journal NY, p. 2.

Naming Theatre “Ben Bolt” Revives Famous Old Song. (1949, Aug. 16). Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune MO, p. 11.

Nelson Kneass’ Double. (1896, April 12). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 34.

Personal. (1868, July 4). Nashville Tennessean, p. 2.

Songs We Used To Sing. (1890, Sept. 20). Sterling Daily Gazette IL, p. 3.

The Kneass Opera Troupe [advertisement]. (1847, Oct. 16). Cincinnati Enquirer, p. 3.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

The Delta Factor In Great American Music

Ninth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

During the 1960s, U.S. Highway 61 was reduced to a byway in southeast Missouri—and throughout the lower Mississippi River Valley—supplanted by Interstate 55 of the new federal road system. And traveling southbound from Cape Girardeau and Scott City, where I-55 blazed over knobby foothills, motorists met a stunning vista: the great delta flatland, stretching out of sight. The interstate’s twin tracks bore straight south, seemingly melding together in the distance, with the horizon a flat line.

Southeast Missouri had been ocean coastline in eons past, an ancient embayment subsequently altered through ice ages and meltdowns, according to geologists. The modern Mississippi River stood relatively young at around 10,000 years of age, scientists calculated in the 20th century, with the delta basin composed of sediments washed from across the continental interior. Core drilling indicated more than one thousand cubic miles of sediment filled an entrenched rock valley from Cape Girardeau to New Orleans. Geologists concluded that the New Madrid Fault, notorious seismic rift of the valley, would never resolve for the encroachment of boulders far underground.

Pristine delta swamps and spillways were drained in the early 1900s, giving way to farms and communities from Missouri to Louisiana. Population influx was led by planters and sharecroppers from the Old South, escaping regions beset by soil depletion and the boll weevil. In the “reclaimed” delta, basic scenery amounted to level crop rows, on and on—gigantic expanses of cotton, corn, beans and alfalfa, framed only by fence and tree lines.

On appearances the delta seemed no place for artistic greatness to influence a civilization, yet it became the talent wellspring of American music. Multiple musical genres were impacted: gospel, jazz, blues, country, folk, and, ultimately, rock ‘n’ roll. And the primary delta factor, said music authorities and others, was the struggle of class and race for people who tried to forge a living from a harsh frontier.

“All the music culture that’s come into Memphis has come in here from poor whites and poor blacks,” said Sam Phillips, record producer, in 1979. “I think we need to take into consideration that poor whites and poor blacks came in here looking for jobs… and they were singing their hearts out. It’s not there in Chicago, or New York, or on the West Coast. It came from right here in the melting pot of human suffering.”

The delta musicians “created a sound out of the way they lived and their backgrounds and their roots,” said Al Bennett, a records magnate reared on a farm in northeast Arkansas. “I don’t think it was designed.”

“There are two choices in Arkansas…,” said singer Ronnie Hawkins, founding member of The Hawks, in 1970. “You either pick cotton for three or four dollars a day, or you can play music and get out. So there’s an awful lot of people trying to pick guitars in that area.”

As a boy Johnny Cash helped family clear tangled swampland for their meager farm at Dyess, Ark., where floodwater was a constant threat. Cash believed the experience translated later for his music, attracting wide audience. “When you work close to the earth on some poor dirt farm… you learn to understand the basic things about love and hate and what people want from life,” Cash observed.

“I think the Mississippi delta was just as fertile to American culture as the delta was in ancient Egypt,” said author Nick Tousches, biographer of Jerry Lee Lewis, in 1994. “It was where black people heard the white man’s music and made something new out of it. It was where the white man heard the black man’s music. And people say the blues came from Africa; well, I think they really came from the Deep South.”

Author Rose Marie Kinder heard lyricism in everyday delta expressions. The language of her native southeast Missouri “differs from anywhere else in the state or country,” Kinder said in 2006. “It’s subtle, perhaps, but you’ll know the true southeast Missouri vernacular when you hear it. It’s not Southern inflection, not just metaphor and certainly not just colloquialisms. It’s wit and pacing and sharp, apt observation.”

“An added pronoun or two can make music if they’re in the right place.”

Select References

Brown, T. [Prod.], & Perry, H. [Dir.] (1994). Rhythm, Country and Blues [VHS]. MCA Records: Universal City CA.

Chipmunks to Millions. (1977, Aug. 24). Manhattan Mercury KS, p. 15.

Drew, R. (1967, Aug. 19). Listen Hear. Pasadena Independent Star-News CA, p.7.

Eberhart, J.M. (2006, May 14). ‘The Land Is Rich’: Missouri Author Brings a Sense of Place to Her Writing. Kansas City Star, p. H6.

Elvis ‘Got Black Music Into White Homes.’ (1979, Aug. 17). Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman, p. 15.

Fisk, H.N. (1944, Dec. 1). Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River. U.S. Mississippi River Commission, War Department Corps of Engineers: Vicksburg MS.

Gormley, M. (1970, Feb. 13). Canadian Music Legend: The Story of an Arkansas Rock Singer and His Band. Ottawa Journal, Ontario, Canada.

Hilburn, R. (1969, July 14). Clearwater Revives Its Delta Heritage. Los Angeles Times, p. B18.

Holbrook, J.M. (1994, June 6). Interview with author at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau.

Holbrook, J.M. (2017, Sept. 14). Email correspondence with author.

Holbrook, J.M., Snowden, J.O., & Aide, M.T. (1996, Feb. 5). Interviews with author at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau.

Interstate 55 Portion South Opened Today. (1965, Sept. 1). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 1.

Landforms of Southeast Missouri [map]. (1987). USDA-SCS-National Cartographic Center: Ft. Worth TX.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.