Jesus Loves the Little Children

Chorale Prelude on “Blest Be the Tie that Bind”

Minuet from the “Notebook for Anna Magdelena Bach” C. Petzold (1677-1733)

George Frederick Root (1820-1895) was born at Sheffield, Massachusetts, and named after the better known George Frederick Handel. Root had real talent for music, and by age 13 he could play 13 different instruments (one a year?). Root left his farming community for Boston at 18, flute in hand, intending to join an orchestra. He worked for a while in Boston as a church organist, and from 1845 taught music at the New York Institute for the Blind, where he met Fanny Crosby, with whom he would compose some sixty popular songs. In 1850 he made a study tour of Europe, staying in Vienna, Paris, and London. He returned to teach music in Boston, Massachusetts, and later Bangor, Maine, where he was director of the Penobscot Musical Association and presided over their convention at Norumbega Hall in 1856. Root would spend most of his career (when not writing, or helping to manage his publishing company) traveling and teaching at Musical Institutes that moved from town to town.

On his return from Europe, Root began composing and publishing popular songs, a number of which ‘went platinum’, using the pseudonym ‘Wurzel’ (German for ‘root’) to capitalize on the popularity of German composers during the 1850s. Besides his popular songs, he also composed gospel songs, collected and edited volumes of choral music, and composed various sacred and secular cantatas which were popular on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the 19th century.

The Civil War kept Root busy — he wrote his first war song only two days after the conflict began with the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and ultimately wrote at least 35 “war-time hits”. One of his most popular was ‘Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! (The Prisoner’s Hope)’, the chorus of which is:

Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! The boys are marching,
Cheer up, comrades, they will come,
And beneath the starry flag
We shall breathe the air again
Of the free land in our own beloved home.

After the war the tune remained popular but the words not so much anymore, so a minister named Clare Herbert Woolston (1856–1927), a lyricist whom Root occasionally used, wrote new verses and a chorus — titled “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” I suppose this is an example of beating musical swords into plowshares.

P.S. The “Notebook for Anna Magdelena Bach” is a book of beginning keyboard music by Bach and contemporaries which J.S. compiled for his wife and subsequently used for the musical rearing of his children. (In 1965 American songwriters Linzer and Randell did little more than change the time signature from 3/4 to 4/4 and add lyrics, resulting in the hit song “A Lover’s Concerto”.)