By Anne Adams
These days we often determine the success of a popular song by the sales of CDs (at one time it was records) but in the early 1900s it was the sales of sheet music that determined a “hit.” Yet unlike the lively rhythms of today, in the years following the sentimental Victorian era the most popular songs were melodies with lyrics that were full of devotion to a sweetheart, as well as “hearth and home” and were designed to be sung by family and friends around a parlor piano. Today we might consider these songs archaic schmaltz but back then hundreds of songwriters churned out innumerable and now forgotten numbers. Yet two songs of that era, “The End of a Perfect Day” and “I Love You Truly” have survived and are frequently published in traditional songbooks or performed at nostalgic sing-a-longs. Perhaps it could be said that these songs are survivors because of the appeal of their melodies and lyrics, but like the songs their composer was just as much a survivor. For Carrie Jacobs Bond was unique to her time and profession not just because she was a woman composer but also because she attained her success and national acclaim by overcoming not just poverty but also disability.
Carrie Jacobs was born in Janesville , Wisconsin in 1862, coming from a family with a musical heritage since her grandmother was a cousin of John Howard Payne, composer of the American classic “Home Sweet Home.” Her musical talent was evident from early childhood since she began playing the piano by ear even before she began to take lessons. She married at age 18 but though that marriage failed she found a much happier union after several years when she married Dr. Frank Bond. Later she would write that Dr. Bond “took a deep and sympathetic interest in my music and encouraged me to put down on paper some of the songs that were continually running through my mind.” They moved to a community in northern Michigan , where Dr. Bond found work with an iron mining company, but when the mines closed and they needed money Carrie suggested she publish some of her songs. Though her husband had supported her writing her songs when it came to publication he objected since this meant she would be stepping outside her traditional homemaker role. Still, he relented later and she published a few songs. Then in 1892 after he fell and struck his head on a snowy day, Dr. Bond died, leaving his widow almost penniless with a small son to support and severely disabled with rheumatism.
Carrie and her son moved to Chicago where she operated a boarding house, did custom sewing and painted designs on china. However, despite her poverty, she remained generous, sometimes providing lodging for homeless people who sought food or a temporary job. On one occasion when she took in an entire family even though she was suffering from a severe attack of rheumatism they later returned her charity by caring for her till she recovered. However, her struggles continued, and there was even one period at this time when she was forced to sell off her possessions until all she had left was her precious piano.
However, despite her poverty, she continued to write songs, a practice that years earlier she had only considered a hobby but now could be a way to make money for her family. She struggled to succeed even at one point things got so bad that she was forced to use brown wrapping paper because she could not afford regular writing materials.
Then one day an absent neighbor had some visitors and Carrie briefly entertained them, one of the callers, who happened to be a performer came across some song manuscripts on Carrie’s piano. He began to play them, and one that particularly impressed him was “I Love You Truly”. He not only asked Carrie for copies but in addition offered to help her sell what she had written. Also, about this time Carrie had begun to develop a local following by performing at neighborhood home recitals. Another supporter was Jessie Bartlet Davis, a well known soprano with a local opera company, who not only helped promote Carrie’s songs, but also lent her some money to publish them. In 1901 she issued a collection of songs titled “Seven Songs as Unpretentious as the Wild Rose.” Two of these, “I Love You Truly” and “Just a Wearin’ For You”, became so popular that they were later published separately. With this success, Carrie formed her own publishing company, even though at first the office of her company was just a corner of her bedroom. However, from this simple beginning, Carrie’s firm would eventually become the center of a music publishing empire.
Though Carrie had to contract out the printing, she insisted that the paper be vellum quality and even produced the cover art herself. Eventually she moved to large quarters in a Chicago office building and later established offices in Boston and Hollywood , California. About 1910 Carrie began to offer recording rights and these royalties soon became a major source of her income, and because of her success she became the first woman composer to earn over a million dollars. In the next few years despite periods of incapacitation from her illness, she continued to publish and perform – in fact she appeared twice at the White House – for Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Warren G. Harding.
One of her most popular songs “The End of a Perfect Day”, was inspired by a motor trip with some friends in southern California in 1909. They stopped for the night at Mission Inn in Riverside and later she described how the song had come about. “…I thought how I wished I could express my thanks to my friends in some little way, just out of the ordinary; and almost at once came the words for ‘The Perfect Day’. I wrote them hurriedly; I did not have time to change a word or a sentence. I took them down and read them at the dinner that evening, then put them in my purse and thereupon forgot them.” Several months later she began singing the words to a tune, and the classic was created. Within 10 years sales of the sheet music had passed 5 million copies. After its introduction as an encore at a New York recital it spread to all parts of the country to be sung at weddings, funerals, and even in barber shops. The American soldiers in World War I found it particularly appealing and nostalgic for home and family in precarious times. Carrie used it often in her army camp performances.
Carrie and her son moved to California about 1920, to establish her publishing company as well as two homes. However, despite her success, Carrie was not exempt from the tragedy that occurred in 1932 when her beloved son Fred became severely ill and grew so depressed that he committed suicide. Reportedly, when his body was found, there were two candles alight and “A Perfect Day” playing on the phonograph. Since Carrie had been extremely close to her son, she was devastated but eventually overcame her grief to continue to create and publish beautiful music.
Carrie continued to write and publish even into the 1940s, despite deteriorating health, until her death in 1946. She was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park at Glendale and the inscription on her tomb, written by former President Hoover summarized her service and devotion to both her music and to her nation. In her epitaph he described her as the writer of “heart songs that express the love, the longings, sadness and gladness of people everywhere” and as “… America ’s gallant lady of song.”
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968). A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”