Ethelbert Nevin

Today’s morning name, memorable because the Anglo-Saxon personal name Ethelbert is rare (and has been for centuries, though there apparently was a brief fashion for it in the 19th century) and now is seen as funny, even “dorky”.

Ethelbert Woodbridge Nevin (November 25, 1862 – February 17, 1901) was an American pianist and composer. … His best-remembered compositions are the piano piece Narcissus from Water Scenes and the songs “The Rosary” and “Mighty Lak’ a Rose”  (Wikipedia).

The man at the piano:

Nevin’s compositions are “romantic” and sentimental, not much to current tastes.

Here’s a performance of Water Scenes Op.13 No. 4: Narcissus by Phillip Sear on YouTube. The tune is very familiar — I have the feeling that it’s been used as a theme song or background music — and “sticky” enough that it’s been an earworm for me since I looked it up.

Now Mighty Lak’ a Rose is something else. From its Wikipedia page:

“Mighty Lak’ a Rose” is a 1901 song with lyrics by Frank Lebby Stanton and music by Ethelbert Nevin.

The lyrics are written in an approximation of an African-American accent; such “dialect songs” were common in the era. The title thus means “Mighty (very much) like a rose”; this assessment is addressed by a mother (or perhaps an observer) to her newborn son. The dialect has been modified by some singers, such as Frank Sinatra. Audiences of various cultures and backgrounds have been able to identify with the narrator, the mother, and the child.

The tune became a Tin Pan Alley hit, and it was a perennial of traditional pop music for generations. [but no longer]

… The song was Nevin’s final composition. He died on 17 February 1901, shortly after composing it, never living to realize the song’s success.

Two versions (from many) on YouTube: a “dialect song” performance by Paul Robeson; and a pop performance by Petula Clark in 1955.

One Response to “Ethelbert Nevin”

  1. thnidu Says:

    I just listened to the ““dialect song” performance by Paul Robeson” and was rather surprised. I’d say that his phonology was pretty durn close to standard AmE, *except* where the lyrics (could have) reflected dialect, e.g., /dɛn/ for 〈then〉, instead of /ðɛn/.

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