Carrie Jacobs-Bond was musical trailblazer

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Marcia Nelesen
July 6, 2015

JANESVILLE--A century ago, a Janesville native was as well known for her music as Taylor Swift is today—maybe more so.

Carrie Jacobs-Bond was a woman pioneer in the music industry. She started her own publishing company and, for more than 40 years, held the record for being the first female composer to earn more than $1 million for a song.

Writing “heart and home” songs, she became one of America's premier popular songwriters over a period of several decades.

She was inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.

A Janesville Gazette article written in 1946, shortly after the death of the “world-famous” Bond, recounted how a song Jacobs-Bond wrote for her son—“I am the Captain of the Broomstick Calvary”—delighted the famous Enrico Caruso when the pair performed together in Europe.

The songs Jacobs-Bond wrote dripped sentimentality. Most today remember her—if at all—for writing “I Love You Truly.”

“I think songs of that time were very sentimental,” said Laurel Fant of the Rock County Historical Society. “The words that come to mind are sugary and sweet, to the point of saccharine.”

Of the more than 400 songs she wrote, some 170 were published.

In her autobiography, Jacobs-Bond said she didn't consider pursing a career until she was in her 30s, when she and her young son were left penniless after her husband's death.

Max Morath, who wrote a biography on Jacobs-Bond and was interviewed on National Public Radio, warned readers that the songwriter left out details of her life in her autobiography.

The world at the time would not have accepted anything improper.

Morath called Jacobs-Bond “tenacious and sometime ruthless,” qualities that could be attributed to any male composer, he said.

When Jacobs-Bond couldn't get her music published, she became her own best press agent. She opened her own publishing house. She owned every song she wrote, something mostly unheard of at that time, especially for a woman.

Carrie Jacobs-Bond was born in Janesville in 1862 in her grandfather Davis' home on Pleasant Street.

By age 4, she was picking out melodies on a piano. By 6, she could play almost anything by ear.

Her autobiography—“The Roads of Melody”—was published in 1927 and today can be read in the Janesville Room of the Hedberg Public Library. The book offers a delightful account of the times, and even her sugary prose hints at a strong woman making her way in a man's world.

Robert Emmet MacAlarney wrote the forward to her autobiography. He wrote that his task was impossible, as any introduction of Jacobs-Bond was a wasted gesture. The public “knows her songs by heart—and keeps them there,” he wrote.

He acknowledged her songs' inclination toward sentimentality but called them “true heart songs.”

In the introduction, MacAlarney said he found himself “defending sentimentality” when the “mode of the moment bids us shun sentimentality.

“Sentimentally wears well, when it is honest sentimentality,” he wrote. “Mrs. Bond's life has proved it.”

In her autobiography, Jacobs-Bond writes of her youth in Janesville, including attending the Myers Opera House with Frank L. Bond—he would later become her husband—to hear Madam Juliea Reeve King.

But first, she married Edward J. Smith at age 18. They had a son, Frederick. The couple divorced, and she married Bond of Johnstown in 1888. They moved to Iron River, Michigan, where he was a doctor. She recalled those years as the seven happiest years of her life.

Bond died in 1895 when a child pushed him into a snowdrift, causing him to hit his head on the frozen ground.

Jacobs-Bond's autobiography differs from historical records. She writes that she would have preferred moving back home to Janesville but didn't think she could make a living there. She said she ventured on to Chicago, where she scratched out a living running a rooming house and painting on china.

But that account presents a historical glitch, considering a marker sits at a spot in Janesville where Jacobs-Bond supposedly wrote “I Love You Truly.”

According to the 1946 article in The Gazette, Jacobs-Bond lived here briefly after her husband's death. The article includes a photo of the memorial that sits at the corner of East Milwaukee and Wisconsin streets, the former site of a cottage in which Jacobs-Bond wrote the famous song.

Melissa Carollo, a Hedberg Public Library reference librarian, helped research the inconsistency and found that Jacobs-Bond was listed in the 1896-97 city directory but none later than that. She likely lived here one year at the most, Carollo said.

Jacobs-Bond left Janesville after a short time for Chicago, “eager to receive recognition,” according to The Gazette article.

“The only thing that seems to me at all remarkable about my life is that I was nearly thirty-two years old before I ever even thought of having a career,” Jacobs-Bond wrote in her autobiography.

“It was the necessity of supporting myself and my little son that made me a writer of songs.”

Jacobs-Bond writes of her days in Chicago, including living in poverty, eating one meal a day and selling her belongings piece by piece until she was left only with her piano. But she also writes of helping those with less than she, sometimes opening her house to the homeless.

Jacobs-Bond supported herself by giving recitals and concerts in private homes and in public. Those songs included one she wrote in Ironwood with the upbeat title “Is My Dolly Dead?” That song's lyrics included the line “I dropped Dolly—broke her head. Someone told me my dolly's dead. Tell me Dolly, is it true? I can no more play with you?”

Incorrect information about Carrie Jacobs-Bond is found in many sources, and the song above is listed on the Songwriters Hall of Fame website as “Is My Molly Dead?”

The hall of fame website includes pictures and an extensive write-up of Jacobs-Bond.

In 1901, with the help of a loan from Jessie Bartlett Davis of the old Boston Opera Company, Jacobs-Bond published “Seven Songs as Unpretentious as the Wild Rose.” They included two of her most popular songs, “I Love You Truly” and “Just A-Wearyin' for You.”

The songbooks sold for $1 each and included Jacobs-Bond's own illustrations.

After repaying Davis, Jacobs-Bond opened Carrie Jacobs Bond and Son Publishing House, later known as The Bond House. Later, she moved and opened up shop in Hollywood.

Over the years, Jacobs-Bond sang around the world. She sang for President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt on the same night they entertained Joel Chandler Harris, better known as the writer of the Uncle Remus stories. She sang “A Perfect Day” for President and Mrs. Warren Harding, a favorite of the first family that also was sung at Harding's funeral.

That song is considered her masterpiece. She published it in 1910 after watching a sunset from the top of Mount Rubidoux in Riverside, California.

By the early 1920s, “A Perfect Day” had sold five million sheet music copies, along with uncounted recordings and piano rolls.

Jacobs-Bond faced heartache again when her son, Frederick, who was her business partner and best friend, committed suicide in 1932 after he learned he was going blind.

“A Perfect Day” was playing on the phonograph when he was found, Fant said.

Jacobs-Bond played her last concert in San Francisco in 1940. She died of a heart attack in her Hollywood home in 1946 at age 84. She is buried next to her son in the Court of Honor under the Last Supper stained-glass display in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in California.

Former President Herbert Hoover wrote an epitaph:

“Beloved composer of 'I Love You Truly' ... and a hundred other heart songs that express the loves and longings, sadness and gladness of all people everywhere ... who met widowhood, conquered hardship and achieved fame by composing and singing her simple romantic melodies. She was America's gallant lady of song.”

The Los Angeles City Council honored her as “one of America's greatest women.”

In Janesville, Bond is honored with a memorial in Bond Park on the city's west side.

Both homes with a significant connection to Bond were razed in the 1950s. The one in which she was born is now the site of the Sunnyside Shopping Center on the west side. The downtown home in which she wrote “I Love You Truly” is now a small parking lot.

The historical society has songbooks and sheet music, original oils of a dog and a 5-foot painting of a cupid holding a horn, and some flower illustrations. It also keeps some of her belongings, including a couple of hairpieces probably made from her own hair, a dress, a shawl, two purses and a handkerchief.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, rapid social changes of the World War I era dimmed the appeal of Jacobs-Bond's musical style, and she was occasionally parodied.

In her book, even Jacobs-Bond acknowledged her sentimentality.

But she made no apologies.

Instead, she recalled visiting soldiers during World War I and singing “A Perfect Day.” She noted that 10,000 soldiers would join in and sing with her.

“It was then that I felt glad to be a writer of home songs and songs that touch the heart, rather than a great musician, after all,” she wrote.


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