Septimus Winner was a 19th century American poet and songwriter. He was an occasional performer and teacher of music and he also worked in the music publishing business. As well as his own name he used a number of pseudonyms for his work, including Apsley Street, Alice Hawthorne and Paul Stenton. He must have used the name Hawthorne because of his mother being a relative of the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.
He was born on the 11th May 1827 in Pennsylvania into a big family; Septimus was the 7th child. His father was a specialist musical instrument maker who produced mostly violins. With such a musical background it seemed inevitable that the son would follow the father, although the path chosen was different. Having studied at Philadelphia’s Central High School, Winner studied music with some lessons taken by Leopold Meignen when he was about 26 years old. He was mostly self-taught though, having a talent for composing lyrics and music as well as playing a variety of instruments. He joined various local ensembles to perform in public.
He had decided at an early age to team up with Joseph, his brother and they set up a music publishing business which ran from 1845 to about 1854. Septimus continued publishing right up until his death, using a variety of business partners to do so. Writing was his main interest though and, using the Alice Hawthorne pseudonym, he wrote a number of ballads which became very popular with the wider public. They were usually known under the name “Hawthorne’s Ballads”. One song of this genre, Listen to the Mockingbird, was a major success with over 15 million copies of it being sold in the United States. This success was tainted somewhat though because Winner had used a tune composed by one his publishing company employees, one Richard Milburn. The composer was initially credited but sold his rights to the music for a low amount of money, and Winner later claimed all the credit for himself.
His talents went beyond the mere composition of song lyrics though. He wrote at least 200 books of instruction that enabled budding musicians to master a variety of instruments and he wrote thousands of musical arrangements to be played on violin and piano as well as a variety of other instruments.
One of his best-selling songs, written in 1864, was the basis for a popular children’s nursery rhyme. Using a traditional German folk tune, he wrote the song:
This became known as:
Here is the first verse of the rhyme:
Other verses of the song had slightly sinister lyrics, written in an odd German dialect. The drinking of lager beer is mentioned, pointing out that it one cannot drink “mit no money” but the most disturbing part is about the making of sausages. Some literary reviewers have suggested that the following lines may give a clue to the missing dog. Regarding the origins of sausages, Winner says:
More controversy was attached to him when, in 1862, he wrote a song called:
It was about a US General who had been sacked by President Lincoln and was a rallying call used by the General’s supporters to get him reinstated. Initially, Winner was arrested on charges of treason but released when he agreed to destroy any unsold copies of the song.
Another song, which would have been acceptable at the time, was Ten Little Indians, published in 1864. It’s title was changed four years later though to Ten Little Niggers when it became a standard composition for the black-faced vaudeville group of singers called Christy’s Minstrels. His words were adopted by the English author Agatha Christie for her book which eventually became known as And Then There Were None.
Belated recognition for his writing talents finally arrived when Septimus Winner was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, some sixty eight years after his death. He died on the 22nd November 1902, aged 75.