Origins of Famous Songs: Home, Sweet Home

About the origin of the famous song Home, Sweet Home history of the music of Henry Bishop and the words of John Howard Payne.

Stories behind Songs You Grew Up With


John Howard Payne/Henry Bishop 1823

This song has, for over 150 years, embodied in words and melody what "home" means to Americans. Although no longer published separately, it is still found in community songbooks and is sung around campfires.

Controversy has swirled about the question of who wrote the words and whether Henry Bishop based the melody on a Sicilian folk song or used a totally original melody.

As to the words, it is quite certain that John Howard Payne penned the lines, now so familiar:

'Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home . . .

Originally the song had 2 verses and a chorus. Later he wrote 2 more verses and sent them to Mrs. Joshua Bates of London.

Payne wrote his verses to be incorporated in the revision of an unsuccessful play which he turned into an opera. With music by Sir Henry Bishop, this became Clari, the Maid of Milan, 1st performed in London's Covent Garden Opera House on May 8, 1823. Miss Ann Maria Tree as Clari sang "Home, Sweet Home" for the 1st time on that night, and the considerable success which the opera enjoyed was credited mainly to that song.

The manuscript was sold with a group of plays to Charles Kemble, a London producer, who paid Payne pound 250 for the lot. Payne received no further money for the song which became very popular right away, and when it was published separately, his name did not appear on the music. It was not customary at that time to print the author's name on a song.

As to the music, Sir Henry Bishop may have adapted a Sicilian folk tune to fit Payne's words--an early edition of the song says "composed and partly founded on a Sicilian air by Henry R. Bishop"--or he may have written the tune in folk-song style to fit the story line of the opera where Clari dreams of her simple, thatch-roofed, peasant home.

"Home, Sweet Home," a rather sentimental song, quickly became the song of exiles far from home and was tremendously popular with soldiers during the Civil War. The most famous singers of the day, such as Jenny Lind and Adelina Patti, sang it in concert halls all over the world. One story goes that the famed opera star Adelina Patti did not know the song when President Abraham Lincoln requested her to sing it at the funeral service for young Willie Lincoln in 1862, and the President found a copy in a songbook for her to use.

Presumably, Payne was remembering a boyhood home when, in Paris, he wrote the words of this song. And in East Hampton, Long Island, N.Y., there is preserved what is a called the "Home, Sweet Home Cottage," a small house that belonged to Payne's grandfather and where he spent some of his young years. Payne, born in New York City in 1791, spent much of his life in England and France, 1st as a rather successful actor and later as a playwright and arranger. Toward the end of his life he was named American consul in Tunis and he died there in 1852. In 1883 his remains were brought back to his native land and buried in Oak Hill Cemetery near Washington, D.C.

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