Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Fabulous Hill Sisters!


Before getting to the anniversary we are honoring in today’s Music History Monday post, it is necessary for us to contemplate the painful issue of humiliation.

“Humiliation” is a consequence of unjustified shaming, as a result of which one’s social status, public image, and self-esteem are decreased, often quite significantly.

Humiliation hurts; humiliation sucks.

We are not, for now, going to discuss the seemingly countless ways we can (and have! and will!) be humiliated.  Let us instead – for now – observe the difference between spontaneous humiliation and ritual humiliation.

“Spontaneous” humiliations would be those unexpected moments of shaming, bullying, rejection, or deep embarrassment that come out of nowhere and have the emotional and physical impact of a punch to the gut.  

“Ritual” humiliations are different, in that we know exactly what’s coming but are powerless to stop them.  Ostracism and its attendant processes – excommunication, shunning, and blackballing, whereby someone is purposely excluded from a community – is a form of ritual humiliation.  “Hazing rituals” are another: those activities that purposely humiliate, degrade, and even risk physical harm to someone wanting to join a group or maintain status within a group.  

Person bringing cake to restaurant table
Please, God, find me a hole to crawl into . . .

Then, there is – for me – that most horrific of all ritual humiliations.  That would be the public singing of Happy Birthday by a restaurant’s waitstaff as they deliver to my cringing self a melting piece of lava cake with a lone, crooked candle sputtering atop.  (Some would say that such moments are merely an “embarrassment.” But I would observe that embarrassment is fleeting and for me, such Happy Birthday moments scar.)

At such times as these, I imagine my fist raised in defiance and bitterness to Mildred Jane Hill, who wrote the music for the song Happy Birthday to You in 1893.

On To Business

Mildred Jane Hill (1859-1916)
Mildred Jane Hill (1859-1916)

We mark the birth on June 27, 1859 – 163 years ago today – of the American songwriter, composer, organist, pianist, and musicologist Mildred Jane Hill, in Louisville, Kentucky.  She died on June 5, 1916, in Chicago, three weeks shy of her 57th birthday.  

Mildred Hill was the eldest of three sisters: after her came Patty (1868-1946) and then Jessica.

Mildred Hill was a professional musician of real accomplishment.  Along with teaching and performing, she was a songwriter and composer of some reputation.  She was also a serious student and scholar of Negro Spirituals.  Under the pen name of “Johann Tonsor”, she wrote extensively on the subject of Black American music.  In 1892, she wrote an article called “Negro Music” that, as it turned out, had no small impact on the history of Western music!  Dvořák scholar and musicologist Michael Beckerman writes:

“In December 1892, [the journalist James Gibbons] Huneker appeared at [Antonin] Dvořák’s apartment on 17th Street in Manhattan. [Dvořák had arrived in the United States in September 1892 to take up the Directorship of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City.] Huneker had with him, as he later stated, a copy of an article that he thought might interest the composer. Titled ‘Negro Music’ and written by one Johann Tonsor [a.k.a. Mildred Hill] of Louisville, Ky., it had just been published in an exciting new journal called Music and was nothing less than a manifesto. ‘When our American musical Messiah sees fit to be born,’ it read, ‘he will then find ready to his hand a mass of lyrical and dramatic themes with which to construct a distinctively American music. Dvořák sat down and read the article, with its six musical examples. We know this because [Dvořák’s] copy made its way to the Dvořák Museum in Prague with the words ‘I love you Daddy’ written upside down in the margin, letting us imagine that as Dvořák was engrossed in the article, his young son tried to get his attention. Within days [after having read the article], Dvořák was making the sketches that formed the basis of both the ‘New World’ Symphony and his American style in general.”

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