The Composer

George F. Root (1820-1895)

George Frederick Root was born on August 30, 1820 in Sheffield, Massachusetts. His parents, Sarah Flint and Frederick Root, were amateur musicians. He was the oldest of eight children. From a very young age, Root started learning how to play a host of different instruments. Due to poverty and difficult financial circumstances, his family was forced to move to Willow Farm in North Reading, Massachusetts in 1826. Root supported his family by working on the family farm, but his real passion was for music.  In 1838, Root received his first real music lessons from Artemas Nixon Johnson, just two years his senior, at a school called Harmony Hall in Boston. Root did chores in exchange for the lessons. In 1839, Root and Johnson became assistants to Lowell Mason, a well-known teacher in the city.

The following year, Root applied to and was accepted in the Boston Academy of Music Chorus, directed by Lowell Mason himself. Mason reformed the teaching of music in the United States by using European instructional methods. While in the chorus Root became Mason’s singing class assistant and the next year he became a music coach. Because of his success at the academy, he was able to start teaching music at Jacob Abbot’s School for Young Ladies in 1844. In 1846, he wrote his first instructional music book, entitled The Young Ladies’ Choir.

Root married Mary Olive Woodman on August 28, 1845. They had met while singing together in the Boston Academy of Music Chorus. George and Mary had four children: Frederick Woodman Root (born in 1846), William Flint Root (born in 1848 and lived less than a year), Charles Towner Root (born in 1849), and Mary Olive (born in 1861).

“The Old Folks Are Gone,” 1852 (LOC).

When Root first started publishing music he did so under the pseudonym “Wurzel” (the German word for root). No one knows for sure why he decided to use that name, but it may have been due to a lack of confidence in his work. As Root was working hard to establish himself as a musician and educator, he began to suffer from stomach ulcers. In December of 1850 he decided to go on sabbatical for a year to recover in Europe. While there he studied music and toured the cities of Paris and London. This trip greatly impacted Root’s work because he admired European music and appreciated certain elements that he felt were lacking in American music. When he returned to the United States in 1851 his work became more sophisticated.

In 1853 Root and Mason establish the Normal Institute in New York. The first annual Normal Institute was a convention for music teachers. It was a three-month study of Lowell Mason’s music education style. In 1855, Root stopped teaching in schools and focused on teaching solely at conventions and publishing music. Throughout the 1850s he continued to publish music under both names: Root and Wurzel.

In December of 1858, Root’s younger brother Ebenezer and Chauncey Marvin Cady created the music publishing firm  “Root & Cady” in Chicago. By 1859 George Root was visiting often and even rented a room in the building.  On the second anniversary of Root & Cady’s establishment, George Root became a partner in the company.

From the Chicago Tribune, December 3, 1860.

Root explained:

It was very pleasant to see the new business grow, and it was not long before the partners said: ‘Come, put in some more capital, and join us; we need the capital, and your name will help us.’ I was delighted with the idea, not that I thought of giving up my professional work — I did not dream of that, nor of living in Chicago; but to have this connection with my brother, and this business for a kind of recreation, was extremely attractive. So it was soon brought about, and I became a partner in the house of Root & Cady” (Root 123).

In April of 1861, Root’s Civil War career began. Only three days after the Battle of Fort Sumter, Root published and distributed “The First Gun is Fired ‘May God Protect the Right.’” Throughout the war, he published several successful songs, but is best known for “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Tramp! Tramp, Tramp!,” and “The Vacant Chair.” Not only did Root publish music during the war, but he also wrote The Music Curriculum in 1864.

Courtesy of Gettysburg College Special Collections.

After the war ended, Root continued to write and publish music. In 1867 he explained in the Song Messenger that he was ill. Evidently he had been sick for some time. He explained in his autobiography: “When my convention work was at its height, and I about thirty-eight years of age, I used to have occasionally a nervous re-action at the close of my four day’s work that affected my head unpleasantly”  (Root 148). His illness was diagnosed by doctors as “a condition of the brain” (Carder 169). Although doctors recommended that he stop working, Root went ahead and, in 1868, published The Triumph, a book of church music.

On October 9, 1871, Root & Cady’s Chicago store was destroyed in what is now called “The Great Chicago Fire.” After the fire, the partners decided to split the firm. Root & Cady then sold pianos and organs and was run by Towner Root, C.M. Cady, and William Lewis. George Root and his sons: Frederick, Charles, and William, formed “George F. Root and Sons.” For more information on the Split please visit “The Publishing Company.”

From 1872 to 1876, Root was the president of the Chicago Musical College. He produced twenty singing books from 1871 to 1890. In 1872, when Prohibition Party candidates running for president, Root wrote songs for them. The titles of two of his songs were: “Don’t, Wait Till the Drunkard is Made,” and “May We Ask You, Christian Brother.” From 1871 to 1895, Root published twenty-five cantinas, or “songs for the people” (Carder 188). In 1891, Root finished his autobiography and he continued working up until his death. On August 6, 1895, Root suffered chest pain and was declared dead at 2:30 in the afternoon. He was 74 years old. Because that summer was his 50th wedding anniversary. Root’s family was with him when he passed away.

From the Chicago Tribune, August 8, 1895.