From Out Of The Past - Will Shakespeare Hays

By Joyce Trammell

On a visit to the Filson Club to research a Louisville composer, I ran across a magazine that had been published in this city at Christmas-time in 1901.

Although the magazine contained an article about the musician I was interested in, the article that really caught my eye was one written by the editor, Elvira Snydor Miller. Ms. Miller stated that her publication was to be "like the cat, inasmuch as a cat always came back." So would her magazine, month after month, she promised. It would be "laden," as she put it, "with friends of the past."

So, here for you is the first "cat" to come back to us -- Will S. Hays.

In 1901 Mr. Hays was coming to the end of a lifetime that had produced 350 songs, one of which sold three million copies in sheet music in 1870.

The son of a prosperous farm equipment manufacturer, Will Hays lived most of his life in Louisville, except for the year he spent at Georgetown, Ky., where he found that college was not to his liking. But in writing for the college newspaper, he began his career.

Friends started calling him Shakespeare. From that time on he added an "S" -- for Shakespeare -- as his middle initial.

Handsome, impulsive, popular, life of the party was the description of this man, as written by Martha Chrisman in her college thesis published in 1985.

But there was another side to this talented person. It was a side that reflected a man who was frequently ill, gloomy, lonely and suicidal. This was a man who turned to alcohol, a problem that was to haunt him for the rest of his life.

As a Civil War correspondent for the Louisville Daily Democrat and a commander of a river transport on the Mississippi River, Will hays reported Southern events.

But, in 1862, he was arrested because a song he wrote showed Southern sympathies that angered a Northern officer. Nevertheless, Hays continued to write songs for both North and South.

Toward the end of the Civil War he married Belle McCullough of Louisville. Soon afterward he was made the river editor The Courier-Journal, a position he held for the remainder of his life.

Nearly every song he wrote became popular but he made only a small profit, sometimes selling a song outright for $100, thereby giving away all rights to it. Jobs of working in music stores, a hotel and a ticket agency were taken to supplement his writing career.

Hay's 350 songs ranged from minstrels to spirituals to songs for special events and occasions, but the topics were not so different from those of today -- family problems, lost love, the poor. Only his style was different.

Will S. Hays' most popular song was written in 1870. He was on his way to New York to deliver his year's worth of songs to his publisher, J. J. Peters, when he became ill in Pittsburgh and was nursed back to health by an Irish girl named Mollie. Perhaps you have heard the beautiful melody of his "Mollie Darling." The song opens simply:

Won't you tell me Mollie darling,

That you love none else but me?

For I love you Mollie darling,

You are all the world to me.

Louisville native Will Shakespeare Hays, famous international master of popular music, 1837(9)-1907.