A Brief, Bright Star
In the world of pop music, the man who wrote “Long, Long Ago” was a star who never made a CD, never had a web site, nor even once reached radio’s “top 40” playlist. The Englishman T. H. Bayly lived before all of those technologies. And yet his hits—sold as sheet music for about 25¢ a page—reached almost universal popularity, both in Britain and America. So many ordinary folk bought his songs that Bayly grew rich, until he lost his fortune and lost his health to die at just 42 years old. But in those years, Nathaniel Thomas Haynes Bayly wrote hundreds of songs as well as poetry and dozens of short plays. Recorded music didn’t exist in his day. Pianos and reed organs were standard items in middle-class homes. Bayly was one of countless songwriters, now mostly forgotten, who wrote simple melodies that people could play and sing themselves—or hear performed in a local music hall. In that time, emotional displays were frowned on in public. Bayly’s “parlor songs” were an accepted way to let private feelings gush, as his song titles make clear: “I turn to thee in time of need,” “Oh! deem not that I love her less,” or “Teach, oh! Teach me to forget.” Suzuki’s selection, “Long, long ago,” tells a sad tale of a long-gone friend who now loves someone else. Published in America a few years after Bayly’s death, it was an instant hit.
Bayly was born in the city of Bath to parents who wanted him study law, not music. He thought briefly of entering the clergy but soon moved to London to write songs and dramas. Some of his sheet music used melodies that others wrote. A few times, he set verses to music composed by his wife. Several songs were “answers” to other composers’ best-selling tunes. After Bayly’s biggest hit, “I’d be a Butterfly,” those competitors paid him the same compliment with songs like “I’d be a Nightingale,” and even “I’d be an Antelope.” Bayly’s work was never the “high art” of the elite. His name faded as popular culture changed and entertaining moved, gradually, outside the home. Today, most people know him only by the melody to “Long, long ago” and by a common saying that comes from another of his songs: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”