Three Rockaway Songs

Commentary by Ed Berlin


Click on an image to enlarge and to view the sheet music
Rockaway, or, On Old Long Island's Sea-Girt
Shore (1840), by Henry Russell (music)
and Henry John Sharpe (lyric)
Seagirt Avenue . . . now Seagirt Boulevard . . . When growing up in Far Rockaway, that was for me just the name of a street. Who ever considered the meaning of "sea-girt"? The meaning hit me for the first time a quarter-century ago when I encountered this music in a secondhand book store in Santa Barbara. Though the music was quite expensive (by the standards of that time), and I desperately wanted to use my severely limited funds on a different piece of rare music -- an 1834 copy of "Zip Coon" -- I could not pass this up. I suspect that "Zip Coon," today, would fetch a much higher price than "Rockaway," but I'm satisfied with my choice; it was, for me, the right decision.
Henry Russell (1812-1900) New York Times

The song was published in 1840 in Boston, with lyrics by Henry John Sharpe and music by the English singer/songwriter Henry Russell (ca.1812-1900). Russell and Sharpe were good friends and Russell frequently made musical settings for Sharpe's poems, but we know little else about Sharpe other than that a volume of his poetry was published in 1859, by which time he had died. Russell was an immensely successful performer who toured widely in Britain, Western Europe, and the U. S. He had even more success as a composer, and several of his songs regularly appeared on lists of most beloved songs. An article in 1890 in The New-York Times (as it was then spelled), titled "Songs We Used To Sing," includes two of his songs among the thirteen discussed. The most popular of his songs were "Woodman, Spare That Tree" (1837), "A Life on the Ocean Waves" (1838), and "Cheer, Boys, Cheer" (1851). This last song was adapted several times, without composer credit and with new lyrics, as Civil War battle songs.

While "Rockaway" was published in 1840, Russell had performed it in concert as early as 1837, in Philadelphia. Its cover is a lithograph by Benjamin Champney, known for his scenic paintings of the White Mountain region of New Hampshire. The lithograph does not appear to be of a Rockaway scene.

We would like to think that this song was inspired by Russell, or his lyricist, lazing on the beaches in Rockaway. But Andrew Lamb, author of A Life on the Ocean Wave: The Story of Henry Russell, tells us that he has found no information to support our wishes. However, the failure to uncover specific evidence of such visits does not mean they did not occur. Rockaway, during this period, was a favorite vacation spot for the wealthy and successful artists and writers, several of whom numbered among Russell's friends. One, for example, was the poet/journalist William Cullen Bryant, who had a home (still standing) on Long Island's north shore.

On old Long Island's sea girt shore,
Many an hour I've whil'd away,
In list'ning to the breaker's roar,
That wash the beach at Rockaway.

On old Long Island's sea girt shore,
Many an hour I've whil'd away,
In list'ning to the breaker's roar,
That wash the beach at Rockaway

Transfix'd I've stood while nature's lyre,
In one harmonious concert broke,
And, catching its promethean fire,
My inmost soul to rapture woke.

Oh! On old Long Island's sea girt shore,
Many an hour I've whil'd away,
In list'ning to the breaker's roar,
That wash the beach at Rockaway.

Oh how delightful 'tis to stroll
Where murm'ring winds and waters meet,
Marking the billows as they roll,
And break resistless at your feet;

To watch young Iris, as she dips
Her mantle in the sparkling dew,
and chas'd by Sol away she trips
O'er the horizon's quiv'ring blue,

Oh! On old Long Island's sea girt shore,
Many an hour I've whil'd away,
In list'ning to the breaker's roar,
That wash the beach at Rockaway.

To hear the startling night winds sigh,
As dreamy twilight lulls to sleep;
While the pale moon reflects from high,
Her image in the mighty deep;

Majestic scene where nature dwells,
Profound in everlasting love,
While her unmeasur'd music swells,
The vaulted firmament above.

Oh! On old Long Island's sea girt shore,
Many an hour I've whil'd away,
In list'ning to the breaker's roar,
That wash the beach at Rockaway.

The melody Russell wrote to set the poem has two distinct sections, the first starting with the line "On old Long Island's," the other, first heard with the words "Transfix'd I stood." These two melodic segments occur several times. The setting is good, for the most part, though it falters twice with weak syllables set to accented notes: "Mar-KING the billows" and "While THE pale moon." The accompaniment to the melody is frequently simple, in the style of the time, but on some repeats of the first part of the melody the accompaniment becomes a rolling motion, suggesting the ebb and flow of the surf. The most effective line and musical setting, repeated with appropriate frequency, is "On list'ning to the breaker's roar, That wash the beach at Rockaway." That's an experience with which we can all identify.

Peerless Rockaway (c. 1871)
by C. J. Arthur Marier
Seeing the title and the cover, depicting an offshore steamship with a nearby land in the background, I assumed this was a song extolling the greatness of Rockaway. I was wrong. The copy I had seen, published by M. D. Swisher, of Philadelphia, was not the first printing. Swisher had apparently bought (or pirated) the piece, altering the cover, though not greatly. The earlier printing and cover reveals that Marier was the orchestra leader who provided music on the excursion ship called Peerless, owned by the O. R. N. Company -- the Ontario & Richelieu Navigation Company -- of Ottawa, Canada. The music is undated, but would be from the early 1870s. I don't know why the name "Rockaway" appears, though there is a Rockaway district in Kitchener, Ontario. The Swisher publication clearly shows two U. S. flags on the ship. The Canadian publication shows two flags with the one on the bow clearly being of the U. S.; that on the stern is unclear, though may also be a U. S. flag. Why would a Canadian ship sport two U. S. flags? Why not, if it sailed the Great Lakes or the St. Lawrence River, show flags of both nations? I have no answer to this question, though I can see nothing to suggest a connection with Long Island's Rockaway.
Peerless Rockaway (earlier sheet music cover)

Music depicting modes of travel are not unusual. Innumerable sea shanties and similar styles were inspired by the sea-going life. The advent of steam ships suggested music that depicts the ships' mechanical sounds. "Peerless Rockaway" falls into the latter category, with its steady long-short-long-short bass in a 6/8 meter imitating the sounds of the pistons and the turning paddle wheel. The music itself follows conventional forms for popular instrumental music of the time, with successive 16-measure strains forming an AA'BACC structure.

Rockaway Hunt. Fox Trot (1915)
by Milton Ager and Pete Wendling

Yes, as depicted on the cover, fox hunting did take place in Rockaway. The Rockaway Hunting Club was formed in Bayswater in 1878 by a young sporting group that had participated in a fox chase the previous year in Lawrence and Cedarhurst. In 1884, impeded by growing residential encroachments, the club moved to its present location in Lawrence, now 615 Ocean Avenue, between Briarwood Crossing and Abro Lane. The club soon added polo, steeplechase, tennis, and golf to its activities, the latter two being its current staples

Rockaway Hunting Club (click on image to visit their website)

A fox hunting musical piece in 1915 was a natural spin-off from the fox trot dance step, popularized by Irene and Vernon Castle, America's favorite dance team. The fox trot of that period was not the slow, simple shuffle that it is today, but an up-tempo routine with a variety of steps and complex variations, as described in the March 1915 issue of Christensen's Ragtime Review:

How to Dance the Fox Trot

The fox trot resembles the onestep, but is a slightly faster dance and is quite easy to learn. The exaggerated movements of the shoulders and arms, characteristic of the turkey trot, the things that made it capable of vulgarity, are absent from the fox trot. Here are the four figures of the dance:
Fig. 1.-- Four slow steps, four running steps and four running steps turning. Repeat four times.
Fig. 2.-- Two slow grapevines and four running steps. Repeat four times.
Fig. 3.-- One polka step and rest: four running steps. Repeat four times.
Fig. 4.-- Four wigwags, then three steps to each side.

Composers Milton Ager (1893-1979) and Pete Wendling (1888-1974) were two successful Tin Pan Alley men. Among Ager's many songs are a few that may be familiar to readers today: "Ain't She Sweet," "Hard-Hearted Hannah," and "Happy Days Are Here Again." Pete Wendling, in addition to being a fine song-writer, was an outstanding ragtime and novelty pianist who made many piano rolls. Among his hit songs are "Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula," "Oh! What a Pal Was Mary," and "Take Your Girlie to the Movies." Both songwriters worked with several different publishers; they published this song with the Waterson, Berlin & Snyder Co., the firm with which Irving Berlin got his start and became a partner prior to founding his own publishing empire.

The music is typical of fox trots of the 1910s, with brisk, swinging rhythms that spur the dancers on.



Ed Berlin is a musicologist with a specialty in ragtime. A list of his writings, lectures, and interviews may be seen at: