As a journalist who has circled the globe in my reporting, I am always amazed to discover enormous, inspirational gatherings of people. I recall such an enlightening moment in 1987, while I was part of the press corps covering Pope John Paul II’s tour of North America. As American journalists, we were astonished to learn that none of the pontiff’s million-plus gatherings of Catholics ranked as “the world’s biggest religious event.” The biggest, by far, is Kumbh Mehla in India, the vast migration of millions of pilgrims to the Ganges. Vast inspirational movements of men and women have been a part of American life since the First Great Awakening arose in the 1730s. Now, I have discovered another in the pages of Alicia Potter’s children’s book about musician Patrick Gilmore. Since reading Potter’s book, I’ve now read a whole lot more about Gilmore—and I can highly recommend her picture book to all adults who love children—and who yearn for peace.
Patrick S. Gilmore (1829-1892)
Perhaps it’s a shock to find one of the greatest composers of army music—the man who wrote the lyrics for When Johnny Comes Marching Home—profiled in the Interfaith Peacemakers series.
He wouldn’t be here except for the rediscovery of Patrick S. Gilmore’s years of peacemaking in a new biography for children by Candlewick Press author Alicia Potter. Her picture book is called Jubilee! One Man’s Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace.
Patrick Gilmore was a complex man—one of the greatest military musicians in U.S. history—and the architect of two of America’s largest peace festivals. During the Civil War, Gilmore’s music and his bands served the Union cause under special arrangement with the state of Massachusetts. In the years after the Civil War, Gilmore became America’s PT Barnum of peace.
Today, Gilmore’s contribution to American life is largely missing from our history books. That’s partly due to Gilmore’s own ambivalence toward personal fame. His most famous song, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, was published under a pseudonym. A few carefully posed photographs exist of Gilmore, his band and the 1872 event. Thomas Edison managed to capture his band in a couple of early wax recordings. But Gilmore died in 1892—just four years before Edison projected his first short movies in New York City and the Lumiere brothers produced their film clip of a locomotive roaring into a station. Had Gilmore lived a few years longer, we surely would have movie footage of this celebrated composer.
Something about the man was charismatic—to say the least. For his two peace jubilees, he managed to organize the most famous men and women in the musical world. Think of the great global music events of the late 20th century—Woodstock, the Concert for Bangladesh, Farm Aid—and you’ll envision the sheer star power assembled by Gilmore.
The New York Times and other leading American newspapers covered many large concerts headlined by Gilmore, but the two peace festivals in 1869 and 1872 were, by far, the biggest and most influential. Alicia Potter’s book tells the dramatic story of the first of these—the National Peace Jubilee in Boston in the summer of 1869 with more than 11,000 performers, held in a coliseum specially built to hold an audience of 60,000. There was high drama leading up to this event and Potter’s book captures the skepticism as well as the triumphant Jubilee.
A highlight of that event was poet Oliver Wendell Holmes unveiling his new Hymn of Peace. It’s opening lines are:
ANGEL of Peace, thou hast wandered too long!
Spread thy white wings to the sunshine of love!
Come while our voices are blended in song—
Fly to our ark like the storm-beaten dove!
Then, Gilmore did it again! In 1872, he organized the 18-day World’s Peace Jubilee and International Music Festival. The second event is covered in the epilogue to Potter’s book. This time, the scale of Gilmore’s plans more than doubled. A new coliseum was built to hold more than 100,000—and some press reports say it held 120,000 at one point. Obviously, modern fire safety had yet to be invented. For this even bigger festival, Gilmore even convinced Johann Strauss II, the so-called “waltz king,” to visit from Europe for the first time. Think of the Beatles arriving in New York City in 1964.
More importantly for Gilmore’s peacemaking legacy, this was a major event for the brand new Fisk University Jubilee Singers—who Gilmore showcased at his global festival. The small Fisk group had formed as a desperate university fund-raising effort in 1871. Today it may be difficult to envision the group as a largely unknown chorus trying to early a few dollars for Fisk. Now, more than 140 years later, the Fisk Singers are regarded as the groundbreaking musical group that helped to preserve authentic African-American spirituals. In 1872, they were an absolute sensation when Gilmore unveiled them. Newspaper reports expressed astonishment that the Fisk Singers actually were black Americans—since the journalists had only seen black-faced white musicians in “minstrel” shows until Gilmore’s music festival.
Gilmore never equaled those two giant events, but he did organize an exhausting schedule of other major concerts across the U.S. and Europe. When he died at the relatively young age of 62, due to a heart ailment, he left major events on his upcoming schedule that had to be cancelled. The New York Times reported, “Nothing short of the death of the President could have caused such a sensation and such sincere sorrow among all classes.”
A huge funeral procession through New York City, including a 100-piece band, led to his funeral Mass. The Times reported that, during the Mass, the eulogy described Gilmore’s gifts as a composer: “This was the secret of his power over men—he first let God’s finger touch every chord in his heart.”