Nelson Kneass

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Writer of “Ben Bolt” who premiered ‘Oh Susanna” 

Nelson Kneass was a musician, composer, and singer who created and popularized the sentimental song “Ben Bolt”.  His other contribution to music history was made when his Kneass Opera Troupe made the first performance of Stephen Foster’s song “Oh Susanna”.  Kneass arranged the “Ben Bolt” song and first sang it a theatrical performance in Pittsburgh in 1848.  During the 1850s it became as popular as the songs "Home, Sweet Home" and “Oh Susanna”.  “Ben Bolt” was recorded in the 1920s and has been featured in several movies. Vivan Lee sang it in “Gone with the Wind” in 1948.

Nelson Kneass was born in Philadelphia in 1823.  At age five he made his stage debut acting in a performance of Richard III in Philadephia.  He performed in New York at age 11.  He worked as a music teacher in New York before becoming a traveling musician. 

Nelson Kneass came to Pittsburgh frequently in the 1840s traveling with the popular group the Sable Harmonists.  The Harmonists performed black faced minstrel shows and opera parodies.  Kneass wrote and arranged music for the Harmonist and performed as a singer, banjo player and pianist. The Sable Harmonist who were founding in 1841 claim to have travel 40,000 miles going by riverboat to the towns along the Ohio and Mississippi.  In 1845 when the Harmonist disbanded Kneass settled in Pittsburgh.  He found work as the impresario and music director of the new downtown Pittsburgh entertainment venue the Eagle Ice Cream Parlor.  Hiring several former Sable Harmonists along with musicians from New York he formed the Kneass Opera Troupe. The troupe members included opera singers George Holam and Harriet Phillips. They performed classical music, opera, and comic blackface minstrel shows.  Kneass accompanied the Troupe on piano.  The Eagle Saloon became a fashionable and crowded entertainment house.

The Eagle Ice Cream Parlor was located in a second floor Hall of a building on Wood Street.  It was owned by Mr. Andrews who rented the hall to sell confections, cakes, and ices.  He furnished in the small tables and erected a stage.  To draw customers he offered entertainment.  The ten cent admission was waved with the purchase of baked goods or ices.  Andrews advertised the entertainment heavily in the Gazette and other newspapers.  He also ran song contests for comic, sentimental, and minstrel songs with audiences deciding the prize winners. Winners received rings, gold chains, or silver cups.

n 1847 the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon was offered a silver cup prize for the best original lyrics to an Ethiopian melody.   The contest to be held on September 7 would be decided by the audience.  Morrison Foster submitted a copy of his brother’s song “Away Down Souf (South)”.  The saloon was packed on the night of the contest.  The Nelson Kneass Opera Troupe performed all of the songs including Foster’s “Away Down Souf”.  The song “Wake Up Jake” song written by a troupe member George Holam was declared the winner.  Fosters friends were upset saying that the contest was rigged.  The morning after the contest Nelson Kneass went to the United States Court to register the words and music for “Away Down Souf” in a copyright under his own name.  Morrison Foster, who was also at the courthouse, informed the judge that Nelson Kneass was committing a fraud.  Nelson’s copyright was denied.  W.C. Peters copyrighted the song in 1848.

Despite the rigged contest and the copyright issue Morrison Foster submitted another of his brother’s songs to Kneass.  “Oh! Susanna” was performed for the first time publicly on September 11, 1847 by the Kneass Opera Troupe.  From that performance and later performances in New York the song spread like wild fire.  People all over country were singing it.  Over 100,000 copies of the sheet music for “Oh! Susanna” were sold.  Nelson and his troupe continued to perform Stephen Foster’s music at the Eagle Ice Cream Parlor.  In 1847 The Kneass Opera Troupe performed Foster’s songs on a tour of the Ohio Valley. 

n 1848, a play entitled "The Battle of Buena Vista" was produced in Pittsburgh.  Nelson Kneass wrote music for the production including the song “Ben Holt”.  A.M. Hunt, an Englishmen, sent Kneass the words to a poem that he had once read in a newspaper.  He wrote the poem down from memory making up sections he could not remember.  A.M. Hunt took the lyrics from the poem “Ben Bolt” that was written by Thomas Dunn English in 1842.  Kneass set Hunt’s version of Thomas Dunn English’s words to the melody of a German song.  Ben Bolt was performed for the first time in Pittsburgh in 1848. The play was a failure, but the song became an internationally popular sentimental ballad.  W.C. Peters copyrighted the song and published the sheet music.  It was performed around the world in theatres, concert halls, minstrel shows, and family parlors.  A stream boat and a steamer were named after the song.  The lyrics became a popular poem in England.  The song was sung on the streets of London by minstrels.  A play and a novel were written based on the song.  Neither Nelson Kneass nor Thomas Dunn English received compensation for the song.

Kneass went back to traveling shows leading several groups with the names of Kneass's Great Original Sable Harmonist and Kneass's Ethipian Band.  While traveling with his troupe in 1869 Nelson Kneass died in the town of Chillicothe Missouri.  As his troupe was broke the townspeople gave Nelson a decent burial and erected a small monument on his grave with the following inscription:

Erected to the Memory of Nelson Kneass, 

Musical Author of Ben Bolt, 

By the Citizens of Chillicothe, Mo. 

Ben Bolt Song