Top 10 Songs written by Wisconsinites
From Wisconsin – the one time Kingdom of Fiddlers, America’s home of Blues recording (when it mattered), the home of Brass Alley, The Cradle of Polka and the national petri dish of lost folk styles. My only regrets are that Liberace, Les Paul and the incomparable Hildegarde, none of whom were songwriters, are not on this list. This list, like the movements of tectonic plates and the weather, is subject to change.
1 WILDWOOD FLOWER. 1860. Originally titled “I’ll Twine mid the Ringlets”. Written in Elkhorn, Wisconsin by Joseph Philbrick Webster and Maud Irving, it is the very backbone of American Country Music. Although immensely popular in his day, J P Webster remains the single greatest unsung songwriter in American history. This is one of three songs written or co-written by Wisconsinites that would become official and/or unofficial state songs for the state of Tennessee - the other two are “Rocky Top” and “The Tennessee Waltz”. Tennessee’s own Carter Family, the first family of Country Music, made it famous all over again in the 1930’s and it’s only fitting that they perform it here.
2 AFTER THE BALL. 1891. The #1 all time best selling song from the sheet music era and a top ten all time top 10 hit from the subsequent Victrola era. “One of a handful of songs known word for word by nearly every man, woman and child in this nation”. Written by Charles K Harris. Harris grew up in Milwaukee (he was born in upstate New York) and he wrote the song in the Cream City after overhearing a conversation between a group of old men lamenting their long lost loves. A monumental money maker well into the 1940’s, it is estimated that the song’s worth (adjusted for inflation and including long time out of copyright use) approaches a billion dollars. Irene Dunne sings it in a clip from the 1936 version of SHOWBOAT (book by Appleton's Edna Ferber).
3 DISCO LADY. 1976. The first official platinum record ever awarded and a true international hit - from Borneo to Japan, behind the Iron Curtain to Argentina and back again. Milwaukee’s Harvey Scales wrote this one, and Johnny Taylor sang it. Here’s a wiki link for Harvey.
4 THE JOKER. 1973. A monster hit, a cottage industry unto itself and Homer Simpson’s 2nd favorite song (“It’s Raining Men” is his favorite). Steve Miller was born in Milwaukee, got a guitar lesson or two from close family friend and life long mentor Les Paul and is famous among those of a certain age in the Badger state for leading a legendary party rock band (alongside Boz Skaggs and Ben Sidran) while attending The University of Wisconsin. Here he is in his prime and slightly ahead of a further series of big big songs…. like “Fly Like an Eagle”.
5 MISS GULCH. 1939. Not technically a song, but so what. This Leitmotif has become musical shorthand for all things witch. Herbert Stothart wrote it and took an Oscar home for his incidental score to The Wizard of Oz of which Miss Gulch is a part. Stothart was born and raised in Milwaukee and educated at the University of Wisconsin. He ran the MGM Music Department throughout Hollywood’s golden age. He is also famous for the operetta Rose Marie and was a co-writer of, hold your breath Slim Whitman and Nelson Eddy fans………”INDIAN LOVE CALL”.
6 SKINNY LOVE. 2007. From the debut album of Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever ago. This one hit big in every way that a post analog era song could - blanketing series television, film and international charts. Songwriter Justin Vernon leads his Eau Claire based ensemble in a clip from the Letterman show.
7 LORENA. 1861. The #1 song of the Civil War era…on both sides. Joseph Philbrick Webster strikes again. Johnny Cash nails it.
8 THE TENNESSEE WALTZ. 1947. Pee Wee King, the great entertainer, country music pioneer and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame from Milwaukee, Wisconsin was the driving force behind this song. He co-wrote it with his musical partner, Redd Stewart. The 1950 version by Patti Page became a multi-million seller. The song would return to the top 20 several times during the decade including a #6 by Waukesha native Les Paul. Hugh Laurie, of House and Jeeves and Wooster fame, performs in the clip.
9 WE JUST DISAGREE. 1977. This one hit #12 in 1977 for Dave Mason and entered the Country Top Ten in 1993 in a cover by Billy Dean. It has since gained far greater fame as one of the enduring hits of the Classic Rock era. Jim Krueger, a Manitowoc native, wrote We Just Disagree during his long partnership with Dave Mason. A year after it's release, Krueger appeared on both a solo album that featured the song and in a Dave Mason band offshoot album with Milwaukeean Les Dudek , both on Columbia Records. Krueger and Mason were musical partners for nearly 20 years and Krueger is all over the single - his 12 string guitar and tight vocal harmony (Mason and Krueger harmonized like siblings) can be clearly heard. The following is from GOLDMINE, the ultimate source for vintage rock minutae (and also a Wisconsin based publication).
“Krueger (his nickname was Bruiser) was a shy, introverted guy, a talented songwriter and a pure tenor vocalist who could match Mason's distinctive style and follow him note for note. His harmonies were almost as good as Graham Nash's; this was not lost on Mason. Krueger and Mason hit it off immediately, and their at times difficult relationship would last an unbelievable (for either of them) 19 years. “ Krueger passed away in Manitowoc in 1993. The entire story of Mason, Krueger, We Just Disagree and Krueger’s untimely death can be found here.
IN THE SWEET BY AND BY. 1868.
Most recently heard in the motion picture Django Unchained. Joseph Philbrick Webster and fellow Wisconsinite Sanford Fillmore Bennett wrote This hymn by the wood burning stove at Bennet's place of business in Elkhorn. "Immensely popular in the nineteenth century, became a Gospel standard and has appeared in hymnals ever since. In the New Orleans jazz tradition 'Sweet By-and-By' is a standard dirge played in JAZZ FUNERALS".Mark Twain spoofed the ubiquitous popularity of the song in chapter 17 ("A Banquet"), of his satiric novel, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court. The protagonist, Hank Morgan, a visitor from the future, attends a lavish court dinner given by Morgan Le Fay, King Arthur's sister, during which guests are regaled with music:
Johnny Cash does J P Webster better than anyone."In a gallery a band with cymbals, horns, harps, and other horrors, opened the proceedings with what seemed to be the crude first-draft or original agony of the wail known to later centuries as "In the Sweet Bye and Bye." It was new, and ought to have been rehearsed a little more. For some reason or other the queen had the composer hanged, after dinner".