Thoreau & Beyond


Sing Along with Henry!

by Ron Koster



I sang “Tom Bowling”
there in the midst of the rain,
and the dampness seemed to be
favorable to my voice.

There was a slight rainbow
on my way home.

Thoreau [1]


As Caroline Moseley — author, scholar and performer of 19th-century American popular music [2] — has pointed out in her eloquent and thoroughly-researched article Henry D. Thoreau and His Favorite Popular Song, [3] undoubtedly the tune in question was the sentimental ballad “Tom Bowling” (often referred to as “Tom Bowline”, and/or with the alternate title or subtitle, “A Sailor’s Epitaph”), written by the English playwright, actor and composer, Charles Dibdin (1745-1814).

“Tom Bowling” was by no means the only song that Thoreau enjoyed, however. As Moseley writes:

Among other songs Thoreau liked were “Pilgrim Fathers,” “Evening Bells,” “Canadian Boat Song,” “The Burial of Sir John Moore,” and the Robin Hood ballads. His family played “old-time music, notably Scotch melodies.” He was inspired to dance by “Highland Laddie” or “The Campbells Are Coming.” He rhapsodized over “The Battle of Prague.” These selections, along with “Tom Bowling,” represent the mainstream bourgeois musical taste of their day. It is difficult to describe such compositions fairly, because a song must be heard as well as read, but they are extremely elaborate and sentimental. The instrumental “Battle of Prague” is notorious for its musical excesses. “Tom Bowling” is more skillfully constructed than most of its genre, with a tune which cunningly complements the text, particularly in the ascending last line of the stanza. “Tom Bowling” is more effective than average parlor-piano fare. [4]

It is well worth mentioning that Charles Dibdin had been the resident composer at Covent Garden (London), writing thousands of songs that also achieved great popularity in Canada and the United States during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and “Tom Bowling” would be his most enduring and memorable tune, which continues to occasionally find its way into musical anthologies to this day. [5] It was first performed at the Lyceum Theatre of London in 1789, in a three-act musical variety production of his called The Oddities; however, most notably in the present context it was a song which had been composed in memory and tribute to his brother, Thomas. A ship’s captain stationed in India, and 29 years Charles’ senior, Thomas was revered as a father figure by his much younger brother, but tragically he would be lost at sea, and this event affected Charles profoundly for the rest of his life. [6] [7]

It is clear from the recollections of many of Thoreau’s contemporaries — those who knew him personally — that “Tom Bowling” held special significance for him far beyond it being merely a particularly pleasing melody, for just as for the song's composer, it was also a distinctly sentimental reminder of Thoreau’s own beloved elder brother, John, who had passed away very suddenly at the age of 27 (in 1842). Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, who knew Thoreau personally at Concord and would later be his biographer, emphasizes the significance that this song held for Thoreau through the rest of his life, when he writes that even many years later, in 1860, “Thoreau had been my guest at a dinner-party, and there we heard him sing his one song of those later years, ‘Tom Bowline,’ in memory of his lost brother John.” [8]

The portrait traditionally believed to have been of Henry Thoreau’s brother, John, and attributed to their sister, Sophia — although there is more recently some uncertainty over who painted it, and who the subject might actually be. See note [9]. Image used with permission, courtesy the Concord Museum: 

“Tom Bowling” was so popular in Thoreau’s time that in all likelihood he had heard it sung around his native Concord throughout his childhood and youth, and thus naturally he so learned it himself as well, although whether Thoreau was in any way aware of the motivations for Dibdin’s composition of “Tom Bowling” we will never know — however, if he understood it as being a memorial to a nautically-inclined brother who had been idolized, and who had passed away under tragic circumstances, it would certainly not be insignificant.

Thoreau and his older sibling, John (born in 1815, two years before Henry) had always been extremely close during their formative years — indeed, John was almost a hero to Henry, was remembered as being “vivacious and outgoing, the leader of the childhood activities” between the two brothers and their elder sister, Helen (born in 1812, with their youngest sibling, Sophia, coming later in 1819 — and who would in her turn worship Henry). [10] After Henry graduated at Harvard College in 1837, both he and his brother sought teaching jobs, but after holding a position as such for only a few weeks at the Concord public school, Henry’s disapproval of the school committee’s insistence that he use corporal punishment upon his students led him to resign. He eventually started his own private school in the family home, which opened in the summer of 1838, and it met with such local approval and success that later that year he moved into the newly-vacated building of the old Concord Academy. [11]

John Thoreau would join his brother to teach at the school in February of 1839, [12] and it continued to prosper very well over the next couple of years, with the brothers being highly praised for their hands-on approach (“learning was achieved chiefly through doing”) [13] and their regular field trips and other outings.

As Joseph Wood Krutch writes in his biography of Thoreau:

No corporal punishment was administered, the day began with a moral lecture on some subject not immediately connected with the formal lesson, and once a week there was a walk, a sail, or a swim conducted by Henry who made these expeditions an occasion for “nature study.” [14]

Indeed, with regard to “expeditions,” it was during this same period, in the late summer of 1839, that Henry and John went off on an excursion of their own, boating along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, then hiking to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. As Milton Meltzer and Walter Harding have reflected upon this journey in their book, A Thoreau Profile:

What at first glance might seem an insignificant two-week vacation later assumed great importance in Thoreau’s life, for the account of that excursion became the basis of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Greatly expanding his original journal entries and padding them with miscellaneous essays and poems on subjects as varied as Chaucer, the Hindus, friendship, and religion, he enlarged the tale of a rowboat journey into a personal epic. [15]

Unfortunately, despite their success with the school, eventually John became unable to continue teaching due to health problems (probably tuberculosis), [16] and with Henry being unable to carry on with the responsibilities on his own, the school was forced to close in April of 1841. [17] [18]

What was by far one of the most significant tragedies of Thoreau’s life came in the early days of the following year. While sharpening his razor, his brother John cut his finger, which then became infected and developed into lockjaw (tetanus) — an affliction from which there was no understanding or cure at the time — which very quickly led to him passing away in Henry’s arms on January 11th, 1842. John’s death so deeply affected Thoreau that he, too, began to develop a “sympathetic illness,” having the same symptoms as his brother had shown, but not long afterward he would recover. [19] Nevertheless, Thoreau would never truly get over the loss of his beloved brother, and as Henry S. Salt related in his biography, it was “a death so sudden and painful that [Thoreau] could rarely endure to hear mention of it in after-life, and is said to have turned pale and faint when narrating the circumstances to a friend more than twelve years later.” [20]

George Howe Colt further describes how very deeply Thoreau was affected by this tragic event:

Years after his brother’s death, according to Sophia, Henry was rarely able to mention his brother by name. If it happened to be mentioned by others, tears came to his eyes. In 1854, when he told his new friend Daniel Ricketson about John, Thoreau turned pale and had to go to the door for air. Ricketson said it was the only time he ever saw Thoreau show deep emotion. For a long time after John’s death, Thoreau refused to sing. But singing eventually became a link to John. A friend recalls that the only time he heard Thoreau “speak” of his brother was when he sang “Tom Bowling,” a sentimental ballad about a drowned sailor he had often sung with John. [. . .] It became Thoreau’s favorite song, and when friends heard him sing it — or “Row, Brothers, Row,” which reminded Thoreau of his weeks on the river with John — in a voice as gruff as his personality, they knew of whom he was thinking. [21]

Thoreau’s musical aptitudes were not limited to singing the occasional song, for he also played the flute, and would on occasion entertain others by performing a jovial dance as well. Indeed, from various accounts it would seem that Thoreau’s rendition of “Tom Bowling” was not necessarily always a purely melancholy one — even if he was reminiscing upon his brother in those moments, they could have been happy memories, after all — and as Salt described it:

[Thoreau] was fond of playing on his flute, and would at times sing ‘Tom Bowling’ and other nautical songs with much gusto and animation; and it is even recorded that he once or twice startled his friends by performing an improvised dance. [22]

Thoreau’s friend William Ellery Channing also recalled that

One was surprised to see him dance, — he had been well taught, and was a vigorous dancer; and any one who ever heard him sing “Tom Bowlin” [sic] will agree that, in tune and in tone, he answered, and went far beyond, all expectation. [. . .] And oh, how sweetly he played upon his flute! [23]

and there are even several mentions from a variety of sources of one particularly memorable evening in April of 1857, while visiting his friend Daniel Ricketson in New Bedford, when “he sang ‘Tom Bowline’ and danced to the music of Mrs. Ricketson’s piano,” [24] [25] an evening which Sanborn recounts in some detail:

He was sometimes given to music and song, and now and then, in moments of great hilarity, would dance gayly, — as he did once at Brooklawn, in the presence of his host, Mr. Ricketson, and Mr. Alcott, who was visiting there. On the same occasion he sung his unique song of “Tom Bowline,” which none who heard would ever forget, and finished the evening with his dance.

Hearing Mr. Ricketson speak of this dance, Miss [Sophia] Thoreau said: —

“I have so often witnessed the like, that I can easily imagine how it was; and I remember that Henry gave me some account of it. I recollect he said he did not scruple to tread on Mr. Alcott’s toes.”

Mr. Ricketson’s own account of this: —

“One afternoon, when my wife was playing an air upon the piano, — ‘Highland Laddie,’ perhaps, — Thoreau became very hilarious, sang ‘Tom Bowline,’ and finally entered upon an improvised dance. Not being able to stand what appeared to me at the time the somewhat ludicrous appearance of our Walden hermit, I retreated to my ‘shanty,’ a short distance from my house; while my older and more humor-loving friend Alcott remained and saw it through, much to his amusement. It left a pleasant memory, which I recorded in some humble lines that afterwards appeared in my ‘Autumn Sheaf.’”

After Thoreau’s return home from this visit, his New Bedford friend seems to have sent him a copy of the words and music of “Tom Bowline,” which was duly acknowledged and handed over to the musical people of Concord for them to play and sing. It is a fine old pathetic sailor-song of Dibdin’s, which pleased Thoreau (whose imagination delighted in the sea), and perhaps reminded him of his brother John. [26]

As the above anecdote recounts, from Thoreau’s own correspondence we know that Ricketson did indeed send along the sheet music for “Tom Bowling” — which apparently Thoreau had never had before, having only learned the song by ear, no doubt as he’d heard it sung by others. He first mentions the sheet music in a letter he wrote to Ricketson the next month, on May 13th, 1857:

Let me improve this opportunity to acknowledge the receit [sic] of “Tom Bowling” — & the May-flower — for which convey my thanks to the donor. His soul is gone aloft — his body only epigæa repens (creeping over the earth). It has been sung and encored several times — & is duly made over to my sister & her piano. [27]

The reference to “epigæa repens (creeping over the earth)” is a curious one, which has been explained by Kenneth Walter Cameron, being a perfect example of the breadth of Thoreau’s knowledge and his ability to find metaphor between the natural world and ancient mythology:

The Epigæa repens or Trailing Arbutus is the state flower of Massachusetts, sometimes called the May-flower or Ground Laurel. Just as Adonis was metamorphosed into an anemone of bloody hue, the noble Tom Bowling at his death became the Trailing Arbutus. The Epigæa repens coming in the same mail as the ballad probably suggested to Thoreau’s imagination Epigeus, the Grecian prince, who accompanied Achilles to the Trojan War and who, after many deeds of bravery, was killed by Hector. [28]

Toward the end of summer that same year, Thoreau would mention the sheet music once more when he wrote to Ricketson again on August 18th, closing that correspondence with “Please remember me to your family & say that I have at length learned to sing Tom Bowling according to the notes” — which, somewhat amusingly, rather implies that after having sung the song for undoubtedly the majority of his 40 years already, thanks to the sheet music Ricketson sent along to him, he at long last had learned to sing it correctly. [29]

As mentioned at the outset of this essay, “Tom Bowling” wasn’t the only music that Thoreau enjoyed. Apart from the obvious sentimental value that Dibdin’s song held for him with respect to his beloved brother, John, Thoreau’s musical affinities overall also reveal even more about him, when we look at the meaning that music held for him as a part of life. As noted Thoreau scholar Walter Harding has remarked:

Of the classical composers — Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. — Thoreau had almost nothing to say, even though their music was enjoyed by many of his Transcendentalist friends when it was played in Boston and even in Concord. What he preferred was what he thought of as the music of nature. He made his own Æolian harp — it is now in the Concord Museum. And when the telegraph wires were strung through Concord, he rejoiced in the sound of the wind whistling through them, calling them his “telegraph harp.” He made many notations on the songs of wild birds, notations that are still considered standard by ornithologists. He loved to meditate on the place of music in our lives and wrote extensively on the subject in his Journal. As Charles Ives has said, “Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear ‘the Symphony.’” [30]

Thoreau himself would also write the following rather profound and insightful thoughts about music in his journal:

What is there in music that it should so stir our deeps? We are all ordinarily in a state of desperation; such is our life; oft-times it drives us to suicide. To how many, perhaps to most, life is barely tolerable, and if it were not for the fear of death, of dying, what a multitude would immediately commit suicide! But let us hear a strain of music, we are at once advertised of a life which no man has told us of, which no preacher preaches. Suppose I try to explain faithfully the prospect which a strain of music exhibits to me. The field of my life becomes a boundless plain, glorious to tread, with no death of disappointment at the end of it. All meanness and trivialness disappear. I become adequate to any deed. No particulars survive this expansion; persons do not survive it. In light of this strain, there is no Thou and I. We are actually lifted above ourselves. [31]

Robert Beverley Ray has observed, “because we have grown used to regarding musical preferences as a clue to personality, the knowledge of what Thoreau must have been playing while idling in his boat on the glassy surface of the pond on long summer evenings seems to open a previously undiscovered door.” [32] We have from own Thoreau’s published writings and his journal so much understanding of his extensive knowledge and learning, his reverence and love for the natural world, not to mention his wonderful mastery of philosophical musings on “the human condition,” and naturally we have at the same time ample evidence of his remarkable skill as wordsmith as well, but simply through understanding his perspective on music, what it was that he appreciated about it and what his preferences were with regard to his own musical tastes (apart from his also playing the flute, and dancing the occasional jig) — in addition to our knowing his favourite song, and how he enjoyed singing it both in happy times and sad, whether he did so in reminiscence of his beloved sibling John, or for mere amusement for himself, his family and friends — we are given so much more of a complete picture of him that we otherwise would not have, a greater summoning within our imaginations and perceptions of Henry Thoreau the Man, Henry the Brother, and Henry the Neighbour and Friend.

Music for “Tom Bowling”

by Charles Dibdin

If your device supports embedded audio files, you should see an audio player above this paragraph to listen to the melody of Thoreau’s favourite tune! There are a number of other recordings of this song available on YouTube (, performed by various artists. It’s worth noting, however, that while the sheet music clearly specifies that the song should be performed at an “Andante” tempo (which means “at a walking pace,” approximately 84 to 90 beats per minute), for some rather mysterious reason most renditions that you’ll find on YouTube are played much too slow! One might wish to keep that in mind if this song is intended to be performed — the arrangement you hear in the audio file included on this site [33] plays at the correct tempo.

Download the Sheet Music

in printable PDF format

sheet music

Lyrics for “Tom Bowling”

Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling,

The darling of our crew;

No more he’ll hear the tempest howling,

For death has broach’d him to.

His heart was of the manliest beauty;

His heart was kind and soft!

Faithful, below, he did his duty,

And now he’s gone aloft,

And now he’s gone aloft!

                *                *                *

Tom never from his word departed,

His virtues were so rare;

His friends were many and true-hearted,

His Poll was kind and fair.

And then he’d sing so blithe and jolly;

Ah, many’s the time and oft!

But mirth is changed to melancholy,

For Tom is gone aloft,

For Tom is gone aloft.

                *                *                *

Yet shall poor Tom find pleasant weather,

When He who all commands

Shall give, to call life’s crew together,

The word to pipe all hands.

Thus death, who kings and tars dispatches,

In vain Tom’s life has doff’d;

For though his body’s under hatches,

His soul is gone aloft,

His soul is gone aloft!

The above lyrics came from an early-20th century anthology of popular music (and where the musical notation for this song also originated), [34] although it is worth noting that Sanborn, in his biography of Thoreau, provides a slightly different version of these lyrics, stating that “As Thoreau sang it, the verses ran thus”: [35]

Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowline,

The darling of our crew;

No more he’ll hear the tempest howling,

For death has broached him to.

His form was of the manliest beauty;

His heart was kind and soft;

Faithful, below, he did his duty,

But now he’s gone aloft.

                *                *                *

Tom never from his word departed,

His virtues were so rare;

His friends were many and true-hearted,

His Poll was kind and fair.

And then he’d sing so blithe and jolly;

Ah, many’s the time and oft!

But mirth is changed to melancholy,

For Tom is gone aloft.

                *                *                *

Yet shall poor Tom find pleasant weather

When He who all commands

Shall give, to call life’s crew together,

The word to pipe all hands.

Thus death, who kings and tars dispatches,

In vain Tom’s life has doffed;

For though his body’s under hatches,

His soul is gone aloft!


1. Torrey, Bradford, editor. The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Volume IX — Journal (August 16, 1856 — August 7, 1857) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1906), p. 393.

2. “Caroline Moseley.” (n.d.). University of Virginia. Retrieved September 26, 2014, from: 

3. Moseley, Caroline. “Henry D. Thoreau and His Favorite Popular Song.” Journal of Popular Culture, Volume XII, Issue 4 (Spring 1979), pp. 624-629. Available for purchase / download in digital format at: 

4. Mosely, p. 625.

5. Ousby, Ian. The Cambridge Paperback Guide to Literature in English, by Ian Ousby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 112.

6. “Tom Bowling.” (n.d.). The Contemplator. Retrieved October 2, 2014, from: 

7. “Charles Dibdin.” (September 30, 2014). Wikipedia. Retrieved October 2, 2014, from: >

8. Sanborn, F.B. The Life of Henry David Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1917) p. 304.

9. While long believed with a fair level of certainty (or perhaps “without question” might be more accurate) that this portrait was a depiction of John Thoreau, Henry’s beloved brother, and that this was painted by their sister, Sophia, more recent research would seem to indicate a somewhat less noble providence, and the portrait was quite likely to have been done by Nahum Ball Onthank, and that it does not depict John Thoreau but rather some other, unknown man. As David F. Wood describes the details of this painting in his book An Observant Eye (Concord, Mass.: Concord Museum, 2006, p. 145):

Portrait of a Man, formerly titled John Thoreau, Jr. (1815-1842),

About 1844

Attributed to Nahum Ball Onthank (1823-1888), Boston, Massachusetts (formerly, Sophia E. Thoreau, Concord)

Oil paint on canvas

Gift of Cummings E. Davis or George Tolman (before 1909), Th11

Nevertheless, this portrait has long-held such acknowledgement (however mistaken that might be) for being a portrait of John Jr., painted by their dear sister, Sophia, that it still certainly merits inclusion as an illustration to this essay — with, of course, this accompanying caveat.

10. Meltzer, Milton & Walter Harding. A Thoreau Profile (Concord: Thoreau Lyceum, 1962), p. 4.

11. Ibid., p. 39.

12. Van Doren Stern, Philip. The Annotated Walden (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1970), p. 57.

13. Meltzer & Harding, p. 39.

14. Krutch, Joseph Wood. Henry David Thoreau (London: Methuen & Co., 1948), p. 29.

15. Meltzer & Harding, p. 43.

16. Krutch, p. 39.

17. Ibid.

18. Van Doren Stern, p. 61.

19. Ibid., p. 64.

20. Salt, Henry S. Life of Henry David Thoreau (London: Walter Scott, 1896), p. 49.

21. Colt, George Howe. Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), p. 382.

22. Salt, p. 92.

23. Channing, William Ellery. Thoreau: The Poet-Naturalist (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1873), pp. 34-35.

24. Sanborn, The Life of Henry David Thoreau (1917), p. 386.

25. Salt, p. 120.

26. Sanborn, F.B, Henry D. Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1889 [1882]), p. 267-270.

27. Harding, Walter & Carl Bode, editors. The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, (New York: New York University Press, 1958), p. 480.

28. Cameron, Kenneth Walter. Companion to Thoreau’s Correspondence (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1964), pp. 83-84.

29. Sanborn, F.B., editor. Familiar Letters of Henry David Thoreau (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1895), p. 367.

30. Harding, Walter. “A Bibliography of Thoreau in Music.” Studies in the American Renaissance (1992), pp. 291-315.

31. Torrey, Bradford, editor. The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Volume IX — Journal (August 16, 1856 — August 7, 1857) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1906), p. 222.

32. Ray, Robert Beverley. Walden X 40: Essays on Thoreau (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), p. 54.

33. The audio file embedded on this web page is an MP3 conversion of a MIDI arrangement by Lesley Nelson-Burns, available for free download and use at  (site accessed 2000-06-02).

34. My sincere apologies for this oversight, but unfortunately when I scanned the sheet music (and transcribed the lyrics) from the mentioned anthology decades ago, I neglected to record the source for it — however, similar sheet music (and accompanying lyrics) should be relatively easy to find in any larger public or university library.

35. Sanborn, Henry D. Thoreau (1889 [1882]), pp. 269-270.


This article — including the accompanying sheet music (images and PDF) — was written exclusively for the ebook anthology and for this website. Copyright © Ron Koster, 2014, 2015, 2021. May not be reproduced outside of these contexts by any means (electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the author.


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