George Frederick Root
About George Frederick Root
More prolific than and a serious rival to Stephen Foster, George F. Root is remembered today merely as the composer of "Battle Cry of Freedom" and a few other Civil War songs rallying people to the Northern cause. He owed his success to self-imposed restrictions, keeping his melodies within the narrow ranges of amateurs, and favoring strong rhythms.
Root, who grew up on a farm, had no music lessons until he was 18 and moved to Boston. From that point, though, he pursued a particular interest in singing, soon assisting Lowell Mason in his vocal classes. Root became an independent vocal teacher in his early twenties, moving in 1844 to New York, where he also directed a church choir, formed a vocal quartet, and published the first of several choral collections.
After a year-long visit to Paris in 1850 for further vocal study, Root returned home and in 1853 helped Mason organize the first Normal Musical Institute in New York for teacher training. In preparation for this, Root composed The Flower Queen, which is thought to be the first secular cantata by an American. This was the first of several such works; one of its successors, The Haymakers, is occasionally revived during bouts of American musical patriotism.
It was during this period that Root also began publishing parlor songs under the pseudonym G. Friedrich Wurzel, the German translation of his name. His earliest hits included "There's Music in the Air" and "Rosalie, the Prairie Flower." The onset of the Civil War turned Root toward patriotic subjects. Only three days after Fort Sumter was attacked, he brought out "The First Gun Is Fired! May God Protect the Right!" Another 30 or so war songs followed, notably "The Battle Cry of Freedom" and "Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!" Still popular among his hymns is "The Shifting Shore."
Root became involved in the Chicago publishing firm Root and Cady with his brother and a partner in 1858, but bailed out after the Chicago fire of 1871. During this period, he wrote articles and songs for the company's periodical, and through the remainder of his career he continued to write music journalism and organize music collections for practical use in home, church, and school.