steamboat bill - THE song

While Seibert and Newton made unsuccessful performance attempts to capitalize on the success of “Casey Jones” it was the vaudeville team of the Leighton Brothers who did succeed and soon even  harvested the credit for having composed it, erasing its "real" composers.

The ink was still wet on the Casey Jones sheets when the Leighton Brothers and Ren Shields rushed out "Steamboat Bill" about a lethal attempt to beat a speed record set on the Mississippi River by the Robert E. Lee in 1870.

 In the  December 16, 1910 issue of their hometown paper the Decatur Herald Frank Leighton said “Steamboat Bill” is only five weeks old….my brother and I worked all last season on it.”  (Below) 

The team wisely  kept the same narrative arc as “Casey Jones” (including the destruction of the craft and the concluding stanza about the endowed widow, etc.) merely  moving the action from land to water.  

The song was so popular that an article in the New York Times noted that after its publication, job applications for the last of the Mississippi steamboats skyrocketed. 

The Leighton Brothers and Ren Shield collaborated three times after "Steamboat Bill" but none ever struck popular acclaim lightning again. 

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1910%2520The_Decatur_Herald_Fri__Dec_16_

The Decatur (OH) Herald Friday December 16, 1910 

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The Decatur (OH) Herald Friday December 11, 1910 

The_Morning_Tulsa_Daily_World_Sat__Dec_1

Morning Tulsa Daily World 

Saturday December 17, 1910   

Portsmouth_Daily_Times_Sat__Feb_11__1911

The New York Times

Monday, July 10, 1911

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Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Daily Times

Saturday February 11, 1911 

Though comedian Buster Keaton riffed on the name for his 1927 feature "Steamboat Bill, Jr." that was the only part of the song he referenced as opposed to Walt Disney whose breakout 1928  "Steamboat Willie" showcased the melody for the first minute of its run time, including having it whistled by animator Ub Iwerks' nascent rodent star.

© 2020 by Henry Sapoznik

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