She would stretch on tiptoes to reach the piano keys

Posted by | June 2, 2015

A prolific composer, South Carolinian Lily Strickland (1884-1958) published 395 musical works for popular, church, and children’s performances. Her early works displayed the influences of life in the Jim Crow South, incorporating numerous elements of African American spirituals and folk music and the rhythms of Southern speech.

Lily was the only daughter of Charlton Hines Strickland and Teresa Hammond Reed. The family lived with her maternal grandparents, Judge & Mrs. J. Pinckney Reed at Echo Hall in Anderson, described by The State newspaper in 1958 as “a beautiful old place in the midst of formal gardens.” The home was built by Judge Reed, whom the paper went on to portray as a “man of such great personal charm and ability that his legend persists after six generations. He is remembered as an immaculate dresser, who wore frock-coat and stove-pipe hat and carried a gold-headed cane. Yet he often ‘fiddled,’ as he called it, for dances at his house when his many daughters were young, and is said to have been full of fun and frolic.”

In addition to his distinguished career as a judge, Reed was a successful lawyer, publisher of Anderson, SC’s first newspaper, and a member of the South Carolina Secession Convention. Lily’s grandmother was also known for her friendliness and charm, and both grandparents provided strong influences on Lily Strickland’s childhood.

Composer Lily StricklandFor a brief time the family relocated to New York City, where Lily’s father’s work as an insurance salesman had taken them. But upon her father’s death a few years later, Lily and her two brothers returned with their mother to Echo Hall. Often sung to sleep by her mother and aunt, Lily was surrounded by a musical, and warm, loving family.

She attended local Anderson schools and began learning to play the piano at the age of six. At an even younger age, her family reminisced that she would stretch up on tiptoes, barely reaching the keyboard, to pick out a few notes of musical expression. As a small child she often listened to the cotton pickers as they sang while working in the nearby fields.

Absorbing the Negro rhythm and melodies and the other influences of the natural environment of long Southern days amidst the pines and magnolias and the chirping of songbirds provided Lily with inspiration for her first compositions. Her older cousin Reed Miller, a noted concert tenor, encouraged her by singing the songs she made up. Other family members fostered her musical ambitions as well, and Lily played the pipe organ in the local Episcopal church and published her first compositions when she was only sixteen.

Lily received her formal musical education at Converse College in Spartanburg, known across the South for its strong music program. She studied piano and composition there from 1901 to 1904. Strickland went on to fame and fortune elsewhere, but in recognition of her accomplishments as a composer, Converse College conferred an honorary Doctor of Music degree upon her in 1924.

Lily Strickland enjoyed wide popularity, an unusual accomplishment for a female composer in the early twentieth century. Numerous ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic, the Charleston Symphony, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, performed her work.

Words and music by Lily Strickland (1920)

Honey, did you hear that mockingbird sing last night?
Oh Lord, he was singing so sweet in the moonlight
In that old magnolia tree, bustin’ his heart with melody.
I know he was singing of you, Mah Lindy Lou, Lindy Lou
Oh Lord, I’d lay right down and die
If I could sing like that bird sings to you,
Mah little Lindy Lou.

Lindy, did you smell that honeysuckle vine last night?
Oh Lord, he was smelling so sweet in the moonlight
Clinging ’round my cabin door, reckon it’s ’cause he loves you so.
Honey, that’s the way I love you, Mah Lindy Lou, Lindy Lou
Oh Lord, I’d lay right down and die
If I could be as sweet as that to you,
Mah little Lindy Lou.

Lindy, did you feel that south wind blow last night?
Honey, it was kissing you sweet in the moonlight
Blowing from that old bayou, seems to say it loves you so.
Honey, that’s the way I love you, Mah Lindy Lou, Lindy Lou
Oh lord, I’d lay right down and die
If I could be that wind a-kissin’ you,
Mah little Lindy Lou.

Her most famous composition was a popular piece with a Southern flavor, Mah Lindy Lou, which entered the popular repertory through repeated performances by ballad singers in vaudeville in the 1920’s, and later was recorded by both Burl Ives and Paul Robeson.


sources: More Than Petticoats, Remarkable South Carolina Women, by Lee Davis, Globe Pequot, 2009

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