A dose Of History
Philadelphia songwriter and music businessman Septimus Winner (1827–1902) wrote the song using a tune he heard an African American barber whistle. Richard Milburn, known as “Whistling Dick,” who cut hair in his father's shop on Lombard Street in Philadelphia in the mid-nineteenth century. One of his entertainments was to imitate a mockingbird by whistling a particular melody. Winner took this melody and wrote lyrics to it. With its catchy “listen to the mockingbird” refrain, the song became hugely popular.
Septimus Winner was a well-known songwriter, music teacher, music publisher, and proprietor of a music store in mid to late nineteenth-century Philadelphia. He wrote many successful popular songs and was a poet as well. Like many writers of his era, Winner wrote under an assumed name,“Alice Hawthorne.” Hawthorne was the maiden name of Winner’s mother, who was a relative of the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64). Winner first published “Listen to the Mocking Bird” in 1855 through his own publishing company, Winner & Shuster, and listed the songwriting credits as “Melody by Richard Milburn . . . Written and arranged by Alice Hawthorne.” He later sold the copyright to the song to another Philadelphia publisher, Lee & Walker, whose subsequent editions omitted Milburn and gave the writing credit solely to Hawthorne.
Winner did not reap significant financial rewards from “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” as he sold the copyright for five dollars soon after the song’s original publication. A Philadelphia newspaper in the early twentieth century estimated that the song‘s sheet music sales had totaled over twenty million copies in America and Europe in the fifty years since its publication. It is doubtful that Richard Milburn profited much from the song either. Winner employed him for a time running errands at his music store.