Lily Strickland – South Carolina Composer

South Carolina SC History Notable SC Women Lily Strickland

Lily Strickland: "South Carolina's Gift to American Music"

    This article was submitted to SCIWAY in 2017 by J. Strickland Newsom, Jr., whose father, Jesse Strickland Newsom, Sr., and Lily Strickland were first cousins. The work below is entirely Mr. Newsom's own. If you are interested in publishing a piece about your family, please contact us at

Lily Teresa Strickland was born in 1884 in what was then the small town of Anderson, South Carolina; nevertheless she did not remain a small-town girl. She was destined to circle the globe several times, to meet many of the greatest artists of the day, and to make an enduring contribution to American music in the twentieth century.

Most people have heard her song Mah Lindy Lou. It has been sung in concerts world-wide, and seven recordings of it have been made, under Victor and Columbia labels, by such diverse artists as Burl Ives, Amelita Galli-Curci, and the Philadelphia Male Quartet. Few people, however, are aware of the variety and extent of her contribution to the world of art.

Lily Strickland Anderson
Lily Strickland, Promotional Photo

At the time of her death in 1958, 37 music publishing companies had featured 395 of her compositions – songs, piano works, instrumental suites, oratorios, operettas, cantatas, anthems, and choral ensembles, as well as music composed for the Ziegfield Follies, and for such groups as the Denishawn Dancers.

In addition to musical composition, Lily Strickland is regarded as a poet of distinction. She published many sonnets and wrote the lyrics for her songs, with the exception of the few noted in the chronological table.

She is also recognized as a prose writer of note. Her scholarly articles have been published in such journals as Xlusical America, Musical Courier, Musical Quarterly, The Etude, and Dance Magazine. Articles relating to the history of music in various countries, art, architecture, the dance, philosophy, musical instruments, religions, native customs and ceremonies, appeared in The New Orient, The Calcutta Review, The YelL' Outlook, Asia, Travel Magazine, The World Traveler, The Court, The Architect and Engineer, and The Journal and Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

Another facet of her versatility was her painting. She furnished the cover illustrations for many of her songs, and has left behind her many water-colors, which display a unique talent.

Lily Strickland was born at Echo Hall, the home of her maternal grandparents, Judge and Mrs. J. Pinckney Reed, in Anderson, South Carolina. Her mother was Teresa Hammond Reed. Her father, Charlton Hines Strickland, was an insurance man whose business took him north when Lily and her two brothers were small children. A few years after their arrival in New York City, her father died and the young widow returned to Echo Hall with her children.

Lily's earliest musical inspirations came from her exposure to Negro rhythm and melody, to the spell of the lazy Southern days, to the magic of the cotton fields, magnolia trees, and the mockingbirds.

A feature article in Columbia, South Carolina's The State newspaper of August 24, 1958, depicts the setting:
    Echo Hall was a beautiful old place in the midst of formal gardens. Its builder, Colonel or Judge J. Pinckney Reed, Lily's grandfather, was 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. He published Anderson's first newspaper, was a successful lawyer, distinguished judge, respected by his county in the legislature, and was a member of the Secession Convention.

    Mrs. Reed, of French descent, was also noted for her charm and friendliness. Among such people, in such a home, the future composer grew up. No wonder a surviving cousin who was grown when Lily was still a child, says, "That child was born with charm."

An article on Lily Strickland in the Atlanta Journal, May 1, 1931, states:
    Sung to sleep by a musical mother and aunt, for all of her family (the Reeds) could sing, Lily expressed her baby musical thoughts with tiny fingers that could scarcely reach the keyboard when she was on tip-toes.
The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, of which Lily Strickland was an active member for 34 years, published an illustrated leaflet about her at the height of her career. It shows a picture of Echo Hall and a drawing of a small girl listening to the cotton pickers singing at their work. It pictures her older cousin, Reed Miller, a tenor who was a noted concert artist, and states that he encouraged the child by singing the songs she "made up." It states that her first songs were published when she was 16 years old.

Lily Strickland received her first formal musical education at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which she attended for three years (1901-1904). In 1905 she was offered a scholarship by Frank Damrosch, head of the Institute of Musical Arts (now Juilliard) in New York. For several years she studied piano, orchestration, theory, and composition at the Institute. One of her teachers was Alfred Goodrich. It is told that at her first interview with Mr. Goodrich she found, open on his music rack, a piano composition of her own, which he was using with his pupils as a model of form.

Speaking of the young composer at this time of her life, a cousin recalls:
    Lily had a perfectly delightful sense of humor. It was quick, and she would "twinkle-up" and grin and make some ridiculous comment. She never spent money on clothes – would go to Stern's basement for dresses. Fortunately, she could put on a cheap dress and look pretty. She "set off" her clothes, her surroundings, and her place anywhere in a group, just by her personality.
In 1912 Lily married Joseph Courtenay Anderson, a South Carolinian who was studying and teaching at Columbia University. She continued her musical studies at the Institute. It was between 1913 and 1917 that her compositions began to show the influence of her Southern up-bringing and to receive the attention of the public. Her dialect songs, Honey Chile, Pickaninny Sleep Song, Lonesome Moonlight, Mah Rose, Heah Dem Bells, and others, as well as various piano suites, reflected an intuitive knowledge of the Negro, his rhythm, and his speech, as well as her power to convey this knowledge in music and verse.

In 1917, war work with the YMCA took Lily and her husband to Camp MacArthur in Texas. There she was active in providing musical entertainment for the troops, teaching, and composing such war-time songs as To a Highlander, America Victorious, and To Our Allied Dead. Travels with her husband at this time through New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma inspired a number of compositions portraying the spirit and atmosphere of the Southwest, the most popular being A Southern Day and Sketches of the Southwest. Two Shawnee Indian Dances reflect the underlying elements of the region and its people. Lily, again, was successful in catching the spirit of native tunes and carrying this feeling into melodies of her own. This sojourn marked the second division of Lily Strickland's musical work.

In 1920 Mr. Anderson accepted a business position that sent the couple to India. They called Calcutta home, but travelled widely, not only in India but in Ceylon, Burma, the Philippines, China, Japan, and the principal capitals of Europe.

Lily Strickland delved into the musical idioms and the culture of all the countries in which she spent any length of time. She was no doubt one of the first Americans to make an exhaustive study of the music of India and its dances – their forms and their legends and history. Her deep sensitivity to the powerful, dramatic expression of their spiritual life, as interpreted through the Indian music, graced her with an understanding not often given to an Occidental.

In a letter to her, Sir Rabindranath Tagore, world-famous Indian poet and philosopher, wrote: "I don't understand how an American woman can have so much understanding and sympathy for our people."

Southern musicologist George Pullen Jackson wrote of her in 1923:
    It is no exaggeration to say that Mrs. Lily Strickland Anderson is one of the outstanding figures among contemporary American composers. It seems reasonable to attribute this attainment to the fact that she is drawing new musical life from one almost unknown fount of inspiration – the native music of India – and from another almost untouched source – the music of the South, and to the fact that she is bringing the fruit of this inspiration, sublimated by her own great talent, to the world of music.
In her many articles on comparative musicology, she sought to show how vital music is in the Oriental culture, and stresses Ives, James Melton, Grace Moore, and many other noted artists. As for Mah Lindy Lou, the background music service Mood Media (formerly Muzak), based in Fort Mill, South Carolina, uses it nationwide thousands of times daily. Numerous other recordings of it have been made by leading record companies.

The Raleigh News and Observer speaks of the song as:
    ... the lilting and haunting saga of the mockingbird singing at night ... the bird singing in the moonlight does something elemental and noble to the flintiest among us. It is hard to hear Mah Lindy Lou without thinking of youth and love, of the richness and variety of summer nights.
The Greenville News relates an experience with the composer:
    With a sense of humor that is unsurpassed, she recalls the time when she went to Shanghai, China, only to walk into a hotel and find the orchestra playing Mah Lindy Lou. She will tell, too, of hearing a great prima donna sing it, imposing an Italian accent upon the Negro dialect ... and of hearing still another diva use it at a concert when her German accent was such that her audience understood not a word she said.
Upon returning from India in 1930, the Andersons lived at Woodstock, New York, and later at Great Neck on Long Island. In 1942 they spent eight months in Charleston, South Carolina, where Mr. Anderson set up an United Service Organizations club. The atmosphere of Charleston made a deep impression on the composer and resulted in her writing an orchestral suite called Charleston Sketches, in six parts, including The Bells of St. Michael's, On the Battery, and a graceful movement, Old House on Tradd Street. The work received its premier playing by the Charleston String Symphony in February 1938. This suite for strings was arranged by Tony Hadgi. Some years later the Charleston Symphony Orchestra performed the suite as originally written for full orchestra.

In May of 1930, Lily Strickland's oratorio, St. John the Beloved, was performed at the Spartanburg Music Festival with outstanding success. When it was given later in Atlanta by the Rotoli Choral Club, The Atlanta Constitution called it "a work that is not only a masterpiece, but is uplifting in spirit." Lily Strickland's Christmas cantata, Star over Bethlehem, has been used widely in churches of many denominations, as has her cantata, The Song of David.

Lily Strickland held strong opinions on the subject of the lack of recognition and encouragement of American composers in their own country. She thought American musicians went abroad too much for musical training that could be had in their own country. 'They can go to the continent for stimulation, perspective, but they must live and feel America in order to compose American music."

She emphatically expressed her concern for the need of developing creativity in children and wrote much on this subject. Her interest in the development of the total child meant the training and developing of his or her total creative gifts. She believed that music should be included in schools' curricula, and in the early twentieth century, this idea was not an easy one for the school educators to accept. Lily Strickland wrote many operettas, musical playlets, patriotic play pageants, part-song roundelays, songs, and piano pieces for children.

The Charleston News and Courier makes mention that:
    An important side of Lily Strickland's work lies in her valuable contribution to the field of music education. She has composed volumes of part songs for children of all grades; operettas, pantomimes, and dances. Many schools use her volumes of part songs for children.
She stressed that a musical education begins at home. In an article in The Etude she states:
    The value of music in the home is inestimable; the beneficent effect priceless; the psychological value vitally important, and the refining touch, that all beautiful and good things give, of untold benefits in the spiritual and mental development of family life.
In 1948, Lily and Courtenay Anderson retired to a 26-acre estate near Hendersonville, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the composer continued her writing. She remained interested, active, and creative until her last illness in 1958. She died on June 6th of that year. Of the many tributes written to her, one in the Anderson Mail which appeared in 1941, perhaps sums up best the variety of her vast creative achievements:
    Anyone who will study her recordings in sound, paints, and the written word will be rewarded with a conception of nature, men, and the universe, which will be colorful, dramatic, and soul-stirring. Not many human beings are as delicately attuned to the vibrations and rhythms of life as Lily Strickland. Still fewer are so gifted with genius and craftmanship to translate into musical, artistic, and poetic expression, all that she sees and feels.
Lily Strickland is unique in being an American-born, American-educated composer who captured and reflected the American spirit of the early twentieth century.

Photo of Lily Strickland

Lily Strickland and Aunts
Top, left to right: Roberta, Anna, and Henrietta Strickland
Bottom, left to right: Lily, Sarah Cornelia, and Ruby
Courtesy of J. Strickland Newsom, Jr.

J. Strickland Newson, Jr., the author of this article, says the following about the above photo: Sarah Cornelia Dunlap Strickland was the mother of Roberta, Anna, Henrietta (called Hetty), Ruby, and Martha Olive (not shown). Lily was daughter of Charleton Hines Strickland, half-brother of the sisters; therefore Lily was a niece. I believe this undated photo was taken on the occasion of Martha Olive's wedding, in February of 1900, when Ruby was fifteen. Ruby married Dr. Joe Newsom. They became the parents of Jesse Strickland Newsom, Sr.

Learn more about Lily Strickland

Ulysses Robert Brooks, South Carolina Bench and Bar, Vol. 1 (Classic Reprint) (Columbia, SC: South Carolina State Company, 1908)

Emmala Reed, A Faithful Heart: The Journals of Emmala Reed, 1865 and 1866 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004)

Lee Davis Perry, More than Petticoats: Remarkable South Carolina Women (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2009, pp. 99-107)

Ann Whitworth Howe, Lily Strickland, South Carolina's Gift to American Music, Published for the South Carolina Tricentennial Commission (Columbia, SC: The R.L. Bryan Company, 1970)

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