Geoffrey O'Hara, composer, singer and lecturer (1882-1967)

Canadian-born Geoffrey O'Hara was a multi-talented musician who, during the course of his life, was a songwriter, composer, singer, teacher, lecturer, army singing instructor, ethnomusicologist, pianist and guild organizer. His lengthy career began in the first decade of the 1900s with minstrelsy, vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley, and he continued to entertain audiences and arrange music as late as the 1960s.

Although O'Hara lived in the United States from 1904 and became an American citizen in 1919, he maintained his ties to Canada through return visits and engagements, and through his interest in Canadian music. O'Hara hailed from Chatham, Ontario, where he was born on February 2, 1882. The music he heard and sang as a child in his hometown later influenced his compositions and his approach to writing music. As a child, he played piano avidly, and sang and played organ at the local Anglican church. His family's close ties to the church (his grandfather was an Anglican clergyman in Kingston) are evinced in his later output of hymns. In addition to musical activities, as a teenager he was a member of the Chatham cricket club.

Originally, O'Hara prepared to enter the prestigious Royal Military College at Kingston, Ontario, at age 18, and had trained with the 1st Hussars (although he later said he did not enjoy the experience). However, the untimely death of his father, Robert O'Hara, necessitated abandoning his plans for a military career. He instead took a job in a bank, where he worked for three years. At that time, desiring to make a career of music, he went to work in a piano store as a bookkeeper. By then, he was also singing tenor in church professionally. At age 21, in 1904, he took the bold step of hiring on as a blackface minstrel touring the United States. He subsequently performed in a variety of stage entertainments in and around New York, including light opera, vaudeville and travelling tent shows, and became active in teaching. This period also saw O'Hara's first recordings for Edison in vocal quartets, beginning in 1905.

In 1913, the American government, presumably impressed with O'Hara's ability to lead audiences in singing, appointed him to the position of instructor in American Indian music. In this capacity, he recorded American Indians singing their traditional songs, thus taking his place among the early ethnomusicologists who collected folk songs on wax cylinders. On later recordings for Victor and Edison, O'Hara sang several of the Navajo songs he had collected.

The year 1913 brought a breakthrough in O'Hara's success as a songwriter; his composition "Your Eyes Have Told Me What I Did Not Know" was recorded by Enrico Caruso on the Victor label. However, the composer considered his first true hit to be "Tennessee, I Hear You Calling Me", written the following year.

The music and chorus lyrics to "Tennessee" came to O'Hara in a dream. The song arose from the tunes that African-Americans living in Chatham, Ontario had brought with them from the American South after the American Civil War (O'Hara himself had at that time never been to Tennessee). Harry Von Tilzer of New York's Tin Pan Alley, helped O'Hara promote the song, which debuted in vaudeville, but it was not until they convinced Al Jolson to perform it at the Winter Garden that the success of the sheet music was ensured. The hit song sold around 128,000 copies in 10 weeks in 1914. However, Boosey and Company (later Boosey and Hawkes) brought a suit for plagiarism, claiming that "Tennessee" was too close to Charles Marshall's and Harold Harford's "I Hear You Calling Me", which John McCormack had made popular. O'Hara felt that the suit was unfair and raised only to prevent competition, though he admitted quoting two bars from the other song. Still, the damage was done and O'Hara's song fell from popularity.

Despite this setback, O'Hara continued to have success as a songwriter, but with what he termed "songs and music of the rather more difficult variety - songs of the type that are used only by professional singers and teachers" (Maclean's, 1921). Among these he counted "There is No Death" and "Give a Man a Horse He Can Ride". However, his next attempt at a popular song brought lasting success: the still-famous First World War hit "K-K-K-Katy", which was published March 16, 1918.

There are conflicting stories of how "K-K-K-Katy" came to be written. O'Hara himself, writing in Maclean's magazine in 1921, said he wrote the melody while stationed at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, teaching the American troops patriotic songs. However, the family of the Katy of the song's title (Katherine Craig Richardson) remembers it as being written in their living room in Kingston, Ontario, in 1917, and indeed this version of events is the best known. Katy was a friend of O'Hara's sister and O'Hara was particularly fond of her even after she married. Yet another version of events has O'Hara writing the song while visiting his grandfather in Kingston. In any case, "K-K-K-Katy" became an instant wartime hit and one that is still associated with Kingston. It was especially popular with American, Canadian and British servicemen and their families, so much so that the sheet music sold over one million copies. The Billy Murray recording of this song, on the Victor label, in 1918, was also very successful. O'Hara's lyrics have since been translated into other languages, including Estonian. The song has achieved a permanent place among the patriotic popular songs of the Great War. It was featured in the 1940 movie Tin Pan Alley, by 20th Century Fox, with Alice Faye (as Katy), Betty Grable and Jack Okie. Sadly, the Katy who inspired the song died in 1922, only a few years after it was written.

In 1919, after the end of the war, O'Hara married Constance Dougherty from Massachusetts. Together they had two children (Hamilton, and Nancy, later Nancy Jackson).

In the years following the First World War, O'Hara continued to make his living from music, in a variety of capacities. His experiences as a singing instructor soon led to a teaching career. He also gave talks on songwriting and other musical subjects. In this capacity, he held an instructor's position at the Teachers' College of Columbia University (1936-37), and also taught at Huron College and the University of South Dakota.

O'Hara maintained an interest in his homeland. Although many of his recordings and compositions have distinctly American patriotic titles (such as his recording of "The South Will Do Her Part", many of his compositions reveal his Canadian roots and a connection to British heritage (for example, "Highlanders! Fix Bayonets"). In 1919, on a visit to Canada, O'Hara recorded two songs by fellow Canadian, Lieutenant Gitz Rice, on the Canadian Victor label ("Burmah Moon" and "Doughboy Jack and Doughnut Jill"). In addition, O'Hara set songs to the poetry of Canada's William Drummond, one of which ("The Wreck of the 'Julie Plante'") debuted with the Metropolitan Opera at Carnegie Hall in New York, around 1921. In subsequent years, the composer continued to visit his hometown of Chatham and his brother, F.C.T. O'Hara, who was deputy minister of Canada's Trade and Commerce Department in Ottawa.


O'Hara seems to have stopped making recordings as a singer around 1928, and to have concentrated on songwriting, lecturing and composers' guild activities. His career output of songs is voluminous: a total of around 500 popular and patriotic songs. Included in this number was a large body of hymns. O'Hara was in fact well regarded as a prolific writer of sacred songs, revealing his early ties to the Anglican church. Among his hymn compositions are "I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked", "There is No Death", and numerous others. He is also known for his barbershop tunes, in particular "The Old Songs". In addition to his output of popular, patriotic and sacred songs, he later drew on his experience in light opera to compose over a dozen operettas, beginning in 1927, including the three-act Little Women, from the novel by Louisa May Alcott. He also arranged and compiled collections such as Barber Shop Song Fest Folio and Canadian Folk Songs, Old and New.

Early on, O'Hara had become aware of the financial and contractual difficulties faced by songwriters, and was active in protecting the interests of his profession. (He later noted, for example, that he received only one cent for each of the million copies of the sheet music of "K-K-K-Katy" that were sold; but that he had a much better contract for "There Is No Death", which gave him six cents for each copy sold.) To protect songwriters' interests and to try to standardize contracts with music publishers, he helped organize, around 1920, The Composers' and Lyric Writers' Protective League. Over the years, he led or was otherwise active in various professional associations. For example, in 1941 he was elected to the board of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), of which he was a charter member, and four years later he became president of the Composers-Authors Guild.

In addition to his ASCAP responsibilities, O'Hara's involvement with troop singing continued during the Second World War when he joined the USO, an organization that provided entertainment and other social services for the soldiers. In 1947, he received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the University of South Dakota. O'Hara continued arranging music and giving inspirational talks into his last decades. By 1960, he and his wife had moved to Pawling, New York. In his later years, he also maintained a winter residence in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he died at age 84 on January 31, 1967, a few days short of his 85th birthday.

Selected recordings available

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  • "O'Hara, Geoffrey". Encyclopedia of music in Canada. Edited by Helmut Kallmann et al. 2nd ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. xxxii, 1524 p. AMICUS 12048560
  • O'Hara, Geoffrey. "Ontario to Tin Pan Alley". Maclean's. Vol. 34 (April 1, 1921). P. 24, 36-37. AMICUS 88134
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