Born to a staunch abolitionist family, Benjamin Hanby’s (1833–67) first published song “Darling Nelly Gray” tells the story of a free slave hoping to buy his love’s freedom. The song is thought to be inspired by the runaway Joseph Selby, who Hanby’s family housed as part of their work on the Underground Railway. Inspired by his bishop father, Hanby himself joined the ministry. He spent four years as a pastor before moving on to teach music. Hanby went on to write more than 80 songs, including the beloved Christmas carols “Up on the House Top” and “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.” He died of tuberculosis in 1867 while working at a music publishing firm in Chicago.
One of the first secular Christmas songs composed in the United States, “Up on the Housetop” is also the first to take as its theme Santa Claus (likely borrowed from Clement Moore’s poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”).