Down by the Old Mill Stream
Writer(s): Tell Taylor (see lyrics here)
First Charted: December 11, 1911
Peak: 17 US, 13 GA, 1 DF (Click for codes to singles charts.)
Sales (in millions): 6.0 (sheet music)
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, -- video, -- streaming
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About the Song:
With hundreds of songs under his belt, Tell Taylor was “one of the powerhouses in musical composition during the early 20th century,” PS but of all his songs, probably none is more familiar than “Down by the Old Mill Stream.” He wrote it in 1908 while sitting on the banks of the Blanchard River in Ohio, WK although it has been reported that it was modeled on “Down by the Old Stream,” a Joseph P. Skelly song from 1874. SS The lyrical focus is on someone older looking back on a lifelong romance, but true to form for post-1900 songs, it focuses more on reality than sentiment. SS
Musically, MacDonough’s version was unique in that he sang the first half with an orchestra, but then the orchestra is replaced by a quartet – most likely the Haydn Quartet, of which MacDonough was a member. The rest of the song is then handled a cappella by the quartet. SS That combination of four-part harmony alongside the “beautifully flowing melody with romantic lyrics” PS made the song a barbershop quartet favorite RCG and arguably the song that defines that genre. PS
The song was one of only four from 1890-1954 to sell 5 million in sheet music. PM One of those, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” shares other traits with “Stream.” Both songs were published in 1910 and first charted in 1911. The first chart versions of each were by Arthur Clough. Usually the first charted version of a song was the biggest, but the Peerless Quartet and Harry MacDonough each topped the chart for seven weeks with, respectively, their recordings of “Sweetheart” and “Old Mill Stream,” leaving poor Arthur Clough the dubious distinction of also-ran status – twice.
“The song was originally published with not only the piano version but also with an arrangement for male vocal quartet.” PS The song resurfaced in the 1936 film Her Master’s Voice JA and the Mills Brothers revived the song in the 1940s “with a more swinging style to it.” RCG In 1965, Alvin and the Chipmunks recorded the song and Snoopy played the song in the 2000 animated special It’s the Pied Piper, Charlie Brown. WK
First posted 12/11/2016; last updated 7/25/2022.