Arts and Leisure

Major Alfred Little: The Unsung Melodeonist

When Alfred Little was a boy, in 1829, an illness paralyzed his legs. But nothing could suppress his musical talent.

Born in 1823, in Boscawen, NH, Little showed his musical talent early. He had perfect pitch.  At age 6 he suffered partial paralysis of one of his legs after an illness. In 1836 his family moved to Peoria, Ill, and he was stricken with rheumatic fever, which paralyzed his other leg. He would require crutches the rest of his life.

Alfred Little seated with his melodeon

Alfred Little and his melodeon. (From The Descendants of George Little, by George Thomas Little)

In 1838, Little’s father died, and the family returned to Boscawen. Two years later, at age 17, he began working in Concord, N.H. for Charles Austin, who specialized in building and servicing musical instruments, as well as another instrument maker, Dearborn & Bartlett.

Melodeons and seraphines were making their way to America from Europe at the time, and Austin was one of the earliest manufacturers in the United States. Melodeons and seraphines are keyed instruments that produce music using a system of bellows that pass air over tuned reeds. They sound something like an accordion.

The early versions were scratchy and not terribly musical sounding. Little soon put his perfect pitch to work and became the instrument tuner at the companies, developing new methods of shaping the reeds that produced the notes in the instruments, so they were more mellifluous.

He also began studying the mechanics of the instruments. They were slow to respond, which made them difficult to play – especially for rapid musical passages. Little developed a melodeon that greatly improved the instrument’s sound and its responsiveness. The instrument sat on a tabletop and the player pressed down on one end of it to fill it with air while fingering the keys to produce the notes.

Little would quickly move beyond just tuning the instruments.

Alfred Little Takes to the Stage

As manufacturers perfected their melodeons and seraphines, the public took notice and listened in awe to the “miniature orchestras.” Today, the melodeons are museum pieces. One example of Austin’s handiwork resides in the collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. From the mid-1830s to the 1850s, the public clamored for the instruments and jammed concert venues to hear them.

Alfred Little concert ticketLittle, with his detailed knowledge of their workings, was positioned to make the most of the craze. He gave his first melodeon concert at Pantheon Hall in Fisherville, N.H. in March, of 1846. That launched his career.

Little was a unique performer. He had a strong interest in literature, as well as music, and he wrote many songs and poems.

Though there is no record of his having any formal music training, he was apparently naturally gifted. He could improvise like a virtuoso and wowed his audiences by effortlessly stringing together songs. On top of it all, he had a vivid sense of humor that he worked into his music – able to tailor the show for the occasion – be it at an old folks’ home, Sunday school, political event or concert.

In 1854 or 1855, New Hampshire’s governor appointed Little to be fife-major of the 21st N. H. Regiment, and he earned the title major.

Little’s travels took him to stages in New York City, Illinois and Ohio, as well as throughout all the New England states. There’s no record of how many people saw him perform, but his biographies note he probably played to hundreds of thousands over the course of his life.

A Poet and Writer

As the cabinet organ supplanted the melodeon in popularity, Little fell away from performing and spent more time writing songs. Titles included Absence, The Coming and About the Jubilee, Sir! – the latter a send up of the 1869 National Peace Jubilee held in Boston. The event featured hundreds of musicians over several days to celebrate the end of the Civil War. Little died on the day after Christmas in 1880.

Much of Little’s work is lost, though scholars note he had a profound impact on the American music industry of his day. One poem that is left behind is one he wrote about the maple grove at his beloved New Hampshire family homestead:

My Merry Maple Grove

By Alfred Little

There is a spot to mem’ry dear,
Where oft in childhood I would rove,
The merry wildbird’s song to hear :
It was my Maple Grove.
How fair the view on every side —
The church on yonder hill,
Kearsarge in all its lofty pride,
The pond so clear and still.

 

And then the moss-grown rock I’d climb,
To pick the berries ripe and red;
While squirrels scattered from the limb
Their nutshells on my head.
‘Twas there I hammered from the ledge
Bright garnets hued like wine,
Or gathered from its western edge
The nodding columbine .

 

Dear Maple Grove! I see thee now,
Enrobed in dress of flowing green;
There stands my boyhood’s home below,
With grassy lane between.
Though fairer scenes perchance may be
To win a poet’s love, —
Yet thou art ever dear to me.
My merry Maple Grove.

 

There’s not a tree that braves the gale,
Or towering rock or purling rill.
But telleth each its simple tale
Of recollection still.
Though flowers may fade and friends may die,
Though far away I rove, —
Yet oft shall winged mem’ry fly
To thee! my Maple Grove.

Thanks to The history of Boscawen and Webster N.H. from 1733 to 1878 by Charles Carleton Coffin.

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