We purchased our copy of “The Sharon Polka” off of Ebay. It didn’t cost much. Certainly under $10. At the time, we really thought it would just look nice displayed on our piano.
After it arrived in the mail, I plinked out the tune a few times, but the yellowed sheet music just sat there on the piano for several years until a man named Charlie Keese saw it in a picture on our website. He inquired whether we might loan it to the Schoharie Concert Band. One of the band members, Diane Balthazar, was also a composer and wanted to make a full arrangement out of it. After 150 years, The Sharon Polka was going to have its concert debut!
We were quite happy to oblige, and couldn’t wait for this minor piece of history to become a full-fledged concert piece.
In the weeks leading up to the debut we grew curious about the original composer, so we tried to do a little research. We didn’t find out much about Theodore C Clark himself. There are only three compositions to his credit that we could find, and a handful of newspaper and census mentions. But, with a little imagination and local historical context, we think we can paint a pretty good picture of him…
From census records, we learned that Theodore C Clark was born around 1848, most likely in or near our neighboring town of Canajoharie.
Teddy was a pretty promising young musician. At the age of only 17, he published his first song – “General Sheridan’s Grand March” – celebrating a Civil War Union General’s victory in Virginia. We couldn’t find any reference that young Theodore actually served in the Civil War, but whether he did or not, he was young man caught up in the excitement and victory of the “home team.”
His next published song came just a year later. “The Sharon Polka.” And like most 18-year-olds, the subject matter of this song was a little closer to his heart…
Lucky for him, there was no more hopping place in 1866 to scope out hot girls than good old Sharon Springs – right down the road from Canajoharie.
Sharon Springs was in its absolute heyday in the mid 1860’s, when Teddy was in his late teens. Over 12 grand spa hotels had been recently built around the springs, and every summer day was filled with music, parties & gatherings. In 1864, a guest at the Pavillon Hotel wrote: “This house never commenced a season with a greater number of guests, nor composed a more highly respectable and interesting company. Gentlemen of intelligence, ladies of refinement, young ladies of beauty, young men of aspiring hopes…are all present.
In the summer of 1866, Teddy probably was one of those “young men of aspiring hopes.” He may have worked in one of the grand hotels. Or he may have just come for evening dances. It’s easy to imagine this Canajoharie country boy developing summer crushes on one – or maybe more – of the refined, sophisticated New York City young women visiting the spas.
Like countless young men throughout history, he probably figured he could win over their hearts by penning a song about them. Hence: “The Sharon Polka,” which is dedicated to “the ladies of Sharon Springs.” It was published by J.H. Hidley’s – a venerable piano, organ, and music store in the big city of Albany. This was the big time.
It must have been pretty exciting. A published musician at 18! And this wasn’t a stuffy opera or symphony…this was parlor music. Which, if it had gotten really popular, would’ve been like hitting the pop charts today. He could’ve been the 1860’s version of Justin Bieber.
But it didn’t pan out. The Sharon Springs Polka never caught on in a big way. The ladies of Sharon Springs and the rest of the country did not become crazed Teddy Clark Beliebers. However fun it may be, The Sharon Polka…by any measure…was and is not a major contribution to the music world.
After the publication of “The Sharon Springs Polka” we can’t find many more recorded facts about Theodore C. Clark. An early 1880’s local newspaper mentions that he was playing the organ at the Canajoharie Methodist Church. An 1874 jury roll call lists his occupation as “lumberman.” In 1918 we find record of a World War I novelty patriotic song entitled “The Starry Banner” self-published by a Mr. Clark of “20 Otsego St in Canajoharie.” He would’ve been 70 years old. The very last mention of Theodore we found is in the 1920 Amsterdam Evening Recorder, which briefly notes that a Theodore C and Mary Clark were moved to a new home.Theodore C. Clark died on Wednesday, November 6, 1929.
His obituary was published in The Morning Herald on Friday, November 8, 1929 on page 5. The headline reads:
“Old Resident Passes Away at Age of 82.”
We could take away a rather sober lesson from Theodore C Clark’s life. We could feel bittersweet about the fleeting fabulousness of our own youth, which is inevitably replaced by the less glamorous realities of making a living and growing old.
We all feel some pangs about slipping into the latter half of life. Of feeling a bit irrelevant. Of becoming somewhat boring and predictable. And a little invisible. We all start to wonder what our legacy will be. Or if we’ll even have one.
Which is, to us, is the real lesson we can learn from this 150-year-old piece of sheet music.
Who would’ve imagined that nearly 150 years after Theodore C Clark wrote his rather inconsequential teen-age parlor ditty, trying to woo the women of Sharon Springs that it would be turned into a full-fledged concert piece!
Maybe the real secret of living forever isn’t reserved for those who do great and awesome things. It’s not only for those who have books written about them and statues erected on town squares. This resurrection of “The Sharon Polka’ shows that we can all make our mark on the future. The secret to living forever is simply to create something. A song. A recipe. A quilt. A chair. A poem. Just make something.
It doesn’t have to be great. Or world-changing. It just has to exist.
Because, who knows? 150 years from now, someone might spot something you created in the corner of a hologram on their iPhone 7900 and bring it back to life for others to enjoy and learn from.
So let’s all give a big round of applause to to Theodore C Clark of 20 Otsego Street in Canajoharie, NY…who might not have lived happily ever after with the Sharon Springs girl of his dreams, but he lives on nonetheless.