Sunday, April 21, 2019

Here Comes Peter Cottontail!

HappyEaster, friends!

It is a glorious day, is it not? Cold and wet and threatening rain, but still the air seems filled with hope and promise.

I've written often about my childhood memories of Easter, for it was truly special for its religious significance as much as for the candy and eggs. And then, there was The Song. Not one of the hymns, though I will admit that I loved the Easter hymns with their joyous refrains.

The song I'm talking about here is one almost every child knows, and most have probably seen the TV movie of the same name: Here Comes Peter Cottontail.

It was only recently I learned that this iconic song was written by a native West Virginian, Jack Rollins. Jack was born in Keyser, West Virginia, and his life started out on a hard trail. His mother became blind when he was just a child. Little mention is made in any biographical articles about Rollins' father Francis but in census records he is reported as a driver for a feedstore in 1920. There were quite a few children in the family--at least 8, according to Ancestry.com. It also looks like Jack (real name Walter E.) might have had a twin as records show another son born to Bessie and Francis Collins in 1906, but this could have been a clerical error, as the date of Jack Rollins' birth is reported as both 1905 and 1906, and there does not seem to have been a birth certificate recorded for him. Children came frequently in this family, with five born within six years.

Jack was a writer even as a child, and his mother encouraged him. He did what he could to help the family finances, selling magazines door to door and delivering newspapers, but he took time to read his poetry to his mother, who suggested that some of his poems could be put to music.

The family seems to have moved just over the state line into Pennsylvania right around the time of Jack's birth, because although Jack himself said he was born in Keyser, West Virginia, official records give his birth place as Pennsylvania. He worked for a while in a glass factory and traveled with a carnival too. Jack married young and was a father by the time he was 18 years old. He eventually moved to New York City and by 1940 was working as a shipping clerk for a wholesale bakery. He left that position to become a baggage handler for the railroad but after an argument with a rail passenger he quit his job to work asa freelance writer. Eventually he joined a New York publishing company, in 1948.

Jack and his wife struggled financially as he pursued his dream, but Lady Luck came his way when he hooked up with musician Steve Nelson and the two of them collaborated to produce Jack's first hit, Here Comes Peter Cottontail, in 1949. 



The song, first recorded by Mervin Price and later by Gene Autry, sold over a million copies and Jack began to devote full time to his songwriting. Rollins' song is credited with giving the "official" name "Peter Cottontail" to the Easter Bunny. Collins and Nelson followed up on this hit with the possibly even more popular "Frosty the Snowman" in 1950.



Rollins wrote over 500 songs in his career; another popular children's song was "Smoky the Bear", but he also wrote hit songs for many recording artists. He died on New Years Day 1973, and came home to West Virginia to be buried at the Queen's Point Cemetery in Keyser.

I am glad Jack Rollins, who started life with hardship and yet with hope, lived to see the enduring legacy his music left behind. Here's to you, Mr. Rollins, a big thank you from all the generations of children who have known and loved your songs!

Sources:

Ancestry.com
WV Encyclopedia
WV Public Broadcasting
WV Explorer
Wikipedia
WV Music Hall of Fame

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed . without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

3 comments:

At Rivercrest Cottage said...

Thanks to you for this very interesting story of Jack Rollins. Amazing he wrote all three of the best children's songs!

Quinn said...

I can still sing the Smokey The Bear song.
I wish there was a market for some of my "talents"!

Brig said...

Peter Cottontail was one of the first songs I learned on the piano. Thanks for the story behind it.

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