1877 : Hughie Cannon Born, Ragtime Pianist

April 9, 2019 all-day

Hugo (Hughie) Cannon was born in Detroit, Michigan, to actors John S. Cannon and May Brown on April 9, 1877, some seven months after their Illinois marriage.

Beginning around 1901, Cannon’s story was closely tied with Jackson, Michigan, about 80 miles due west of downtown Detroit. There he quickly gained a reputation as a likable and stellar ragtime pianist. Jackson was considered to be a rather rough railroad town, and was sometimes referred to as “Little Chicago.” The Michigan Central Railroad kept one of their major satellite repair shops there, and an average of 3,000 railroad employees either lived or lodged around Jackson at any one time. The 1900 City Directory lists 75 saloons around the downtown area, so there were plenty of opportunities for Hughie to play, and to drink his wages.

Hughie was remembered in a 1960s newspaper article by one Jackson citizen: “He will be out on the street singing after the saloon is closed and probably be in jail before morning. During the night, he will write a song and the music for it. What a gift!”
One saloon in particular has often been identified as the one where Cannon’s most enduring song was born, a male-only establishment where Hughie played piano. It is usually identified as Conrad Diedrich’s saloon at 213 E. Main St. (which is now East Michigan Avenue, the main drag through town). This same place was written up in a 1973 feature in a Detroit paper. Writer James Treloar gave a lurid and colorful word picture of Diedrich’s: “Men could get beer for 5 cents a pint, bar whiskey right out of the barrel for 10 cents, listen to a drifter named Hugh Cannon pound the piano keys, and later on begin eyeing the bawdy house upstairs over the grocery across the street.”
Willard Bailey, the real inspiration for Hughie’s famous song, with his wife Sarah around 1900.
willard and sarah bailey, the inspiration for bill bailey
Won’t Y0u Come Home, Bill Bailey
Upon his settling in Jackson, Hughie became friends with a local musician and Jackson native, Willard Godfrey Bailey. His parents ran a photographic outfit in Jackson,and Willard, a.k.a. Bill, taught music by day and played trombone and some piano in the saloons by night. The 1900 census had Willard listed as a piano teacher in Jackson. He had married Sarah Siegrist on June 26, 1894. Their happy union seemed quite solid – for perhaps less than a year. Bill enjoyed staying out often, and, as Sarah Siegrist Bailey Williams noted in 1973 at age 100, he “was my sweetheart, but he was everybody else’s too. He lied to me all the time, but I was too young to understand much then. I was [just] a country girl.” It was probably after Bill and Hughie had discussed enough incidents concerning his understandably indignant wife that Hughie used their situation as a template for his iconic Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home. It was reportedly penned at one of Cannon’s favorite New York City hangouts, one that many musicians frequented, Kid McCoy’s Saloon at the corner of 40th street and Broadway. Cannon later maintained that the song was meant to be a joke, one that Sarah Bailey never quite grasped. She later acknowledged that the music was fine, but the words were what “lowered him.”
Originally written in 1902, Bill Bailey has been in print one way or another since its first publication, including in song books, fake books, nostalgia books, band and orchestra arrangements, and even electronic download form. It has been recorded well over 1000 times by artists ranging from Louis Armstrong to Bobby Darin, and hardly a jazz or ragtime festival goes by without at least a few performances of Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home. It is one of the most recognizable tunes of the ragtime era, even by the youth of the 21st century, and remains one of the top sellers from that decade.
And what of his most famous character? Willard Bailey managed a music store in Jackson through 1908 or so. At that point he abandoned Jackson for California and Sarah went with him, in spite of their now famous and questionable marriage. He played in orchestras and taught music for several more years, but also reportedly continued his philandering. Bill Bailey was finally kicked out for good in the mid-1910s when Sarah divorced him. She then returned to Jackson and eventually married a local farmer. In the 1920 census Willard Bailey is shown as a salesman for a music store in Los Angeles, California, living with his daughter Frances and an aunt, and in 1930 at age 60 he was working in advertising. The two Baileys still appear to have remained on friendly terms through his California death in April 1954. Sarah said she finally got used to the joking about her status as Mrs. Bailey, which apparently continued until she died in a nursing home at 104 in 1978. Both of them and their creator live on more than a century later thanks to that famous ragtime song.
More about Hughie Cannon
Another one of Cannon’s long-lasting hits is “Frankie and Johnny“, published in 1904.

Hugh Cannon in Poorhouse 1910.jpg

Unfortunately Hughie Cannon became an alcoholic very young in life and was a very poor businessman, either selling or losing the rights to his many songs, and died destitute at the age of 35 in Toledo, Ohio.
Hugo “Hughie” Cannon entry, RagPiano.com
G. L. Blanchard, The Man Who Traded His Wife for Woodworking Tools : And Other True Stories of 19th Century Jackson, Michigan, 2010.