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Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Music defines the life of young Zo Elliott

October 29. 2018 12:21AM

Ernestine Schumann-Heink circa 1899. 

Alonzo Elliott, Jr. was born in Manchester in 1891 into a prosperous family. His ambitious father Alonzo Elliott, Sr., had made a living as a railroad ticket agent and telegraph operator for over two decades and then made a fortune through businesses dealings in various industries.

Alonzo, Jr., who became known simply as Zo (and not as a “Junior”), grew up with his three older sisters at Brookhurst, the Elliott family’s splendid estate on the east bank of the Merrimack River in Manchester’s north end.

In an unpublished 1947 memoir, Zo Elliott wrote that his mother Medora encouraged him to study music and to appreciate all of the arts. He relates that her favorite saying was “What a wonderful thing — to do something to leave the world. A beautiful song, a beautiful poem.” Zo wrote that, “under a rather sickly but happy childhood, the idea grew and still remains with me.”

Zo recalled the first important event in his musical development, “…one autumn day as I came down the drive to meet my mother, she said, ‘Your grandfather has made you a present of a ticket to come with us to hear Schumann-Heink sing at Mechanics Hall. Even though you do stay up beyond your bed time, you may do it.’”

This exciting family train trip to Worcester, Mass., likely took place during the last week of September 1900 when the famous Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861-1936) gave several performances in Mechanics Hall. The theatricality and virtuosity of this great German-Bohemian operatic singer was surely an eye-opener for little Zo Elliott, who would have been nine years old at the time.

As a little boy Zo liked to experiment on the family’s Steinway grand piano. He recalled that one day he and his sister Mildred were in their yard when they heard the sound in the distance of “an anvil struck by the smithy” in the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company millyard. Zo was thrilled when he found that he could imitate this sound on the piano. He soon began studying piano with local teachers, including Harry C. Whittemore, the organist for Grace Episcopal Church.

One summer Zo and his sisters composed a song together they named, “Tulips.” Calling themselves the Merrimack Publishing Company, they had copies of the score printed up which they hoped to sell.

When he was a young teenager, Zo was sent to St. Paul’s School in Concord to prepare for college. Leaving home for life in a boys’ boarding school was traumatic. He wrote in his memoir, “I was frightfully homesick, and played my heart out hours at a time when I could get to a piano. With the unaccustomed routine of school, the music seemed the only freedom I had.”

After a few months, as Zo was continuing his education at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., he and his sisters Laura and Mildred attempted to sell copies of “Tulips” to businesses in Lowell and Lawrence, Mass., and Nashua. They brought back only 74 cents for their efforts.

Soon Zo, then 17, experienced his first success as a composer. He wrote a snappy number for the school’s marching band, “The Phillipian March,” which he also dubbed “Cheer, cheer boys, cheer!”

The piece premiered on Nov. 7, 1908, at Andover’s home football game against its New Hampshire rival Phillips Exeter.

After Andover won the game, the band played the song over and over again during the triumphal victory parade through town. Zo’s father had come down from Manchester to share the thrilling day with his son, and Zo recalled that the march “was the last tune Father asked for as he lay in mortal illness at Brookhurst.” Alonzo Elliott, Sr. died Aug. 20, 1909, at the age of 60.

Zo Elliott entered the freshman class at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., in 1909. Among his classmates was the musical prodigy Cole Porter, who would go on to enjoy a brilliant career as a composer and lyricist in musical theatre. As Zo Elliott wrote in his memoir, “As Cole Porter was in my class, I was submerged musically as far as musical activities for the whole University were concerned.”

Next week: How Zo Elliott composed “There’s a Long, Long, Trail,” one of the most famous songs of World War I.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at or

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