“The Fayetteville Polka” was written by Austrian immigrant Ferdinand Zellner in honor of his adopted hometown of Fayetteville (Washington County). It was accepted for publication in 1856, becoming what is said to be the first published piece of sheet music by an Arkansan.
Ferdinand Zellner came to the United States in 1850, when the showman P. T. Barnum brought Swedish soprano Jenny Lind from Europe to the United States on a concert tour that ran through 1852. Called the “Swedish Nightingale,” she was one of the greatest coloratura sopranos of the nineteenth century, possessing a voice of outstanding range and quality. Zellner, a young Austrian violinist, accompanied her on her prestigious U.S. tour.
At the end of Lind’s U.S. tour in 1852, she returned to Europe, but Zellner stayed in Arkansas. By 1854, he was professor of music at Sophia Sawyer’s Fayetteville Female Seminary. In her journal, Marian Tebbetts of Fayetteville, a student at the time, noted that while he was so educated in music as to have been Lind’s violinist, he could not sing. Therefore, he concentrated on teaching, performing on the violin, and writing music.
In 1856, Zellner traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, and visited the noted musical publishing house Balmer and Weber. That year, Balmer and Weber published his composition, “The Fayetteville Polka,” written in honor of his adopted town. The lively three-part polka was dedicated to Katy Smith, a student at Sawyer’s school who came from a prominent local family. According to the Old State House Museum in Little Rock (Pulaski County), “The Fayetteville Polka” was the first piece of sheet music by an Arkansan to be published.
The song was well received at the time of its publication and is still performed by regional musicians at events sponsored by the Washington County Historical Society and other local organizations. It was the theme song for the play Second to None, which was presented at the Walton Arts Center in 1999.
For additional information:
Allison, Charlie. “Ferdinand Zellner: Fayetteville’s First Composer.” Flashback 62 (Spring 2012): 3–26.
Banes, Marian Tebbetts. The Journal of Marian Tebbetts Banes. Fayetteville, AR: Washington County Historical Society, 1977.
Campbell, William S. One Hundred Years of Fayetteville 1828–1928. Fayetteville, AR: Washington County Historical Society, 1977.
Arkansas State University
Last Updated: 04/19/2019