George Frederick Root was born on August 30, 1820 in Sheffield, Massachusetts.
As a young boy growing up in Boston, Root was trained on the piano by George J. Webb. In 1845, he moved to New York City where he played the organ at the Church of the Strangers and taught music at the Abbott Institute for Young Ladies. That same year he met and married Mary Olive Woodman and the couple had six children, Frederick, Charles, Clara Louise, Arabella, May and Nellie.
As a respected musician, Root toured Europe in the year 1850. Returning to the states he began assisting Lowell Mason at Boston’s Academy of Music. Root began working as a songwriter for minstrel songs in 1851 under the pseudonym G. Friedrich Wurzel (a German word meaning “Root”). His first successful composition came in 1853 with “The Hazel Dell” and in 1855 another success was published with “Rosalie, The Prairie Flower.”
From 1853-1858, Root lived in New York collaborating with other songwriters such as Mary S. B. Dana (“Free As a Bird”), Frances Jane Crosby (“There’s Music in the Air”) and Rev. David Nelson (“The Shining Shore”). In 1959, he moved the family to Chicago to join his older brothers publishing company, Root & Cady.
Influenced by the Civil War, Root’s music shifted from popular standards to war songs. In 1863, he composed “The First Gun is Fired” and then in 1864 the anthem of the Civil War, “The Battle Cry of Freedom” was published. Other songs composed during this time: “Just Before the Battle, Mother”, “Just After the Battle”, “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp”, “On, On, On the Boys Came Marching” and “The Vacant Chair”.
Root continued working for Root & Cady after the war and in 1872, the University of Chicago awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Music. In his later life, he was instrumental in founding the New York Normal Institute dedicated to the training of music instructors.
George F. Root died on August 6, 1895 in Bailey Island, Maine. His greatest composition “The Battle Cry of Freedom” continues to inspire American patriots and has been acknowledged as one of the most great freedom songs of all time.