"The world has literally sung my song until every heart is familiar with its melody, yet I have been a wanderer from my boyhood."
- From the Diary of John Howard Payne
John Howard Payne was born in East Hampton, Long Island, NY on June 9, 1791. He was the son of William Payne, of an old Massachusetts family, and Sarah Isaacs of East Hampton, the sixth son of nine children.
Payne's father was a successful teacher of elocution. He came to East Hampton to teach at Clinton Academy, the third oldest school in New York State. He trained John Howard in diction and delivery and at the age of 14, John Howard worked as a clerk in a counting house where hi edited the weekly journal Thespian Mirror. He entered Union College 1806 and published 25 numbers of periodicals called “The Pastime.”
Payne left college in 1808. The stage held its lure for Payne and he made his debut as an actor on February 24, 1809 at the Park Theatre in New York. Praises of his beauty and genius filled the newspapers and Payne was invited to perform in various roles in Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
In June of 1813, Payne went to England and was the first American actor to invade the British stage. A contemporary noted of Payne’s appearance: "Nature bestowed upon him a countenance of no common order, and though there was a roundness and fairness which but faintly express strong turbulent emotions or display the furious passions, these defects were supplied by an eye which glowed with animation and intelligence. A more extraordinary mixture of softness and intelligence were never associated in a human countenance, and his face was a true index of his heart."
While living in London and Paris, Payne began writing dramas. He also contributed to several operas, in particular, produced by Sir Henry Bishop entitled Clari, the Maid of Milan. This opera included the Payne’s composition “Home, Sweet Home”, written in 1822 and first sung in Covent Garden, England in 1823After the popularity of the song spread throughout the world and Bishop claimed that in editing the song for Clari he created new music for Payne’s lyrics. This was recognized both popularly and officially and Payne never did receive royalties for his contribution to the song.
In 1832, Payne returned to the United States and in 1841 was appointed as American Consul to Tunis, Africa in the last years of his life. He died in Tunis on April 10, 1852.
The melancholy composition Payne is most remembered for, often called “the greatest home song of all time,” reflects the homelessness Payne felt after losing his mother at the age of 13 and his father soon after. As Payne wrote in a letter to C.E. Clark (approximately 1850): “Surely there is something strange in the fact that it should have been my lot to cause so many people in the world to boast of the delights of home, when I never had a home of my own, and ever expect to have one now - especially since those here at Washington who possess the power seem so reluctant to allow me the means of earning one!”
“Home Sweet Home” has been was documented as the 34th most recorded song from 1890-1854. It remains today one of the great enduring standards of all time.