Project Sunrise

Dear one, the world, is waiting for the sunrise.
Ev’ry rose is heavy with dew.
The thrush on high, his sleepy mate is calling.
And my heart is calling you.
The World is Waiting for the Sunrise

Don’t tell Jack Hutton you can’t remember the song, The World is Waiting for the Sunrise. If there’s a piano handy, he’ll sit down and play it – and you’ll blush with embarrassment. Of course you remember the tune – the melody is etched in your subconscious.

In terms of longevity and enduring appeal, it’s probably the most popular tune ever written in Canada, but you won’t find many people who know the name of the composer, Ernest Seitz (pronounced Sytes).

That obscurity is about to change, thanks to a tenacious old reporter and ragtime pianist from Bala, Ont., who was once told a book about one song would never sell. But Jack Hutton never listens to experts. After a 20-year ordeal, he’s finally publishing the Sunrise book anyway, along with a companion CD that authentically recreates the music of Seitz’s era. Hutton’s obsession with Sunrise is a story in itself. Carrying the project toompletion, Hutton had to battle grief and guilt before he’d see the sunrise in his own life.

But let’s begin at the beginning. Back in 1979, Hutton was a ragtime pianist, formerly a reporter with the Toronto Telegram, but currently working for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation. He’d been writing about the music of Eubie Blake and Fats Waller when he heard that one of entertainment’s icons, Oscar Peterson, was releasing a version of The World is Waiting for the Sunrise. This, in itself, wasn’t extraordinary.

The song had taken on a life of its own since Seitz composed it back in 1916. It was first recorded as a melancholy lament by a tenor named John Steele after World War I. Then a Pittsburgh dance band picked up the tempo and the song became a hit. Benny Goodman gave it a jazz twist before it became Luigi Romanelli’s signature tune on the airwaves during World War II. It re-emerged in the 1950s as a bright, bubbly piece for the new multi-track electric guitar work of Les Paul and his wife, singer Mary Ford.

No, it wasn’t the fact that Oscar Peterson was recording the piece that surprised Hutton, it was the fact Peterson didn’t know it was composed by a Canadian, and a Torontonian at that. When Hutton went to the Royal Conservatory of Music to inquire about another piece of Seitz’s music, the receptionist had no record of him in her files. Hutton was shocked. Seitz had, after all, been a teacher and principal at the conservatory.

Terrier-like, Hutton bit into the story and unearthed enough information about the song and its creators to discover that he had more than a feature article – he had a book. He was particularly mystified by the fact that the very first sheet music of Sunrise identified the composer as one Raymond Roberts.

Seitz, a prodigy in the Canadian music scene, was just about to launch a career in classical music in Europe when World War I erupted. Stuck in Toronto, he took a job with his old pal Eugene Lockhart (also from Toronto). Lockhart had been commissioned by Thomas Edison to do a play in New York and he needed some tunes. He took Seitz’s melody, added his lyrics and the name: The World is Waiting for the Sunrise. But Seitz had just taken a job at the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory of Music). “He thought they would be very upset if they knew he was writing frothy, light, popular music,” Hutton says. So he used a pseudonym, Raymond Roberts.

By 1923, when the song was a success, Seitz made sure his name was prominently displayed on the sheet music. “It started earning royalties right away,” Hutton says. “When I started digging into this, I found that in 1979 and 1980, it was still earning the Seitz estate about $15,000 a year in royalties.”

While the song was gaining world-wide popularity, Seitz became a celebrated concert pianist – “the best in Canada for many years,” Hutton says. But curiously, Seitz never played the song in public. “I never have and I never will,” he told reporter Gordon Sinclair back in 1931. “I’m convinced it has no place whatever on a concert program for piano and I, after all, am a pianist, not a songwriter.”

Seitz died in Toronto in 1978, a year before Hutton began his research. But he learned that Seitz’s widow, Claire, lived just around the corner from him in Toronto, so he and his wife Cindy (a reporter with The Globe and Mail) went to see her. The book project captivated Claire Seitz who opened her heart and home to Hutton as the research progressed.

The only surviving relative on Seitz’s old friend Lockhart’s side was actress June Lockhart, of Lassie and Lost in Space fame. Hutton contacted her through the Screen Actors’ Guild and they eventually met in Toronto, where they went over Hutton’s research notes.

Prior to the planned Christmas launch of the book, Hutton’s book editor took him to lunch and gave him the bad news. One of his colleagues had asked: “Would a book about one tune sell?” “The publisher got cold feet,” Hutton says. “When the editor told me it wasn’t economical, I thought, that’s it.” He then asked Hutton if he’d change the book into a history of Canadian music. “But with my full-time job, I couldn’t. So I gave it up.” At this time, Jack still worked for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation. “Mrs. Seitz was very upset,” he recalls. “I felt badly about that. One night she said: “Will you ever finish this book?” and she burst into tears.” She died a year and a half later.

Jack Hutton promised himself he’d return to the book after he retired. Then the music went out of his life.

In 1988, he and Cindy had returned from dinner. She wasn’t feeling well and went upstairs to have a bath. Jack went into the back room and played the piano. “I could hear her being sick. I called up and asked if she was all right. A couple of minutes later I heard a thump and she’d fallen with a massive coronary. She was gone in three seconds.”

The guilt consumed Hutton. “I asked myself: “Why was I playing that stupid piano? Why wasn’t I there? Why? Why didn’t I recognize the signs of a heart attack?” I couldn’t play the piano for weeks. I couldn’t play seriously for a year.”

He sought solace at his cottage in Bala, on Lake Muskoka, where he began attending church. “I’d never gone to church, never, except for weddings and funerals. I listened very closely to the hymns.” One day, while out for a canoe ride, he met Linda Jackson on the end of her dock and recognized her as a member of the church. Stopping to chat, he found they had much in common, including grief. Jack had lost his wife, Linda had lost her parents. The two married the following year.

“The next thing I knew I was pianist/organist for the church. It was the church, and Linda, that brought me back into playing,” Hutton says. Shortly after that he was offered a chance to perform at an international festival by people who remembered him from the Ragtime Society. “I had to practice for six months. The crazy thing was that I could do things I couldn’t do before. My playing had improved.”

Indeed, it has. He follows the stride piano style, characterized by a strong left hand with an independent right hand that joyously creates figures of its own on top of the beat. He’s much in demand on the ragtime circuit. He’s been a star attraction at the Seniors Jubilee Concerts at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, where two years ago he was awarded the Pauline McGibbon Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award. This April, he was one of the select few invited to the Grand International Ragtime Jasstime Festival at Alexandria Bay, New York.

Hutton’s return to the musical arena was coupled with another project which sparked his determination to publish the Sunrise book. Jack and Linda spent their honeymoon in Prince Edward Island, soaking up the history of Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables. When they discovered Montgomery had vacationed in Bala and used the locale as the basis for her book, The Blue Castle, they could see destiny playing a hand in their lives. They bought the Bala house where Montgomery stayed and turned it into a museum. Last year they published a book about their adventure. “We discovered you can write a book and it can pay for itself,” Hutton says trumphantly.

With the Sunrise book, people will finally learn the story of the song that became a symbol of hope for so many people, Hutton included. “The song’s title has had poignant meaning not only in the war years, but in my own life,” Hutton says. “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise is proof that I have come back around.”

Listening to Seitz playing The World is Waiting for the Sunrise on a scratchy 78 record inspired Hutton to do a CD with two of Seitz’s compositions. “I tried to play them the way Seitz did,” he says. In addition, he’s recorded a selection of tunes to give listeners a flavour of what was around at that time. By painstakingly scrounging through his vast collection of sheet music, Hutton has found the original scores of these songs. “I’m doing them the way they did in 1909. This is not just music. This is history.”

Hutton expects the book to be published in the spring of 2000. The CD is available now from the Bala Museum, Box 14, Bala Ontario, P0C 1A0.