Note: This column corrects details of the timeline included at the end of last week’s column. Zo Elliott didn’t abandon his law studies quite as soon as was indicated.
AFTER GRADUATING from Yale University in the spring of 1913, Alonzo “Zo” Elliott of Manchester moved to Cambridge, England, where he began graduate studies at the University of Cambridge.
He brought with him the manuscript to “There’s a Long, Long Trail,” a sentimental song that he had composed. His Yale classmate and friend Stoddard King had written the poetic lyrics to the piece, which had been a surprise hit at its premier at a fraternity gathering in Boston earlier that year. It seemed that the song could have popular appeal, but when Stoddard had shopped it around to music publishers in New York City, he couldn’t stir up any interest.
In late 1913 a London publisher, with financial backing from Zo’s mother Medora Elliott, took a chance on publishing the song. This touching piece of music seemed to have arrived at the perfect time to provide expression to the deep emotions of a people who saw that a terrible war was on the horizon.
The music sold well, and within a short time it seemed that everyone in London and beyond was singing “There’s a Long, Long Trail.”
Great Britain entered the war in August 1914. The Great War (World War I), would last until November 1918, and throughout the terrible years of loss and uncertainty, Zo and Stoddard’s sweet song would boost the spirits of English-speaking soldiers everywhere.
Zo returned to the U.S. in August 1914. Later that year he entered Columbia Law School in New York City. It appears that Zo’s months at Columbia may not have been the happiest time of his life, as he likely was not committed to pursuing a career in law.
Soon after the U.S. entered the war in April 1917 Zo received a $10,000 royalty payment from his London publisher (equivalent to around $250,000 today). Restless due to the war situation, and now with a small fortune of his own, Zo stopped attending classes, and went on a shopping spree. A few days later he took the train 300 miles north to Plattsburgh, N.Y., and enlisted in the U.S. Army at its Reserve Officers’ Training Camp there. His training as an officer candidate began on May 14, 1917.
While in camp, Zo discovered just how beloved his song had become among Americans. In a 1929 interview for The Granite Monthly magazine he recalled an experience while mustering with his fellow officer candidates: “I remember the remarkable sensation of hearing my tune start with the big fellows up front, pass through my own squad, reach the end of the column and then be taken up by the next company.”
But Zo’s dream of becoming a military officer was soon dashed: “It took the camp medicos five weeks to discover that I was not the perfect physical specimen they wanted lieutenants to represent.” He was discharged on June 27, 1917.
After this disappointing experience, Zo returned to New York City. One day he witnessed a group of Canadian soldiers parading down the street accompanied by the unit’s marching band. Zo loved band music, so he joined the crowd that was following the soldiers down the street. When the band broke out in a perfect march-step instrumental version of “There’s a Long, Long Trail” Zo was moved to tears.
On June 24, 1918, Zo Elliott enlisted in the Army in Manchester. He was satisfied to serve as a humble private, and was assigned to duty as a radio electrician student in the 30th Service Company Signal Corps. He wasn’t shipped overseas, but remained in the United States. He was stationed for at least part of his enlistment at Camp Vail in Eatontown, N.J. (later named Fort Monmouth which was closed in 2011).
Zo was promoted to corporal on Dec. 1, 1918, and was honorably discharged on Dec. 31. The commanding officer wrote in Zo’s enlistment record that Corporal Elliott was physically and mentally sound; that he was honest and faithful; and that he had been an excellent influence in helping to maintain morale.