published as a Bob Nolan song in
Bob Nolan's Folio of Original Cowboy Classics
No. 2, p. 46, is the slightly revised version of "The Heavenly Aeroplane" by J. S. McConnell © 1928 (p. 28 of Gospel Quintet Songs, Thoro Harris.) Thanks to research by a reader, we have discovered
sheet music for the original.
The rest of the story.
Bob Nolan's lyrics:
One of these nights about twelve o’clock,
This ol’ world’s gonna reel and rock.
Sinners will tremble and cry with pain
And the Lord will come and get us in His aeroplane.
Oh, ye weary of every tribe,
Get yo’ ticket for an aer’plane ride.
I see the Lord, He’s a comin’ for to reign
And take us all to glory in His aeroplane.
You may talk about an aut’mobile,
The lightning speed of the motor’s wheel;
We’ll break all records as we upward fly
In the aeroplane joy ride thru the sky.
There’ll be no punctures on a muddy road,
No broken wheels from the overload,
No sparks to trouble or cause delay
As we soar in rapture on the milky way.
Gotta get ready if you take this ride,
Quit all yo’ meanness and humble yo’ pride,
Furnish a life both bright and clean
And a good grade of oil for the flyin’ machine.
The Heavenly Aeroplane
One of these nights just at twelve o'clock
This old world's gwin ter reel and rock;
Poor sinners will tremble and cry for pain,
And the Lord will come in His aeroplane.
Ho, ye weary of ev'ry tribe,
Get your ticket for this aeroplane ride.
Jesus our Savior is coming to reign,
And take us up to glory in His heav'nly aeroplane.
You may talk of your rides in your automobiles,
Of lightning speed on your motor wheels;
We'll break all records as up we fly
In an aeroplane joyride thru the sky.
There will be no punctures on muddy roads,
No broken axels from overloads,
No sparks to trouble or cause delay
As we soar in rapture up the Milky Way.
You must needs get ready if you take this ride.
Quit all your meanness and humble your pride;
You must furnish a light both bright and clean
And a vessel of oil to run the machine.
When our journey's done and we all sit down
At the marriage feast, with a golden crown,
We'll blend our voices with the ransomed throng
And repeat His praises as years roll on.
Words and music by J. S.
McConnell, songbook copyright in 1928 by Thoro Harris. (Thanks to Dale Guest
for lyrics and sheet music.)
melody and words are slightly different. Interestingly, it is Bob Nolan's words
and melody that have survived and are used by current artists.
The Heavenly Aeroplane (midi file of the original McConnell tune thanks to
Heavenly Aeroplane (Sons of the Pioneers, 1934,
Standard Transcription #1680))
Heavenly Aeroplane (Bob's tune played by J. E. Mainer & The Mountaineers)
The question of copyright:
In a telephone conversation with John McConnell, son of J. S. McConnell,
Elizabeth Drake McDonald discovered that the composer never did copyright any of
his compositions. His son was unable to explain the presence of the song in the
Thoro Harris hymnbook although he knew Thoro was a friend of his father's.
In other words, American Music may have considered the original "The Heavenly
Aeroplane" to be in the Public Domain when they placed the Nolan arrangement in
Bob Nolan's Song Folio No. 2 in 1940.
Was Bob Nolan aware he was
modifying copyrighted material? Very likely not. We consulted two respected music
historians for their opinions.
1. Here is
Laurence Zwisohn's take on it:
Bob was very particular about his songs being
original. You know the story of why he initially turned down Riders in the Sky.
However, Bob wasn’t averse to making modifications to existing songs. As a
matter of fact Lloyd [Perryman] told me he was convinced one of the verses to
How Great Thou Art had been written by Bob.
My suspicion is that something like this transpired:
The Pioneers recorded Heavenly Airplane for Vocalion in October 1937. On
February 16, 1938 American Music copyrighted 8 of Bob’s songs including Heavenly
Airplane. I haven’t checked but this might have been for one of the song folios.
It appears that American never copyrighted Bob’s songs until either a recording
was released (saving on the registration fee) or they were planning to publish
copies of the song. I don’t think Tim had any involvement in this whatsoever. He
and Bob were signed to American Music but American ran their own business.
As to whether copyrighting the song was legal: The 1928 copyright may not have
been known to American. They didn’t have computers then and it was difficult to
find out what was copyrighted. My guess is they knew the Pioneers had recorded
the song for Vocalion and (perhaps) needing songs to fill out the folio they
copyrighted Heavenly Airplane.
It is legal to copyright arrangements of traditional songs. By law you’re
supposed to make some changes to the song but it’s impossible for copyright
offices to keep track of such things so, all too often, artists copyright their
“arrangement” of a Public Domain song even though they haven’t changed a thing.
I doubt Bob had any knowledge of the copyrighting of the song. He changed it to
suit the Pioneers. Did he know there was a legitimate copyright in existence? It
didn’t matter to him. The real test would be to check the Vocalion record and
see if they listed a writer. If not then Bob thought it was PD. However, since
it wasn’t released until some considerable time after it was recorded it might
have his name listed since, by that time, American Music had copyrighted it.
Should American have known there was a preexisting copyright? Logic says that a
song about an airplane can’t have been traditional in 1938 when Wilbur and
Orville didn't get up into the air until 1903.
The title of the Lem Giles song ("I Wonder if She
Waits for Me Tonight") clearly shows that Bob did a major rewrite on it
as opposed to the slight revision on Heavenly Airplane. Copyrighting
the revised version made sense since he made major changes.
Copyrighting the slight revision of Airplane just doesn't sound like
something Bob would have approved of. I don’t see Choir Boy listed by
either ASCAP or BMI and Lem Giles isn’t listed as a writer with either
I seem to recall Lloyd
mentioning that Bob liked one of Lem's songs and wanted to rewrite
it. As I recall the song turned out to be "Wendin'
My Way To Wyomin'".
Lawrence Hopper observed:
don't know that Bob had the songbook in which it was published. Tim may have had
a standard arrangement of the song in his possession as part of his music
business activities and if there was no date or publisher info on that sheet it
is possible Bob took it to be a PD work.
It is interesting to note also that no one who was familiar with the original
O'Connell version ever heard Bob's recording or the Sons of the Pioneers perform
the song anywhere.
It is also interesting that the people who screen songs at the copyright office
did not check it against all song titles in their records A) When Bob sent it
for copyright, and B) When O'Connell registered a copyright renewal in 1957, if
they registered a renewal. If they didn't it is now in the Public Domain and
Bob's version is safe having been renewed in 1965 for the original sheet music
and in 1967 for the renewal on the Bob Nolan Songbook No. 2.
Note that there were NOT enough changes to the song (dialect spellings don't
count) because it is obvious from a quick cursory examination that they are the
Typed copy of the lyrics from the
story behind the original "The Heavenly Aeroplane" according to John McConnell,
J S McConnell's son:
Evangelist, John Saunders McConnell (1892-1966) was born in Seattle, WA. His
father was a Rev. T. W. McConnell who came to Oregon with the first pioneers.
He wrote the song when airplanes began to be seen in the skies and he taught it
to his children. He had a large family and they loved to join in with him
singing the lively tune.
was about five years old when his father wrote the song and airplanes were still
a source of wonder. The child had heard of them and looked at pictures of them
but he had never seen a real airplane.
In 1920 in Walla Walla, WA,
young John was playing in
the yard when he saw his first airplane in the sky. He ran into the house
shouting, "Mommy come quick! Jesus is here!"
Interestingly, J. S. McConnell did not register any of his compositions for
copyright. He was content with writing them. (John McConnell, March 8, 2010)