Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door…
Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…
Inspired by reports of a ghost of a man roaming the stairs of a haunted house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada, the poem Antigonish (also known as The Little Man Who Wasn’t There) was originally part of a play called The Psyco-ed which Mearns had written for an English class at Harvard University about 1899. In 1910, Mearns put on the play with the Plays and Players, an amateur theatrical group and, on 27 March 1922, newspaper columnist FPA printed the poem in The Conning Tower, his column in the New York World.
In 1939, Antigonish was adapted as a popular song titled The Little Man Who Wasn’t There by Harold Adamson with music by Bernie Hanighen, both of whom received the songwriting credits. A 12 July 1939 recording of the song by the Glenn Miller Orchestra with vocals by Tex Beneke became an 11-week hit on Your Hit Parade reaching #7. Other versions were recorded by Larry Clinton & His Orchestra with vocals by Ford Leary, Bob Crosby & His Orchestra with vocals by Teddy Grace, Jack Teagarden & His Orchestra with vocals by Teagarden, and Mildred Bailey. Mearns ‘ Antigonish has been used numerous times in popular culture, including Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998) often with slight variations in the lines.
Similar lyrics can be heard in the song The Man Who Sold the World by David Bowie:
“We passed upon the stair
We spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there
He said I was his friend…”