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Inspired by reports of a ghost of a man roaming the stairs of a haunted house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada, the poem 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.
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...
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. In 2005 the Christian heavy metal band Nodes of Ranvier featured the first verse of "Antigonish" in their instrumental song "Novocain For No Reason". The first verse is also used in the Billy Bragg song "Goalhanger" on his 1996 "William Bloke" album.
Mearns' "Antigonish" has been used numerous times in popular culture, often with slight variations in the lines. Versions are frequently featured in modern entertainment:
The Swedish Depressive Suicidal Black Metal band Shining used the first four sentences as an intro to their song "Ytterligare Ett Steg Närmare Total Jävla Utfrysning" the first track from their 2005 album V: Halmstad. In 1971, on their eponymous album, the Danish band "Midnight Sun" (A.K.A. "The Rainbow Band") released the song "Nobody" which has as its lyrics the first verse of the poem. In 2005, the U.S. American aggrotech band Psyclon Nine featured a sample of the poem in the song "The Unfortunate" from their album INRI. In 2005, the U.S. Christian metal band Nodes of Ranvier includes lines from this poem in the song, "Novocain For No Reason". The poem is also sampled in the EBM song "Recognition" by The Parallel Project.
We passed upon the stair
We spoke of was and when
Although I wasn't there
He said I was his friend...
...furthermore, in an example of meme, pop band Visage (a legacy of David Bowie) depict in their music video clip "Mind of a Toy" - a nighttime meeting/passing upon a staircase with a little man who fades away.
The poem is referenced in OTEP's song "Communion" from their 2007 album The Ascension, and Chino XL's song "Skin" from the album Poison Pen. The psy-trance band Xerox and Illumination used an excerpt from the poem in the song "Paranoia" from their album XI.
Imperial Vengeance's 2011 album Black Heart of Empire featured a song entitled "Upon the Stair", inspired by the poem.
Nuit quoted the poem in their song "Nobody There" on the 2000 album Mother Night.
There was a man upon the stair
When I looked back, he wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
I think he's from the CIA.
A version appeared in March 2008 that played on the contrast between UK Prime Ministers Tony Blair (1997–2007) and Gordon Brown (2007-2010). Allegedly it was composed by a minister in the Labour government.
In Downing Street upon the stair
I met a man who wasn't Blair.
He wasn't Blair again today.
Oh how I wish he'd go away.
...Upon the stair,
I met a man who was not there...
He was not there again today,
I wish to gosh he'd go away.
In a dissent in the 2008 United States Supreme Court case Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, Justice David Souter referenced the poem when he noted that, "The State responds to the want of evidence with the assertion that in-person voter impersonation fraud is hard to detect. But this is like saying the 'man who wasn't there' is hard to spot".