Tear Jerkers in American Song, Part 1


Come Home Father


Music by: Henry Clay Work
Lyrics by: Work
Cover artist: Unknown


The quite plain cover of this work is not like most we feature at ParlorSongs. With little of interest to attract us on the outside, it is the music inside that is the treasure worth finding. Perhaps the first of the true tear jerker songs, this work is also perhaps the most dramatic and shocking. The pathetic story of a drunken father who won't come home to see a dying child despite the continuous pleas of another child is nothing short of horrific. As the father downs pint after pint and the child begs for the father to come home, the sick child dies and his final words are that he misses his father and wants to see him. It is certainly enough to bring tears to the eyes of most anyone and can make your hair stand. At the time, this song was a very successful and serious work by a respected and successful composer. Later, the overly melodramatic tone of the work was viewed as almost comedic and the song became the brunt of countless parodies. Work was a staunch supporter of temperance and wrote the song as a statement to help the cause. Unfortunately, the overly dramatic tone of the work ended up more a boomerang than a bullseye.


Henry Clay Work was born in 1832 in Middletown, CT and died in 1884 in Hartford. His family moved to Illinois when he was still a child and he was educated there. The family later returned to Connecticut and young Henry was apprenticed to a printer. He studied music and wrote verse on his own and soon began to write songs, both the music and lyrics. He was inspired by the Civil War to write Marching Through Georgia, Wake, Babylon is Falling and other songs of the war that became popular. During the 1870's he wrote a number of temperance songs that were popular. He also was known for sentimental songs such as The Ship That Never Returned and wrote the famous, My Grandfather's Clock (1876, his last successful song). A man of many talents, Work was also an inventor and patented a rotary engine, a knitting machine and a walking doll. He lost his personal fortune by investing in a fruit farm that failed and lived in New York before returning to Connecticut before his death.


His primary publishing associations were with Root and Cady. An interesting anecdote about his printer background is that he often composed by typesetting the music as he composed and completely bypassed the usual steps of a hand manuscript or even trying his music on the piano first! Considered a first rate melodist and his songs had a nearly universal appeal. Though Come Home Father is somber, and he was an intense supporter of causes, Work also had a playful side and his 1862, Grafted Into The Army was and still is a funny song and it has continued in the repertoire for over 100 years. Much of his music stands on its own against that of Stephen Foster and though less well known today, Work is probably one of only a few of the truly original American popular song composers to invent American popular music style and who influenced the following generations of songwriters.

Enjoy this early tear jerker now (SCORCH format)

listen to MIDI version


After The Ball


Music by: After The Ball
Lyrics by: Charles K. Harris
Cover artist: unknown


Though Come Home, Father may have been one of the first of the true American tear jerkers, it was After The Ball and Charles K. Harris that set the stage for the modern era of popular songs about sadness. After the Ball captured the imagination of the American public, and that of the rest of the world too with this sad story of a man who mistakes a brother's kiss on his lover for that of another suitor. He rejects her and never sees her again without benefit of confronting her about it. The result is a lifetime of lost love only to find on her death that it was her brother.


Charles Kassell Harris was born in 1867 in Poughkipsie, NY and died in NYC in 1930. He lived for many years in Milwaukee and published many of his early songs there. After The Ball, is generally considered to be the watershed song that started the popular song industry in earnest as a commercial juggernaught. Though Harris wrote many songs over the years, none ever rose to the level of popularity as After The Ball. We will be publishing a more in-depth biography of Harris next month (November, 2001).

Listen to this fine work (scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version


The Fatal Wedding


Music by: Gussie L. Davis
Lyrics by: Wm. H. Windom
Cover artist: unknown


Only a year after Harris' phenomenal success, the race was on to create tear jerkers that would tug at the heart of the public and hopefully result in success for the songwriters. None could have ever exceeded the sadness and pathos of The Fatal Wedding. Perhaps one of the most depressing songs ever written, even worse than Come Home Father, this song tells the horrifying tale of a wedding interrupted by a wife and child who unmask the bigamist to be. The baby dies in her arms; the groom commits suicide; there's a double funeral after which the two women go to live with one another. Very heavy emotional stuff, indeed. The song was introduced in a minstrel show, and remained popular in vaudeville for several years.


Gussie Lord Davis, (b Dayton, Ohio, 1863 - d. New York, 1899) one of the late 19th century's first commercially successful African-American songwriters. Davis was probably the first Black man to gain success in Tin Pan Alley. He held a number of jobs before becoming involved with music. At one time he was a Porter on the Railroads, and later was a janitor at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. It was while sweeping the floors at the conservatory, that he managed to pick up bits and pieces of musical knowledge, and was soon writing ballads. The only musical training he gained was from private study provided him by teachers at the Cincinnati Conservatory. His first published work was in 1880, We Sat Beneath The Maple On The Hill. He later became a protégé of songwriter James E. Stewart who helped Davis break into the music publishing world,. In 1890n he moved to New York and soon became one of Tin Pan Alley's top songwriters. In 1895 he won second place in a contest for the ten best songwriters in the USA. He was the first Black songwriter to win international acclaim for his ballads. The New Grove Dictionary Of American Music describes his music as " sweet lyrical melodies in waltz rhythm with heart wrenching texts. Among the over 300 songs Davis published were a number of other popular works including; If I Only Could Blot Out the Past, 1896, My Creole Sue, 1898, My Little Belle Creole, 1900 and another wedding tearjerker, She Waited at the Altar in Vain in 1897.


Davis' greatest hit was the 1896 In The Baggage Coach Ahead (also a supreme tear jerker). Supposedly, when Davis was a railroad porter, he found a young child crying. The child's mother was "in the car ahead', in a coffin. A fellow porter, moved by the tale, wrote a poem about it. Years later, Davis set this poem to music, and sold it outright to publisher Howley, Haviland and Dresser for just a few dollars. Howley induced Imogene Comer to use the song in her act, and it brought a small fortune for the publisher, but nothing more for Davis.

Hear this sad, sad hit song (scorch format)

listen to MIDI version


A Bird In A Gilded Cage


Music by: Harry Von Tilzer
Lyrics by: Arthur J. Lamb
Cover artist: unknown


By 1900, the tear jerker bandwagon was charging ahead at full steam and just about every songwriter had entries in the hit parade sweepstakes. Among the most prominent were the team of Harry Von Tilzer and Arthur J. Lamb who wrote several sad songs that were hits. Of all their tear jerkers, perhaps none were as popular as this one and the next featured work, The Mansion Of Aching Hearts. This song has enjoyed a long popularity telling the tale of a beautiful woman who is held as a trophy wife by a wealthy man. She lives a sad and lonely life, surrounded by wealth yet impoverished socially and emotionally. The song's chorus tells the sad story:

She's only a bird In a gilded cage,
A beautiful sight to see,
You may think she's happy And free from care,
She's not Tho' she seems to be,
'Tis sad when you think Of her wasted life,
For youth cannot mate with age,
And her beauty was sold
For an old man's gold,
She's a bird in a gilded cage.


Harry Von Tilzer (b. July 8, 1872, Detroit, MI, d. Jan. 10. 1946, New York,
NY nee: Harry Gumm.) Harry, one of five children, was to find a career in music as did his younger brother Albert. When still a child, his family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where his father acquired a shoe store. A theatrical company gave performances in the loft above the store, and that's where Harry learned to love show business. His career really started in 1886 when, at age 14, he ran away from home and joined the Cole Brothers Circus. By 1887, he was playing piano, composing songs, and acting in a traveling repertory company. He changed his name at that time. His mother's maiden name was Tilzer, and he 'gussied' it up by adding the 'Von'. Thereafter he would be called Harry Von Tilzer, and later his younger brother Albert would adopt the name also. Harry met Lottie Gilson when the burlesque troupe with which he was working reached Chicago. The popular vaudevillian took an interest, and induced him to go to New York. In 1892, Harry, working as a groom on a trainload of horses, arrived in New York, with just $1.65 in his pocket. He rented a room near the Brooklyn Bridge and became a $15.00 per week saloon pianist. He left New York briefly to work in a traveling medicine show, but returned to again work in saloons and later as a vaudevillian in a 'Dutch' act with George Sidney. At this time, Harry was writing songs, literally hundreds of songs that were never published. He would sell them outright to other entertainers for $2.00 each. But the tide was about to turn for Harry. One of his songs was published, My Old New Hampshire Home, lyric by Andrew B. Sterling. William C. Dunn, owner of a small print shop, purchased it outright for $15.00, and issued it in 1898. It was a hit that sold more than 2 million copies. In 1899, three more of Von Tilzer's songs were published: I'd Leave My Happy Home for You, lyric by Will A. Heelan I Wonder If She's Waiting, lyric by Andrew B. Sterling Where The Sweet Magnolias Grow. The success of My Old New Hampshire Home prompted Maurice Shapiro of Shapiro-Bernstein Music Publishers to make Von Tilzer a partner, and the firm was renamed 'Shapiro, Bernstein and Von Tilzer'. Harry then wrote his next big hit in 1900, the present A Bird In A Gilded Cage. In 1902, Von Tilzer quit the partnership and formed his own firm 'Harry Von Tilzer Music Company'.

Hear this eternally beautiful song (scorch)

Listen to MIDI version


The Mansion Of Aching Hearts


Music by: Harry Von Tilzer
Lyrics by: Arthur J. Lamb
Cover artist: Unknown


Following their 1900 success of A Bird In A Gilded Cage, Von Tilzer and Lamb teamed up again to produce this, another tear jerker about sadness and loneliness. Like "Bird", this song was also a million selling hit and interestingly, was plugged by a young singer hired by Von Tilzer's publishing house, Izzy Baline. Baline was coached by Von Tilzer on how to be a successful songwriter and publisher and went on to become arguably the single most famous Tin Pan Alley songwriter, Irving Berlin. The song is about unrequited love and reading between the lines, one can assume that the mansion of aching hearts is a bordello. Be sure to get your Scorch player to see the full lyrics as the song plays in the scorch format.


Arthur J. Lamb (b. 1870, Somerset, England - d. 1928, Providence, R.I.) is perhaps most well known as the lyricist for the famous and still popular, Asleep In The Deep (for a German version, see Des Seemanns Los in our feature about music of the sea). This song though, was his best selling hit song at the time. As with many songwriters, Lamb followed up the success of "Asleep" with At The Bottom Of The Deep Blue Sea in 1899 and another sea themed song, Out Where The Billows Roll High in 1901, both with music by W.H. Petrie. Other popular songs by Lamb include Dreaming Of Mother And Home, 1898, When The Bell In The Lighthouse Rings Ding, Dong, 1905, The Bird On Nellie's Hat, 1905, Splash Me, 1907 and the 1917 War song, Good Luck To The USA.

Enjoy this great 1902 song (scorch)

Listen to MIDI version


The Picture Of My Mother On The Wall

ca. 1900

Music by: Nellie Miles
Lyrics by: Miles
Cover artist: unknown


Nellie Miles is one of our "lost" woman composers of the era. Though we have featured at least one other work by her, her 1906 work, The Fiftieth Anniversary March, we still are unable to find our much about her. Nellie Miles cut quite a figure for the 1800's and was apparently an accomplished cornetist and bandleader as well as composer. In our collection we do have a "program" from one of Ms. Miles' concerts which also advertises her "Amusement Enterprises." This work shows Miles as publisher so she obviously established her own publishing house. Her photo shows her in her bandleader uniform.


This song is a tearful ballad about a mother who has departed. All that remains is her memory and the picture of her on the wall. Mother songs (especially dead mother's it seems) have been a favorite source of tear jerkers. In May of 2000 we featured a number of "Mother" songs, all of which are dripping with bathos, as does this song.

Listen to this 1900 "Mother" ballad(scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version


WAIT! There are more Tear Jerker masterpieces to see and hear. The second part of this issue features more rare and different works.

More tear jerker music and covers in this month's issue, go to part B.

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