Tear Jerkers in American Song


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)

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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.

Hear the "Fatal Wedding."(scorch format)

listen to MIDI version (Fatal Wedding)


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 the "Baggage Coach Ahead."(scorch format)

listen to MIDI version (Baggage Coach)


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


When I Lost You



Music by: Irving Berlin
Lyrics by: Berlin
Cover artist: E. H. Pfeiffer


Fully twenty years after Harris' After the Ball, the tear jerker was still a staple of the songwriter's bag of tricks. Though, by this time, the nature of the songs had changed. Rather than being so fixated on death and truly tragic circumstances, songs were more focused on relationships and life's tribulations. Of course love is an emotional subject and the loss of love is tragic when it happens to you so it is not surprising that so many of the tear jerker songs written over the decades relate to love and the twists and turns of love. Irving Berlin was a master of the love and life tear jerker. In spite of Harris' extreme skill, Berlin was perhaps the heir to the throne in writing songs of sadness, loneliness, depression, misery and hopelessness. A review of his titles show us a never ending list of titles that plumb the depths of emotions. His own life and perhaps his personal sadness was shaped by his personal experiences and this song is a reflection of a very real personal tragedy that he faced. One of our parlor songs fans, Barry Bowen, of Canada pointed out to us that "Irving Berlin wrote "When I Lost You" shortly after the death of his very young first wife who died shortly after their honeymoon in 1912. He was very depressed and put all of his personal feelings into this song. When he married again in the mid 1920's he presented his new
bride with "Always" as a wedding present." This again demonstrates the power of song as an expression of emotion and the fact that songwriters are often inspired by real events. Barry went on to tell us; "Although the song fits the genre that you have so wonderfully given us this month I think that perhaps the song was written as a release from some of his grief rather than for the need for a melodramatic hit."


Irving Berlin. Born Isidore Baline in Temun, Russia, in 1888, Berlin moved to New York City with his family in 1893. He published his first work, Marie of Sunny Italy in 1907 at age 19 and immediately had his first hit on his hands. In 1911 the publication of Alexander's Ragtime Band established his reputation as a songwriter. He formed his own music-publishing business in 1919, and in 1921 he became a partner in the construction of the Music Box Theater in New York, staging his own popular revues at the theater for several years. Berlin wrote about 1500 songs.
Whether for Broadway musicals or films, for humorous songs or romantic ballads, his compositions are celebrated for their appealing melodies and memorable lyrics. Among the numerous musical comedies and revues for which Berlin wrote music and lyrics were Annie Get Your Gun (1946), and Mr. President (1962). His many popular songs include There's No Business Like Show Business, God Bless America, and White Christmas. In 1968 Berlin received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. On September 22nd 1989, at the age of 101, Berlin died in his sleep in New York City.
It is almost impossible to provide a meaningful biographical sketch of Berlin in only a few words, he is perhaps the most celebrated and successful composer of American song from the Tin Pan Alley era. Way back in November of 1988 we did a feature on Berlin's music, sometime in the future we will post a more comprehensive biography and more of his songs. Of course many of his songs have been published by us over the years.


Enjoy this Wenrich song now (SCORCH format)

listen to MIDI version


When I Leave The World Behind



Music by: Irving Berlin
Lyrics by: Berlin
Cover artist: Barbelle


Though the terribly tragic songs about death had faded away by this time (1915), it does not mean the subject had completely vacated the songwriter's world. It still was a subject for songs, only approached in different ways. This song, also a Berlin work, speaks of a man facing the prospect of his own mortality and the legacy that he would leave behind. Interestingly the song is dedicated "to the memory of Charles Lounsbury, whose legacy suggested this song." In 1915, a Charles Lounsbury, the editor of The Yale Book of American Verse, passed away. Could this be the man to whom Berlin dedicated this song? My guess is, he is the one.


In this song, Berlin speaks of millionaires who are concerned with their wealth and its distribution after death and compares that to a simple man, without wealth who simply wants to leave behind peace and beauty. I think it is a touching song with deep meaning and a tear jerker of a different sort than most we have seen in this feature.


Of course, the man on the cover, Al Jolson, was the number one performer on the American song stage for many years. A song sung by Jolson was almost guaranteed to be a hit. Jolson billed himself as ‘The World’s Greatest Entertainer’ and who could argue? Working in blackface, he sang songs about his southern ‘Mammy’ with a passion that endeared him to Broadway audiences. His voice, was probably the most imitated and parodied in the world. As a musical comedy star, he belted out songs like Swanee and Is It True What They Say About Dixie? with flair and always demanding applause for his songs and jokes, he was rarely disappointed. ‘Electric’, ‘dynamic energy’ and ‘like a cyclone’ were some of the terms used to describe his performances on stage; and after singing for three hours with incredible energy, he could still call out: “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Though kind and sentimental, he left much to be desired as a human being. His was an enormous ego. He could be arrogant, surly and a braggart and many of his contemporaries disliked him. But he was a giant in the entertainment world, a hit maker, and always last on the bill because no one could follow him. Though four times married, the love of his life was an audience - any audience. He needed applause the way a diabetic needs insulin.
Al Jolson did not just sing songs - he rattled your backbone and made you want to get up and dance. He was probably the greatest entertainer the world has ever known.
(From the Al Jolson site at: http://www.times1190.freeserve.co.uk/jolson.htm )


Hear this great enduring hit (scorch format)

listen to MIDI version


There's Nobody Loves You Like Your Mother


Music by: Charles Coleman
Lyrics by: Coleman
Cover artist: unknown


Here is another of those tender and touching "mother" songs that so often appear. Just as with The Picture Of My Mother On The Wall,(see part one of this feature) this song speaks to the value of mother. While "Picture" spoke to the loss of a mother, this song speaks to the value of a mother's advice and the love that she will always give to her children. Unlike many people today, in 1915, parents were revered and honored almost universally. Even when parents did not fit today's model of parenthood, back then, mother and father were the king and queen of the home and children (generally) honored and obeyed them. In most cases though, mothers set the example for parenthood and the many, many thousands of mother songs written were hard earned and richly deserved. The sentiments expressed by this song are basic truths, no one does love you like your mother. Listen to this song and call your mother and tell her thanks. If she is nearby, give her a hug.


Charles Coleman may well have written only this song as I can find no mention of him or any other song by him in any of my reference volumes. (See our references list for a complete bibliography of sources) I am wondering if this Charles Coleman is the same as the Charles Coleman from Australia (born 1885) who was a very successful silent movie star? Perhaps one of our Australian visitors can answer that question.


Listen to this Coleman rarity (scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version


O Time Take Me Back


Music by: Carrie Jacobs-Bond
Lyrics by: Bond
Cover artist: unknown

Carrie Jacobs-Bond has a special place in my heart. Her music speaks to me and others who are familiar with her music often say that it speaks to their heart also. In terms of sadness and teary songs, Carrie Jacobs-Bond is the greatest female composer to come out of the Tin Pan Alley era. Exceptionally successful and an inspiration as far as one who overcame adversity, her years of tragedy molded her talent and as a result, her catalog has song after song in it that oozes tragedy, sadness and pain. Of course she could also write delightfully upbeat songs too, but it seems she was at her best when dealing with painful subjects. In June of 2000 we featured a number of her songs and also published an in-depth biography, see those articles to learn more about her.


The loss of her husband to an accident and the later loss of her beloved son to suicide caused Bond to often write songs that either referred to spiritual contact or a desire to go back to happier times (can you blame her?). This song talks of the twilight of one's life and the melancholy that tugs at the heart to relive happier days. Friends lost, childhood happiness, home and mother all figure prominently in this sad and somewhat gloomy song.


Hear this great Jacobs-Bond song (scorch)

Listen to MIDI version


I'm Sorry I Made You Cry


Music by: N. J. Clesi, arr. Theodore Morse
Lyrics by: Clesi
Cover artist: Rose Symbol

Our last offering for this feature is a WWI era song that though published during the war and in the war edition small format, is not a song about the war. We explored a wide range of the war related music in our three part series about World War One music but it is important to remember that not all music during that period was war related. Life did go on and so too did love and the pain of hurting the one you love. Clesi managed to create a touching and melodic ballad that expresses a sincere apology to a lover who has been hurt.


The photo on the cover is of June Elvidge and John Bowers, both film stars from World Film Corporation which might imply that the song was used in a film starring them. I have been unable to make that connection but have found that this song is still very much in play in the barbershop quartet circuit.


Enjoy this unique war era work(scorch)

Listen to MIDI version



That's it for this feature, as always, we hope you have enjoyed the music and learned something from it. To learn more about the music of Charles K. Harris, "the king of tear jerkers" see our biography of Harris in our "In Search Of" series.

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