“Father’s a Drunkard and Mother is Dead” – Tunes for Temperance


As anyone who has taken the Black Creek Historic Brewery Tour knows, there was a group of people in the nineteenth century who disapproved of alcohol consumption. These were the temperance advocates: a group of men and women who felt that alcohol was injurious to both health and morality. As such, they encouraged people to give up drinking, whether by “tempering” consumption by avoiding hard liquors, or by the 1860s, completely abstaining from all alcohol, including beer.

Their methods of persuasion were varied. They urged people to sign “temperance pledges,” held lectures, built “temperance halls” to host dry events…

They also sang songs.

Temperance advocates wrote tunes proclaiming the evils of drink and sang them in public places, usually outside of taverns and taprooms. One such song is the wonderfully-titled “Father’s a Drunkard and Mother is Dead.” It dates from approximately 1866 (variations appear to have circulated earlier). The music was written by Mrs. E.A. Parkhurst, and the words by “Stella of Washington.” Its lyrics are as follows:

Out in the gloomy night, sadly I roam,
I have no mother, no pleasant home;
nobody cares for me, no one would cry
even if poor little Bessie should die.
Barefoot and tired, I’ve wander’d all day
asking for work but I’m too small they say;
On the damp ground I must now lay my head
“Father’s a drunkard, and mother is dead!”

(chorus) Mother, oh! why did you leave me alone,
with no one to love me, no friends and no home?
Dark is the night, and the storm rages wild,
God pity Bessie, the drunkard’s lone child!

We were so happy till Father drank rum,
Then all our sorrow and trouble begun;
mother grew paler, and wept every day,
baby and I were too hungry to play.
Slowly they faded, and one summer’s night,
found their dear faces all silent and white;
then with big tears slowly dropping I said:
“Father’s a drunkard, and mother is dead!”

(chorus)

Oh! if the “temp’rance men” only could find
poor, wretched father, and talk very kind,
if they could stop him from drinking why, then
I should be so very happy again!
Is it too late? “men of temp’rance” please try,
or poor little Bessie may soon starve and die.
All the day long I’ve been begging for bread,
“Father’s a drunkard, and mother is dead!”

(Courtesy the San Joaquin Valley Library System)

As maudlin as contemporary listeners may find this song, it is in fact quintessentially Victorian. As is typical for many temperance songs, the narrative unfolds from the perspective of a child. The Victorians are often credited with “inventing” childhood, and indeed, they were among the first to view childhood as a separate stage of development, and to idealize it as a time of purity and innocence. The contrast between Bessie’s dire circumstances and this idyllic model would have certainly tugged a heartstring or two. If you want to hit a Victorian where it hurts, aim for the children.

Poor orphans (Courtesy www.victorianweb.org)
Don’t they look sad? (Courtesy http://www.victorianweb.org)

;

The song also highlights alcohol’s destructive effect on the home. Victorians very much subscribed to the cult of domesticity: home was a haven, where morality was developed and safeguarded. So, it was fiercely protected. The Father in this song is clearly not providing for his family; he’s therefore failing as an adult male. Moreover, since the Mother is dead, poor little Bessie is left with absolutely no semblance of home life. Again, we’re basically taking the worst thing a Victorian can think of, and showing how it’s all the fault of drinking.

As for the tone – let’s be frank, this song is completely over the top. The dead mother and baby, their “dear faces all silent and white,” the starving girl unable to work because she’s “too small…” My editor would never let me write something like this. Yet this song very much reflects the artistic attitudes of the time in which it was written.

Remember, this is the era of the Romantic poets. The pre-Raphaelites were painting their overblown, hugely overemphasized scenes of a re-imagined past. Exaggerated emotion was not uncommon at all. And again, the temperance advocates were trying to win converts to their cause. This was simply another expression of a long-running trend towards Evangelicalism. By all means, engage your audience in logical, rational debate…but when that doesn’t work, go for sentimentality.

Overwrought death scene, rich colours, obsession with detail...John Everette Millais's "Ophelia" (1851-2) certainly fits the pre-Raphaelite bill. (Courtesy www.tate.org.uk)
Overwrought death scene, rich colours, obsession with detail…John Everette Millais’s “Ophelia” (1851-2) certainly fits the pre-Raphaelite bill. (Courtesy http://www.tate.org.uk)

While it’s tempting to simply laugh over songs like this, it’s also important to analyze them within their historical context. As outrageous as “Father’s a Drunkard and Mother is Dead” truly is (and trust me, I’m still smirking a little), it is also entirely reflective of the Victorian mindset, as well as the attitudes and assumptions of temperance advocates.

History: not just found in textbooks.

-Katie

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