Category Archives: Music

Celebrating the mothers of 1919 with carnations, songs, and guilt

Mother’s Day 1919 was dedicated to the mothers whose sons fought for freedom. President Wilson decreed that flags be flown at all government buildings (wasn’t this done normally back then?) and requested that people fly the flag at their homes “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of the country.”  The carnation was the flower of the day, the New York Times said–“white carnations for a mother dead, and pink ones for those who are still the center of the home.”

New York Times headline, To Honor Mothers Today - President Orders Flag Flown...

New York Times, May 11, 1919

President Wilson called on America’s soldiers to write to their mothers. The order made its way down the line in messages from Secretary of War Newton Baker

1919 telegram instructing soldiers to write to their mothers on Mother's Day

and up-and-coming Acting Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt.

Telegram from Acting Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt about Mother's Day 1919

National Archives (Identifier 6283187)

If penning a few sentences to Mom was just too hard, maybe because you were busy saying good-bye to your little French mother,*

Norman Rockwell drawing of soldier saying goodbye to French family, Life magazine, 1919

Norman Rockwell, Life magazine, March 13, 1919

or because you didn’t know how to read and write,** you could just copy off of this handy-dandy flyer. I wonder how many mothers scratched their heads and asked, “Who’s Timmy?”

Flier from Red Cross et all. with suggested language for soldiers' Mother's Day postcards.

Red Cross et al., 1919

I was going to suggest that we celebrate the mothers of 1919 with this song,

but luckily I listened to the words first. It starts out as you’d expect: the singer misses Mammy down south, is feeling blue, kisses her picture every night, etc. Then comes this spoken verse:

When I was bad and started crying
Remember how you laid me across your lap?
Mammy, ain’t no use denying
You sure swung a wicked strap.

The song ends with the singer saying that she’s been too busy to write, and that

There’s only just one thing keeping me
From being with you all down there.

If you’re anxious to see your honey-lamb, Mammy,
Send me up my fare.

What???

Sheet music cover for Mammy o' Mine

A little research confirmed that, in its original version, “Mammy o’ Mine” doesn’t devolve into a joke. It’s just about missing Mammy. The song was written by 20-year-old African-American composer Maceo Pinkard, and it was his first big hit.*** Many more were to come, including “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Pincard later helped Duke Ellington break into show business, introducing him to important Tin Pan Alley figures (including his future manager), and arranging his first recording session.

Pincard and his song deserves a more respectful rendition. So do the moms of 1919, and the moms of today. Let’s celebrate them, instead, with this version by Harry Yerkes, an early proponent of jazz and blues.

Happy Mother’s Day!

*Here’s another Rockwell mom cover, from April. It doesn’t have a title as far as I know, so I’m calling it “Back off, Mom!” (Update 6/10/2019: It’s called “Boy Musician.” I like my title better.)

Norman Rockwell American magazine cover, May 1919, boy playing flute, pained mother behind

More about little French mothers here.

**Which is quite possible. There were a number of tests to judge soldiers’ literacy, such as the Devens Literacy Test, which asked Dada-esque questions like “Is a guitar a kind of disease?” and “Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?” You can take it yourself here.

***The melody, that is. The words were written by prolific Tin Pan Alley lyricist William Tracey, who would go on to collaborate with Pincard on a number of other songs.

A Caruso fan on the factory floor

Remember Elizabeth Hasanovitz, the Hebrew school teacher’s daughter who fled Russia for a better life in New York? (If not, you can read about her here.) She’s back, in the second installment of her memoir in the February 1918 Atlantic.

Banner, The Atlantic Monthly, February, 1918.

Elizabeth attempted suicide at the end of the last installment, ground down by her life as a seamstress. She recovers quickly and gets a job in a non-union factory, making the princely sum of ten dollars a week.

My cheerfulness returned. Again I went among my friends, entertaining them with song and infecting them with my joyousness. Even in the shop I felt happy.

Women factory workers sitting at table.

She starts saving up to send for her younger brother, and her friend Clara helps out with a fifty-dollar loan. Even the conversation at work has improved.

Very little talk about “fellers,” swell evening pumps, lace petticoats that the six dollar wage-earners were constantly discussing, in the sweater shop. Here we talked about questions of the day, world-happenings, music, art, literature, and trade questions.

Once she pays her debt to Clara, Elizabeth starts thinking about the finer things in life.

I at once went to the Opera House, secured tickets for five dollars at twenty-five cents each, so that I was provided with opera tickets for the next few weeks.

Photograph of Enrico Caruso above autograph and date, Feb 21st 1918.

Enrico Caruso, New York Times, February 24, 1918

She sees Enrico Caruso sing and Anna Pavlova dance. Her tickets are standing room*, and she often goes straight from work.

If it happened to rain, my dress would be soaked through and through, and with wet clothes I would stand through the performance, changing from foot to foot, while there were often plenty of empty seats in the orchestra. Very often I would pay with a cold the next day.

Back at the factory, Elizabeth tries to get her co-workers interested in joining the Dress-and-Waist-Makers’ Union. The good conditions they enjoy, she argues, were won by activists in unionized factories. The other girls say, “You better shut up; if you don’t you will get fired.” She pays a visit to the union, and word gets back to her colleagues and her boss. They warn her that union leaders are nothing but grafters, after the members’ money.

Crowd of workers marching in Union Square, New York, 1913.

May Day march, Union Square, 1913 (Bain News Service, Library of Congress collection)

Elizabeth decides to attend the May Day workers’ march.

The day fell on Thursday**, a bright warm spring day. The many thousands of young girls, in uniforms of white waists with red collars, all in line, were ready to march on. The sun illuminated their pale but happy faces as they walked through the avenues and streets. Looking up at the skyscrapers where they slaved all year, their shiny eyes would gleam with pride and hope, as if they would speak and warn the world, “behold you who keep us in the darkness, no more are we to slave for you!”

 The next day, in high spirits, Elizabeth sets out for work, humming a favorite Russian song.

“Good morning,” said I merrily to the foreman, who happened to be the first to meet me when I entered the shop.***

 “Good morning,” came an angry sound from his nose.

That Saturday, Elizabeth receives her pay–and a dismissal notice.

Aeriel view of Riverside Park, New York, ca. 1909.

Riverside Park, New York, ca. 1909 (Detroit Publishing Company, Library of Congress collection)

It’s the slow season, and Elizabeth has no luck finding a new job. She wonders how she will provide for her brother when he arrives. She sits on a bench in Riverside Park, looking out at the Hudson and thinking very Russian thoughts.

Life, life—O Happiness, where is thy sweetness, murmured I, in such mortal anguish for life.

 (To be continued.)

Elizabeth is still a drama queen. And she’s as snooty as ever. When her mother sends her a poem that her sixteen-year-old brother Nathan has written for her, she criticizes his grammar. She says of her friend Clara, who took her in after her suicide attempt and lent her the money for her brother’s passage,

Her spiritual development was on a much smaller scale than mine, and she would easily be inspired by things that did not interest me at all. My temper was a more revolutionary one, and I was more sensitive.

But, amid the flippancy of the fashionable magazines of 1918 and the dullness of the mainstream press, she’s a fresh, genuine voice.

(If you want to read about Elizabeth in her own words, her autobiography is available in several versions at Amazon. The issues of the Atlantic that it was serialized in (January – April 1918) can be accessed at Hathitrust Digital Library here.)

*in a parterre, maybe!

**So it was probably 1913.

***A different translator or editor apparently took over midway through the article, and Elizabeth in inverted sentences begins always to talk.