Tag Archives: Maceo Pinkard

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

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!”

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.