Somewhere on the prairies, as described by the Wahpeton Times of 24 January 1889, a crowd of young folks sprang a surprise party on an old gentleman they called Uncle Peter. To the bemusement of Uncle Peter as well as Aunt Candace, they invested their home with all the things young people did on social occasions--popping corn, bobbing for apples; engaging in play-party games of the era like “Weevily Wheat” and “Sister Phoebe;” and, this being the Gilded Age, singing, of course.
Among the songs of the evening was “Young Charlotte,” a wonderfully popular ballad of the time that meant different things to different people. To the old folks “chatting in cozy corners,” as the reporter put it, the song was a cautionary tale: beautiful Charlotte larks off with her beau Charles to a New Year’s ball in her silks, disregarding her mother’s advice to bundle up warmly; she freezes to death on the way, of course; and we are admonished by parable to respect the winter elements and heed the wisdom of our elders.
To the young folks cavorting about, the same ballad was a scary spoof. Winter, of course, is to be taken seriously, but Charlotte’s mother declaring that her daughter would “get your death of cold” on the “dreadful night,” well, that was an eye-roller.
O daughter dear, her mother cried,
This blanket round you fold,
For ’tis a dreadful night abroad —
You will get your death of cold.
To which Charlotte retorts, speeding off into the night,
Oh nay! Oh nay! Young Charlotte cried,
And she laughed like a gypsy queen.
To ride in blankets muffled up,
I never would be seen.
My silken cloak is quite enough--
You know ’tis lined throughout.
And there is my silken scarf to twine
My head and neck about.
The ballad’s capacity to mean different things to different generations keyed its survival over time. Its vogue prompted commercialization--the production of white ceramic figurines, “Frozen Charlottes,” to be carried as dolls, worn as pendants, and even baked into cakes as party favors.
The other reason the ballad survives is the adroit manifestation of dialog--conversational exchanges, stitched into the stanzas in traditional balladic fashion. The song originated with a newspaper article that circulated in New York and Maine in 1840 about a young lady freezing to death as the ballad would describe. News narratives refers indirectly to dialog on the journey. A popular journalist and writer named Seba Smith put the story into a lurid poem, “A Corpse Goes to a Ball.”
We don’t know who set the poem to music and adapted its text for singing, but the resulting ballad incorporates four discrete episodes of dialog, the latter three between Charlotte and her beau Charles, in each of which her voice grows fainter. This is literary folk genius, and in the final stanza, as Charles reaches out to assist Charlotte down from the carriage and finds her frozen, we hear,
He took her hand in his — ’twas cold
And hard as any stone
He tore the mantle from her face
And the cold stars o’er it shone
Then quickly to the lighted hall
Her lifeless form he bore
Young Charlotte’s eyes had closed for aye
Her voice was heard no more