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The Fatal Wedding

In 1916 the Grand Forks Herald published the words — three 8-line stanzas and a chorus — to a popular song that was making the rounds. The chorus starts out in heartwarming fashion, but then it takes a deadly turn.

While the wedding bells were ringing, while the bride and groom were there
Marching down the aisle together while the organ pealed an air
Telling tales of fond affection, vowing never more to part
Just another fatal wedding — just another broken heart

Just another broken heart, all right, but just another fatal wedding? I am not inviting wisecracks when I ask, are fatal weddings really that common? There must be a story here.

Which unfolds, as is the way with ballads, in the course of the song. A gay society crowd has assembled in a church on a winter’s night, awaiting a wedding ceremony, when a sad-looking mother with a little baby shows up. The wedding usher looks her over and informs her this is not an affair for her, but she begs to be admitted to the church so her baby can arm up, and the usher relents.

When the preacher enjoins, “Speak now or forever hold your peace,” the uninvited woman calls out, “I must object! This bridegroom is my husband, sir, and this is our little child.”

“What proof have you?” the preacher asked.
“My infant,” she replied.
She raised the babe, then knelt to pray —
The little one had died.

Dramatic dialog, this is surely the stuff of balladry — but the song, “The Fatal Wedding,” is not a traditional ballad of the traditional type. In 1916, the year the song turned up in Grand Forks, traditional scholars in tweed jackets had fixed ideas about traditional balladry — it came from England or Scotland, preferably with lineage going back to the 1600s.

Balladry here on the prairies, however, was reinvented, new folk traditions rising from the soil like new farms and new towns. Yes, there were a few cowboy songs built on the base of English balladry, but by and large, poets and singers on the prairies affixed their stanzas to American foundations — tunes they borrowed from Gospel hymns, Civil War soldier songs, barroom ditties, and by the 1890s, popular American songs emanating from Tin Pan Alley.

“The Fatal Wedding” as it appeared in Grand Forks is indeed a folksong, it was circulating and evolving informally among the people, not only here but across the country. Its origins, however, were in the music halls of New York City. Indeed, when the song debuted at the Palace Theater in 1894, there were protests from New York City clergy, who thought the tawdry ballad reflected badly on religion. The Palace doubled down with a Sunday night performance to a packed house.

Not credited at the time was the composer of the ballad, a man named Gussie Davis — a black man emerging from the minstrel genre and breaking into the world of white working-class music. Mr. Davis is a fascinating story, to which I must return, but you may still be wondering what happened to that poor mother and baby.

For some reason, the people in the church believe her story; the would-have-been bride’s parents thank the woman for preventing a disastrous match, even take the woman home to take care of her; and the intended groom kills himself. A happy ending, sort of.

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