The Baggage Coach Ahead
During the 1890s, the so-called Gay Nineties, two developments transformed popular culture and folklore across the country, including the Great Plains. The first of these was the proliferation of urban music halls, entertainment venues that were masculine, sometimes a little bawdy, and, surprisingly to us today, exceedingly sentimental.
The other development was Thomas Edison’s cylinder recording technology, which projected the melodies of the music halls to all corners and set people to singing along. Tin Pan Alley became a palpable thing not only on West 28th Street of New York City but even in places like Valley City, North Dakota.
When in ensuing decades songcatchers like John Lomax, Louise Pound, or North Dakota’s own Franz Rickaby set out to collect the songs of prairie folk, their informants sang them the songs they knew. Some of them were venerable folksongs that went back to England or Scotland in the 1600s. Many, however, were tearjerkers that can be traced to Tin Pan Alley—“The Letter Edged in Black,” “The Fatal Wedding,” “My Mother was a Lady,” and so on. Were these folksongs, too? Yes, because people were singing them, from memory, passing them along, and in the process, transforming the texts and melodies.
The songcatchers had no way then of readily tracing the origins of a text, as I do today. So they put the evolving music hall songs, as they found them, into their published anthologies as folklore. This was the right decision, albeit one made innocent of the songs’ lineage.
Which brings us to perhaps the greatest tearjerker of all these songs germinated from pavement but rooted in soil—“The Baggage Coach Ahead,” composed by Gussie Davis, the African-American songwriter who learned composition working as the janitor in a music school in his home town of Cleveland, Ohio. Davis says the plotline of “The Baggage Coach Ahead” came from a true story told him by a railroad porter.
Passengers in a railroad car were trying to get some sleep in their hard seats, but the cries of a baby kept them awake. They began to complain to the young man holding the baby and demand the child’s mother be summoned to do something. He replies that he wishes that were possible, but the mother, his wife, was “in the baggage coach ahead.” In a coffin. These were days, of course, when the death of a woman in childbirth was exceedingly common.
Female passengers in the narrative quickly take charge and sooth the infant, while the songwriter Davis takes charge of the story. He produces a masterly piece of popular music. As you listen to the chorus, you can feel the train rocking on the tracks.
While the train rolled onward, a husband sat in tears
Thinking of the happiness of just a few short years
For baby’s face brings pictures of a cherished hope that’s dead
But baby’s cries can’t waken her in the baggage coach ahead
In a sad example of human duplicity, as the Ward County Independent reported in 1904, dodgers developed what police came to recognize as the baggage-coach-ahead scam. A thief would circulate among railroad passengers telling the sob story that he needed money to pay freight so that he would be allowed to take his wife’s coffin off the train at a stop ahead—and people fell for it again and again.
A few years later, in 1910, hundreds of passengers got stuck in Minot when the flooding Mouse River stopped trains there, and a stringer filed a story of a young male traveler on his way from Chinook, Montana, to St. Paul, Minnesota with an infant on his arm and with his wife “in the baggage coach ahead.” You know the reporter had a good laugh when he put that one over on the wire services.