As children, my parents and their siblings lived through the Great Depression. Perhaps that accounts for their attitude that most problems could be solved through practical application and that one shouldn’t wallow in despair. With the exception of a few Broadway musical LPs, sentimental songs didn’t figure heavily in their adult listening habits. At family gatherings when my mother and aunts would giddily belt out childhood favorites, they were usually humorous. My generation delighted in their rendition of “Little Willie,” a nonsensical song about a dying child.
We knew that he was dying by the color of his breath,
The flowers they lay drooping in the mud.
The doctors all agreed that to save our Willie’s life
We must stop the circulation of the blood.
So we gently dipped his head in a pot of boiling lead,
And then we laid our darling down to rest,
But the burglars came at night, and they came without a light,
And they stole the mustard plaster off his chest.
[Spoken:] Little Willie was doing very well until…
On the 33rd of May Little Willie passed away,
In spite of that we could do to save.
So I’m going to the barbershop to grant his last request
And to plant a bunch of whiskers on his grave.
No more upon the mat will he play with pussy cat,
No more between his teeth he’ll bite her tail.
No more he’ll push her nose on a red hot iron stove,
For our darling little Willie’s kicked the pail.
Years later, it occurred to me that this silliness was satire of the numerous “Little Willie” songs from the nineteenth century. For example, “Willie’s Grave” (1857) depicts mourning at the ill-fated boy’s final resting place, and in “Close the Shutters, Willie’s Dead!” (1872), he has been called home by angels. These might have been songs my great grandparents knew. My grandparents lived through the 1918 pandemic, and perhaps by the time my parents were born in the 1920s, it was better to laugh at death than to weep.
My father would scoff at earlier saccharine mawkishness. For some reason, he took special umbrage at the once wildly popular “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.” “Where the heck is the Wabash?” he would scowl, only partly joking. “Who gives a damn about the Wabash!?” The two verses of Paul Dresser’s 1897 song are a reader’s digest of sentimental clichés. In the first verse the singer misses his dead mother and in the second, longs for the dead woman he loved, managing to condense two stereotypical plots into one. The chorus leaves death behind, but is so steeped in nostalgia for rural Indiana that “On the Banks of the Wabash” was made the state song.
At the heart of the nineteenth century’s sentimental aesthetic was the inevitability of death and loss. Parlor songs about death were commonplace—the Lester Levy collection of historical sheet music contains over two thousand entries under the category “death and mourning.” Songs expressing grief were part of a wider culture centered on memorialization and consolation. The bereaved wore black clothing and jewelry that featured the deceased’s name or image, or was woven from their hair. Mourners hung up prints of graveyard scenes with weeping willows drooping over tombstones on which they wrote their loved one’s name. Artists and photographers created treasured deathbed portraits, matted with black frames. Cemeteries located in lush, green, pastoral settings were tourist attractions that inspired guidebooks. All of this seems overly morbid to us now, but in this context (and given the period’s high infant mortality rate), “On the Banks of the Wabash” and songs about Little Willie’s demise do not seem so overwrought.
I have thought of these cultural artifacts and the rituals that surrounded them as Americans die in the hundreds of thousands from the pandemic. It’s a historical truism that the Victorians were obsessed with death and unwilling to discuss sex and today the subjects are reversed. Nonetheless, we now seem to be capable of incredible denial about our own mortality. Denial is most manifest in people who refuse to wear a mask, even though it could save their neighbors and themselves. Modern medicine has made death less of an everyday occurrence—the symbols to remind us of it are certainly less pervasive. The maskless did not grow up with sepulchral portraits of lost siblings on their walls or singing about young women buried near the Wabash. They might be more likely to don protection if everyone they passed in the grocery store aisle who had lost a loved one were dressed head-to-toe in ominous black.
In the midst of great tragedy, other than streamed funerals and columns of names in the newspapers, there are few chances for ritualistic mourning over the horrible losses we have faced. Anyone who has grieved knows the sense of disbelief that the rest of the world could continue, oblivious to the pain that can still overwhelm them weeks or months after their initial loss. The pandemic rages, the world moves on, and there is no song or print or jewelry to help us to grieve. Yet a song over a century old still speaks quietly of human desolation: “Without her face it seems so incomplete.” “Still I’d give my future, were she only here.”
Perhaps after the pandemic, like my grandparents’ and parents’ generations, we will simply soldier on, laughing at the Wabash and no longer weeping over Willie’s grave. But some of us will remember someone we lost and hear sad songs.