Children in yard of Home for the Friendless
New York City, about 1870
I’ve cataloged a lot of songs about orphans (or the death of parents) from the old 78s of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as later songs inspired by them. I've begun to wonder — why are there so many of these songs?
For starters, there simply used to be a lot of orphans around to sing about. Today, I suppose they would be in state-run foster care systems and wouldn't be called "orphans" at all. Contraception and safe and legal abortions probably keep their numbers down. Certainly, parents are kept alive and families are kept together longer by less dangerous childbirth, safer working conditions, and a longer life expectancy.
But there must be a more permanent reason to sing about orphans, considering that the songs are still well-loved today. Maybe it's that, as I said in Part 1, parents usually die before their children, so we are almost all “orphaned” at some point. And most of us, in turn, make more orphans when we die. It’s almost the fabled “universal experience.”
These songs seem to have blossomed in the 1800's, when Americans had a peculiar obsession with Death, fetishizing and sentimentalizing it in ways rarely seen today. The outpouring of public grief over the death of Abraham Lincoln was an expression of this, as were momento mori, the gothic novel, and the many sentimental death-songs that appeared then. The artists of the 1920s and 1930s plundered the sheet music of the 1800s in search of material for the new recording industry, so I think a lot of these attitudes got a "second wind" as a result.
Most of all, though, I think life in pre-WWII America was just plain lonesome and arduous for most people. Feelings of abandonment are part of what it means to be poor, especially in a country so full of other promises. It would seem natural to empathize with The Orphan.
America was, and is, a place of hard work, empty spaces, and physical displacement. It’s no wonder we love media like recorded music like we do — they keep us company. When they brought songs about how "sometimes I feel like a motherless child" and how "motherless children have a hard time," wondering "will the circle be unbroken," it’s no wonder they were welcomed into the home and taken to heart.
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8