Child of the Railroad Engineer, The (The Two Lanterns)

DESCRIPTION: "A little child on a sick-bed lay, And to death seemed very near." The child's father is a railroad engineer, and must go to work. He bids the mother show a red light if the child dies and a green if the news was good. As he drives by, she shows the green
AUTHOR: Words: Harry V. Neal / Music: Gussie L. Davis (1863-1899)
EARLIEST DATE: 1898 (sheet music)
KEYWORDS: family children disease railroading
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Cohen-LSRail, pp. , "The Red and Green Signal Light/The Engineer's Child" (2 texts plus a copy of the sheet music cover, 1 tune)
Randolph 685, "The Two Lanterns" (1 text)
Spaeth-WeepMore, pp. 140-141, "The Child of the Railroad Engineer" (1 text, 1 tune)

Roud #5066
Chuck Wagon Gang, "The Engineer's Child" (Vocalion 04105/OKeh 04105, 1938; rec. 1936)
[G. B.] Grayson & [Henry] Whitter, "The Red and Green Signal Lights" (Victor V-40063, 1929); "Red or Green" (Gennett 6418/Champion 15465/Challenge 397 [as by David Foley], 1928)

Just Set a Light
NOTES [185 words]: It's hard to believe that every version I've seen of this song has a happy ending; it sounds like a nineteenth century tearjerker. But I can't find evidence to prove it.
I once heard Bob Bovee and Gail Heil joke that they had two versions of this, with happy and sad endings. But they sang the happy ending.
Norm Cohen raises an interesting possibility in this regard: When the song was written, in 1896, a red light meant danger -- but green meant caution. Not until 1898 was the green-for-good standard first adopted. So the song suddenly became more optimistic two years after its composition. Could this explain the complex endings?
The idea is of course much older, going back at least to versions of the story of Tristan. As he lay dying, he awaited the ship that was to fetch Isuelt to his side. If she was on the ship, it was to show white sails; if she had not come, it was to show black. In the Marie de France version, she comes, but Tristan is falsely told that the ship carries black sails, and dies.
For brief background on composer Gussie L. Davis, see the notes to "The Baggage Coach Ahead." - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
File: R685

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