Baggage Coach Ahead, The
DESCRIPTION: The passengers on the train are awakened by a child's cries. They complain to the child's father. He tells them that the child's mother is dead "in the baggage coach ahead." Upon learning this, the passengers turn helpful
AUTHOR: Gussie L. Davis (1863-1899)
EARLIEST DATE: 1896 (sheet music by Howley, Haviland & Co.)
KEYWORDS: family children mother death train
FOUND IN: US(MW,Ro,So)
REFERENCES (11 citations):
Cohen-LSRail, pp. 304-315, "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" (1 text plus some excerpts, a copy of the sheet music cover, and four texts on related themes, 1 tune)
Randolph 704, "The Baggage Coach Ahead" (1 text)
LPound-ABS, 58, pp. 131-132, "The Baggage Coach Ahead" (1 text)
Peters, pp. 211-212, "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" (1 text, 1 tune)
Stout 42, pp. 59-61, "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" (3 texts)
Neely, pp. 249-250, "Baggage Coach Ahead" (1 text)
Hubbard, #116, "The Baggage Coach Ahead" (1 text)
Spaeth-ReadWeep, pp. 155-156, "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" (fragmentary text, partial tune)
Geller-Famous, pp. 173-178, "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" (1 text, 1 tune)
cf. Gardner/Chickering, p. 477, "The Baggage Coach Ahead" (source notes only)
ADDITIONAL: Robert A. Fremont, editor, _Favorite Songs of the Nineties_, Dover Publications, 1973, pp. 152-156, "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" (1 text, 1 tune, the 1896 sheet music)
Fiddlin' John Carson, "The Baggage Coach Ahead" (OKeh 7006, 1924)
Vernon Dalhart, "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" (Columbia 15028-D, 1925) (Edison 51557 [as Vernon Dalhart & Co.], 1925) (Victor 29627, 1925) (Supertone 9248, 1928) (Perfect 12199 [as Bob Massey]; Perfect 12644, 1930) (CYL: Edison [BA] 5011 [as Vernon Dalhart & Co.], n.d.)
Red Evans, "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" (Vocalion 5173, 1927)
George Gaskin, "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" (CYL: Collumbia 4080, c. 1898)
George Hobson [possibly a pseudonym for George Reneau?] "The Baggage Coach Ahead" (Silvertone 3047, 1924)
Andrew Jenkins & Carson Robison, "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" (OKeh 45234, 1928)
Lester McFarlane & Robert Gardner, "The Baggage Coach Ahead" (Brunswick 200Brunswick 326/Vocalion 5200, 1928; rec. 1927)
George Reneau, "The Baggage Coach Ahead" (Vocalion 14918, 1924)
Kate Smith, "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" (Columbia 2605-D, 1932)
Ernest Thompson, "In The Baggage Coach Ahead" (Columbia 216-D, 1924; Harmony 5124-H [as Ernest Johnson], c. 1930)
NOTES [480 words]: Various "real" stories have been claimed as the inspiration of this ballad -- e.g. Randolph reported it to be based on the real-life story of Dr. James B. Watson and family. Watson's daughter Nellie was born in 1867, and the girl's mother died in 1869. Watson was taking his wife's body back to her home in Pennsylvania when the events described took place.
On the other hand, Spaeth notes that Charles K. Harris wrote a song "Is Life Worth Living," with almost the same plot, some years before Davis produced "Baggage Coach." Whether based on an actual incident or not, the idea amply met the nineteenth century demand for tearjerkers.
Cohen's notes on the song include four other dead-body-on-the-train songs, and list other people on whose story the song might have been based. Adding it all up, it seems likely that there was *something* in existence before Davis worked on this song, though the Davis text does seem to have become canonical.
According to Finson, p. 142, 142, "[Gussie Lord] Davis (1863-1899) was one of the rare African-American composers before World War II to have his music accepted in the non-ethnic canon of popular song. A native of Cincinnati, he received an informal education in music and some private lessons at the Nelson Musical College while working as a janitor (he was refused admission as a student on racial grounds). He moved to New York around 1887, just in time to witness the birth of Tin Pan Alley as a force in the publication of popular song, and he soon became one of its most famous composers, contributing a song still heard occasionally, 'Irene, Good Night.'"
According to Jasen, p. 17, early in life he wanted to attend Nelson Musical College, but "[b]ecause he was black, his application was rejected, so he made a deal with the administration to trade his janitorial services for private lessons. His first song, 'We Sat Beneath the Maple n the Hill," was published by Hilling & Company, a local printer, in 1880. Whenever the song appeared in a shop window, Davis would point to the song and say, 'That's me. I done it."
Jasen's story is that Davis, who worked as a Pullman porter before becoming a full-time songwriter, met a little girl who says that her mother's coffin was in the coach ahead. Davis sold the song outright to Howley, Haviland & Company, so it didn't make him rich, but it was sung by Irene Comer, "The Queen of Song," and was one of the big hits of 1896.
Jasen never mentions a connection to "Goodnight, Irene," and I don't kow if Davis really played a role in it, but he is responsible for several other songs in the Index: "Maple on the Hill," "The Express Office (He Is Coming to Us Dead)," and "There's No One Like Mother to Me," plus the tunes for "The Fatal Wedding" and "The Child of the Railroad Engineer (The Two Lanterns)." Also perhaps "Sweet Refrain." Rather a maudlin streak to that list.... - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Finson: Jon W. Finson, The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song, Oxford University Press, 1994
- Jasen: David A. Jasen, Tin Pan Alley: The Composers, the Songs, the Performers and their Times: The Golden Age of American Popular Music from 1886 to 1956, Primus, 1988
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2019 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.