by Charles Marowitz
[This is an excerpt from Marowitz's THE SOUNDS OF MUSIC: EARLY RECORDING ARTISTS, a forthcoming book about the early pioneers of recorded music.]
(Swans - November 7, 2005) At the turn of the last century, there was nothing more sacred than Mother. She was the loving, benign, considerate, wise and protective matrix from which all goodness sprang. Anyone who didn't love his mother or leap to her defense when insulted, belittled, or disparaged was more than a cad; he was a monster.
Mom's most ebullient champion was Al Jolson who, folded on one knee with a catch in his throat and a tear in his eye, declared that he would "walk a million miles, for one of her smiles" for she was his irreplaceable "mammy." The song by Joe Young, Sam Lewis and Walter Donaldson became Jolie's unmistakable cri du coeur spawning a veritable army of "mammy singers." The paeans of praise to Mom's iconic stature in the family circle could be found on records and cylinders throughout the land. "Cross My Heart Mother, I Love You" was the title of one musical vow; "I'd Love To Fall Asleep And Wake Up In My Mammy's Arms" was another. Mother was grateful for such sentiments as could be divined from Ketheley and Thompson's "May God And His Angels Guard You, That Is Your Mother's Prayer." Trace and Pinkhard, expressing their maternal fervor, wailed "Mammy O'Mine" while Eddie Cantor via Morse and Johnson pleaded "I Want My Mammy" and soldiers departing for the trenches choked back tears as they sobbed "So Long, Mother." "Was There Ever A Pal Like You," Irving Berlin asked weepily, and of course, there wasn't. And Joe Goodwin and Gus Edwards agreed, there was no coupling quite as reverent as "Your Mother and Mine."
Should mother's offspring foolishly attempt to substitute alternative guardian angels, Byron and Goetz reminded us on her behalf, she's "The Only Mother That You Ever Knew." And while comparisons were being made, Hager and Goodwin drew our attention to "That Wonderful Mother of Mine" as "Pal Of My Cradle Days" asserted the memory of Mom as our earliest, fondest, and most reliable friend.
Occasionally Father got a look-in with songs like "Daddy, You've Been A Mother To Me," and sentiments such as "I Want a Girl, Just Like the Girl, That Married Dear Old Dad" -- but clearly, Daddy was an also-ran compared to Super-Mom. The finest compliment any man could bestow on his beloved was expressed in Irving Berlin's "You've Got Your Mother's Big Blue Eyes" or George M. Cohan's plaintive, "You Remind Me Of My Mother." It wasn't until the 1940s that Mary Martin could openly confess "My Heart Belongs to Daddy"; but of course, a "sugar-daddy" was not in the same category as a natural progenitor.
In an anthem written in 1915 by Theodore Morse with words by Howard Johnson (who was not related to multi-flavored ice cream magnate but could well have been), the maudlin reached epochal proportions in "M-O-T-H-E-R".
M, is for the million things she gave me
O, means only that she's growing old
T, is for the tears were shed to save me.
H, is for her heart of purest gold.
E, is for her eyes with love-light shining
R, means right as right she will always be,
Put them all together they spell MOTHER,
A word that means the world to me.
As the century slithered into the twenties, Mother emerged as a gray-haired old lady who had been under appreciated, neglected, or abandoned -- and only when she was gone did children painfully realize the enormity of their loss. And because they did, singers like Vaughn De Leath in 1927 could counsel others to "Baby Your Mother As She babied You, Back In Your Baby Days"; a touching ballad with disturbing Alzheimer undertones.
By the time the hard-bitten thirties arrived, Mother-Worship had more or less been put on the shelf and songs like "M-O-T-H-E-R" were wickedly parodied by the cynical members of the smart set. Sophie Tucker and Dolly Kay were singing about "red-hot mommas," predatory older women who like Valkyries gobbled up and spat out helpless male victims. When the forties rolled in, social critics, such as Philip Wylie, the great antagonist of Momism, was able to write; "...megaloid mom-worship has got completely out of hand. ....Mom is everywhere and everything and damned near everybody, and from her depends all of the rest of the U.S. Disguised as a good old mom, dear old mom, sweet old mom, your loving mom, and so on, she is the bride at every funeral and the corpse at every wedding. Men live for her and die for her, dote upon her and whisper her name as they pass away, and I believe she has now achieved, in the hierarchy of miscellaneous articles, a spot next to the Bible and the Flag, being reckoned as part of both in a way." Then in a great thunderous finale to his diatribe, Wylie proclaimed: "I give you mom. The destroying mother. I give you her justice -- from which we have never removed the eye bandage. I give you the angel -- and point to the sword in her hand... I give you the woman in pants, and the new religion: she-popery. I give you Pandora. I give you Prosperine, the Queen of Hell. The five-and-ten cent store Lilith, the mother of Cain, the black widow who is poisonous and eats her mate... Our society is too much an institution built to appease the rapacity of loving mothers."
It's enough to make Betty Friedan hemorrhage and Gloria Steinem reach for her Uzi.
In today's popular music, one is more likely to encounter "Mother" with a six letter extension added, an inescapable expletive in rap music. In the minds of most kids between 13 and 21, "mother" is simply an abbreviation for that 12-letter obscenity. Mothers, per se, are the scourge of unruly and rebellious children and often the jettisoned cargo of deadbeat fathers who try to evade alimony payments and, disdaining broken homes and family values, dump Mom in their quest for younger, trophy wives. The angelic, Madonna-like mother that was celebrated in the songs of the past has been replaced by a botoxed wax figure who shops and gossips, pampering herself endlessly as she presides over domestic carnage and, regularly outliving hubby, luxuriates on his inherited wealth.
Or are we simply saying that the Age Of Innocence has been replaced by the Age of Vulgarity and the nostalgia we summon up from the early 20th century shellacs belong to a vanished era? It may well be, but so long as turntables still revolve on phonographs piping out the music of 78 rpms through ancient horns, no flood of CDs, DVDs, Videos or iPods will ever destroy the mothballed memory of that sweeter epoch.