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"My Favorite Song"

Guest contributors select one song that has a special, personal meaning for them, sharing specific reasons about why they find the music and lyrics irresistible, and choosing a performance that they feel ideally captures the spirit of that song.

Archive of Past Selections


"My Favorite Song"
September, 2014

Welcome to the monthly feature of the Vocal Arts DC web site in which guest contributors select one song that has a special, personal meaning for them, sharing specific reasons about why they find the music and lyrics irresistible, and choosing a performance that they feel ideally captures the spirit of that song.

From Peter Russell, General Director of Vocal Arts DC.

Gussie L. Davis: "In the Baggage Coach Ahead"

Although I vowed, upon beginning this My Favorite Song feature nearly a year ago, that we would have a different contributor every month in perpetuity, I hereby exercise "Editor's Prerogative" to pay tribute this month to a unique artist and dear friend who left us much too soon earlier this summer, mezzo-soprano Dana Krueger. The song I've selected to commemorate her is one that she not only performed beautifully, but one that brought her good fortune, In the Baggage Coach Ahead, with music and lyrics composed by Gussie L. Davis in 1896.

A native of Ohio, Gussie L. Davis was the first African-American to achieve financial success as a songwriter, eventually finding his way to New York's Tin Pan Alley. Perhaps his most famous song was, Good Night, Irene, but at the turn of the last century, In the Baggage Coach Ahead was nearly as popular, selling well over a million copies. Davis wrote that the song came to him as an inspiration while he was working for the Ohio railroad, based on a true story of an incident similar to that depicted in his song as told to him by a porter. While the concept of a "baggage coach" transporting coffins may seem quaint, the song's emotional core is timeless. Tired passengers today respond with the same kneejerk irritation as those in Davis' narrative to the presence of a screaming child. When we trouble ourselves to dig deeper and learn the circumstances, sometimes tragic, behind the child's distress, anger mutates into understanding and compassion. The lilting melody of the song's refrain understatedly captures both the train's steady motion and the wistfulness of the lyrics.

Dana collected songs of this era, and put together a recital program of them in 1989, titled Love's Old Sweet Song, which she performed with Stephen Crout as her accompanist at the Cosmos Club, presented by Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, our June contributor to My Favorite Song. This performance was recorded "live" on that occasion, but Dana had been performing In the Baggage Coach Ahead for some years before that. At the Central City Opera in Colorado, where Dana was a favorite on the roster from the late 1970s through the late 1990s, there is a post-performance tradition, known as "Après Opry," of the festival's principal artists singing spontaneously for patrons at the historic Teller House Hotel. The summer of 1980, while appearing there as the Old Lady in Bernstein's Candide and the Lady with a Hat Box in Argento's Postcard from Morocco, Dana sang In the Baggage Coach Ahead one night at The Teller House. The Associate Editor of Opera News, there to review the festival's opera productions, came up afterward and introduced himself, saying that he was collaborating as librettist with Leonard Bernstein on a new opera, and that he thought that Dana should audition for the great maestro, because he felt that Dana was "the kind of singer Lenny would really like." At his insistence, Dana auditioned for Maestro Bernstein by singing In the Baggage Coach Ahead, thereby rendering him completely verklempt. The net result is that Dana inspired Leonard Bernstein and his librettist, Steven Wadsworth, to create the role of Susie in their opera A Quiet Place, specifically with Dana in mind. She not only sang it at the Houston Grand Opera world premiere in 1983, but stayed with the cast for later runs at the Kennedy Center Opera House and Milan's Teatro alla Scala. To the best of my knowledge, Dana was the only artist to serve as muse to both Leonard Bernstein and Peter Schickele's PDQ Bach (an extraordinary comic actress, she also created the roles of Susanna Susannadanna and Mama Geno in the latter's Mozart spoof The Abduction of Figaro, nationally telecast in 1984 and available on DVD). What makes her rendition of this ballad so moving is the sense that it is so palpably a story being told to us, with an infinite well of compassion, by someone haunted by a remarkable episode she had once experienced on an overnight train, and therefore eager to share it with us. Her words are not only perfectly clear-which itself is rare enough-but vividly inflected, and her voice is warm, dark, and tinged with an "Earth Motherly" hue.

IN THE BAGGAGE COACH AHEAD

Music & Lyrics by Gussie L. Davis (1863-1899)

On a dark stormy night
as the train rattled on,
all the passengers
had gone to bed.
Except one young man
with a babe in his arms,
who sat there with a
bowed down head.

The innocent one
began crying just then,
as though its poor heart
would break.

One angry man said
"Make that child stop its noise,
for it's keeping all of us awake".

"Put it out" said another,
"don't keep it in here -
we've paid for our berths
and want rest"

But never a word
said the man with the child
as he fondled it
close to his breast.

"Where is it's mother,
go take it to her"
a lady then softly said.

"I wish that I could"
was the man's sad reply,
"but she's dead
in the coach ahead."

(refrain)

While the train rolled onward,
a husband sat in tears,
thinking of the happiness
of just a few short years.

For baby's face
brings pictures of
a cherished hope
that's dead. But baby's cries
can't waken her,
in the baggage
coach ahead.

(end of refrain).

Every eye filled with tears
when his story he told,
of a wife who was faithful and true.

He told how he'd saved
all his earnings for years,
just to build up a home for two.

How when heaven
had sent them
this sweet little babe,
their young happy lives were blessed.

His heart seemed to break
when he mentioned her name,
and in tears
tried to tell them the rest.

Every woman arose
to assist with the child.
There were mothers
and wives on that train.

And soon was the little one
sleeping in peace,
with no thought of
sorrow or pain.

Next morn' at a station
he bade all "Goodbye" ,
"God Bless You"
he softly said.

Each one had a story
to tell in their home,
of the baggage coach ahead.

(refrain)

While the train rolled onward,
a husband sat in tears,
thinking of the happiness
of just a few short years,
for baby's face brings pictures of
a cherished hope that's dead.

But, baby's cries
can't waken her,
in the baggage coach ahead.

In the Baggage Coach Ahead, sung by Dana Kreuger [MP3]

Click here to view previous month's submission.


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"My Favorite Song"

Archive of Past Selections