one touch of nature

November 24, 2007 at 4:36 pm (lyrics, music criticism, songwriting) (, , , , , )

They just don’t write songs like “My Mother Was A Lady” anymore. Published in New York City in 1895 by Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern and first recorded by Jimmie Rodgers in 1928 as “Mother Was A Lady”, the song tells the story of a waitress, who having been insulted by two drummers in a fine restaurant, turns on her tormentors to let them know just who she is, who her mother is, and who her brother is. Here are the lyrics:

Two drummers sat at dinner in a grand hotel one day,
While dining they were chatting in a jolly sort of way;
And when a pretty waitress brought them a tray of food,
They spoke to her familiarly in a manner rather rude.

At first she did not notice them or make the least reply,
But one remark was passed that brought the teardrops to her eye;
And facing her tormentor, with cheeks now burning red,
She looked a perfect picture as appealingly she said:

“My mother was a lady like yours, you will allow,
And you may have a sister who needs protection now;
I’ve come to this great city to find a brother dear,
And you wouldn’t dare insult me, sir, if Jack were only here.”

It’s true, one touch of nature, it makes the whole world kin,
And ev’ry word she uttered seemed to touch their hearts within;
They sat there stunned and silent, until one cried in shame,
“Forgive me, Miss! I meant no harm, pray tell me what’s your name?”

She told him and he cried again, “I know your brother, too,
Why, we’ve been friends for many years and he often speaks of you;
He’ll be so glad to see you, and if you’ll only wed,
I’ll take you to him as my wife, for I love you since you said:

“My mother was a lady like yours, you will allow,
And you may have a sister, who needs protection now;
I’ve come to this great city to find a brother dear,
And you wouldn’t dare insult me, sir, if Jack were only here.”

In the chorus and the following verse the songwriter does two brilliant things. The waitress confronts the men with the realization that, far from being an object for them to use, she is a daughter, a sister, and a stranger in need of protection.

“My mother was a lady like yours, you will allow,
And you may have a sister who needs protection now;
I’ve come to this great city to find a brother dear,
And you wouldn’t dare insult me, sir, if Jack were only here.”

It’s true, one touch of nature, it makes the whole world kin,
And ev’ry word she uttered seemed to touch their hearts within;
They sat there stunned and silent, until one cried in shame,
“Forgive me, Miss! I meant no harm, pray tell me what’s your name?”

This “touch of nature” that “makes the whole world kin” seems largely alien to today’s songwriting. In our own day and age I wonder whether a hotel waitress would dare revealing such personal information, or whether two men today would even “get” the truth before them.

After this beautiful scene, the drummer who was ashamed immediately turns to wanting to help the young woman—by proposing marriage. Would this really work? Social structures have changed so much today, it’s hard to relate to the characters’ appeal to family and protection. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe persons are not completely autonomous and detached. Maybe it could happen again that a waitress would happen into a new city in search of her brother, and find him through a lewd drummer ashamed of himself, repentant, and helpful at the same time. In any case, the appeal to human community, to an original basis of relation, to respect and dignity in a disarming and enlightening way is refreshing to this listener’s ear.

I was first introduced to it through Johnny Cash’s version in the album “Personal File.” Cash slowed it way down from Jimmie Rodger’s version in 1928, emphasizing each tender moment. I gather from Jimmie Rodger’s recording that the original music had a livelier rhythm through out, that slowed only for the chorus and verse I highlighted.

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