Why mama starts to weep: The inexplicable power of a song

Frank Loesser’s enduring power

3 minute read
Loesser: I sang his songs in spite of myself.
Loesser: I sang his songs in spite of myself.
While listening to an NPR program commemorating the 100th anniversary of the songwriter Frank Loesser's birth (June 29, 1910), I was reminded of certain experiences shared by people of his era— my mother, also born in 1910, included.

As a pre-teen and young teen in the late 1940s and early '50s, I often found myself singing (if only to myself),"Hello Central, Give Me No Man's Land" and "The Ballad of Rodger Young"— songs that infiltrated my head and insisted on airtime. I had no idea how they got there.

I finally asked my mother, a musical woman from a musical family, if she had any idea about where I might have heard them. She laughed gently and got a funny look on her face. It was a "This is important" look, so and I kept my mouth shut and waited.

Then, very softly and looking like she might cry, she told me about having been a very small child during World War I and hearing "Hello Central" sung over and over again. The line that stuck most vividly in her head (and with which she obviously identified) was "Hello Central, give me No Man's Land, my daddy's there."

"I sang it to you as a lullaby many, many times when you were a small baby," she added.

I could tell "Rodger Young" would have to wait.

Another war, another bedtime

A few days later, when we happened to be alone, she reminded me I had also asked about "Rodger Young." In the interim I had figured it for another World War I song, and probably British as well. Nope: World War II, by Frank Loesser (as I just learned today, thanks to NPR). And my mother had sung it to me as a bedtime song: "To the everlasting glory of the infantry, lives the story of Private Rodger Young… Fought and died for the men he marched among."

When I sang it to myself, those words never failed to bother me. Even for my youthful self, the awful destructive nature of war far outweighed the glorious. Yet I kept on singing.

Comfort from war songs

The cosmology my mother shared with Loesser was bracketed by the two World Wars, just as the cosmology my generation shares is largely bracketed by the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Somehow, my mother had converted her generation's war songs—songs she couldn't escape— to melodies of comfort for her children. I sang them to my own small children, and I sing them to this day.

Perhaps an important message for us all is to pay special attention to the small but powerful things one generation often somewhat inadvertently passes along to the next. As Sam M.Lewis and Joe Young put it in "Hello Central," "I want to know why mama starts to weep, when I say "'Now I lay me down to sleep.' "

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