The Things We Sing: “I Had a Dream Just Now, Mother”
Art Mob treasurer, arranger, and bass Dean Rainey tells the story behind this Victorian exemplar:
Our Spring 2018 “Keep a Lid On It” program includes this spooky 1854 lament, representing a genre that dates from a time when infant mortality was far too common.
The popular music industry of the day took advantage of this tragedy as an opportunity to pull on consumers’ heartstrings, which are reliably connected to their purse-strings.
In the case of this song, publisher W. C. Peters & Sons, of Cincinnati, sold a copy to the Thibault family. Helen E. Thibault, perhaps a musical daughter, included it in a bound collection of her sheet music, with her name engraved on the front. You can barely read it now.
Time passed, and we don’t know exactly what became of Helen E. and the rest of the Thibaults. Her sheet music collection survived, though, and fell into the hands of an eccentric great-uncle of mine. I don’t recall ever meeting him; he lived in Southern California, where he worked, for decades, at a bookstore. A recluse in his later years and apparently a hoarder (he never let anyone into his house, so we have only the word of the people who cleaned it up after he died), he left no heirs, but his will divided his estate among three relatives, including my mother. His many books and his other property—of which there seems to have been very little other than a herd of cats—were sold off and the proceeds doled out as directed.
But there were some things that nobody wanted. Besides Helen’s volume of music, damaged by time, mildew, and cats, there were a hefty stack of loose sheet music, dating from the teens through the thirties; a boxful of Hollywood movie magazines; and miscellaneous movie star photos. All this was shipped to my mother’s address, where I pounced on the music. I have mined the loose sheets for many an Art Mob arrangement, but I always felt most emotionally attached to Helen’s book, since it connects me with a real person: a person who, judging from its contents, sang sentimental duets (“Our Wild Woodland Home,” “Gently Sighs the Breeze”) and played salon pieces for piano four hands (Overture to “Le Cheval de Bronze” by D. F. E Auber) and solo (“Le Carnevale de Venise” by Th. Oesten) when she was not singing about departed children. She also, charmingly, believed in fairies: the Mob sang “Tell Me Where Do Fairies Dwell,” one of several such songs in her book, in 2011 for our “Dwelling On It” program.
I arranged “I Had a Dream Just Now, Mother” in 2010 for the Mob’s “Out of Our Element” concerts. The rationale for reprising it this time is—well, the real reason is that I had been haunted by a desire to sing it again and was looking for any excuse. The fig leaf of legitimacy is the “wreath of golden hair” with which the angel is bedecked. His lid.
I can find no trace of this song on the famously comprehensive Internet. Solon Nourse, the composer, is there, but as a hymnodist. The lyricist, A. J. Shively, has been totally eclipsed by a young Broadway actor of the same name. Helen is gone for good, and the baby left with the angel, but we can make the music come back to life. Come to the concert and enjoy this Art Mob hyper-exclusive.