Break the News to Mother

Charles K. Harris, 1897

Why were songs like this so popular in the Civil War? What makes them seem so sentimental today? Which songs does it remind you of from the Civil War? Why do you think this song was not too popular when it was first published in 1897? What happened to make it a bestseller in 1898?

Compare the casualty figures in the Civil War, which this song is about, with those from the Spanish-American War, when the song was popular. How likely were families to have had this kind of bad news in the Spanish-American War compared to the Civil War? What differences between these two wars account for the difference in casualty figures?

Compare this song with "Father's a Drunkard, and Mother is Dead" in this unit, or "Just Before the Battle, Mother" or "The Vacant Chair" from Unit 4. How are they similar? What are the common characteristics of these "tear-jerkers"? What words are meant to strike an emotional chord? How does the music add to the effect?

What was the purpose of these songs? Why do you think they were so popular in the 1800s? What phrases in recent songs would you consider "sentimental"? Why?

What are your theories about why such songs are not as popular in the twenty-first century as they were in the nineteenth? You might think about how songs were delivered and "consumed" then and now, or look at other art forms for clues.


"Break the News to Mother" performed by Benjamin Luxon and David Willison on Britten: Folksongs and Ballads, Universal International Music, © 1993. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

Benjamin Luxon (1937–) is a baritone who performed with composer Benjamin Britten’s English Opera Group, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and English National Opera. He also sang in major US and European opera houses. In addition to his opera work, Luxon also developed a reputation as a concert artist and recitalist with a broad repertoire, ranging from early music through lieder to contemporary song, music hall, and folk music. He has been recognized for his work rehabilitating parlor songs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

View the lyrics for "Break the News to Mother."

View the published score.

During the Civil War, sentimental songs about soldiers dying were a flourishing genre. But by the 1890s, such songs were out of fashion. This song about a dying Union soldier's last words was only moderately successful at first, but when the USS Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor, American audiences were more receptive.

Charles K. Harris
[Charles Kassell Harris, three-quarter length portrait, seated on arm of chair, facing front] / White, N.Y. Between 1890 and 1900. https://www.loc.gov/ pictures/item/98503000/

Charles Harris (1867–1930) was known as the "king of the tear-jerkers," and this song is an excellent example of this popular genre. He moved his publishing company from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to New York's Union Square to join several other pioneering companies in forming what is now known as "Tin Pan Alley." He was an excellent promoter of songs and was the first to include photographs of performers on his sheet music as a way to enlist their assistance with publicity. Harris was the first secretary of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) when it was formed in 1914, and helped to protect composers' rights by promoting copyright legislation. Harris drew inspiration for his songs from incidents he read about in the newspapers or overheard in conversation, but almost never from his own life. Despite their sentimentality, his songs were written solely for the purpose of selling sheet music.

Compare this song to:

"Just Before the Battle, Mother" and "The Vacant Chair" (Unit 4)

"Father's a Drunkard, and Mother is Dead" (in this unit)