Father's a Drunkard, and Mother is Dead

Words by Nellie H. Bradley; music by Mrs. E. A. Parkhurst, 1866

Who is supposedly singing this song? What is its message and who is it for? How well would this song have appealed to that audience?

How realistic do you think this language is for a little girl? How realistic was Bessie's situation? What are some real ways this situation could have come about in the late 1800s?

What probably happened to children in Bessie's position? What programs do we have today to handle problems like this? How successful do you think these programs are? When did programs like these begin? The first settlement houses began during this era to address these problems.

What are today's "temperance" messages? How are they delivered? How is music being used? What recent songs carry a similar message?


"Father's a Drunkard and Mother is Dead" performed by Dear Friends on Pitt Proud Traditions, University of Pittsburgh, © 1987.

This performance is by Dear Friends, an ensemble devoted to the historically accurate rendition of parlor music.

A different recording by Faith Prince is available via Spotify.

View the lyrics for "Father's a Drunkard, and Mother is Dead."

View the published score.

Although men participated in music-making during the nineteenth century, the sentimental parlor song was both marketed primarily to women and associated with feminine values. The moral authority presumed to be seated in women was put to the service of social reform, and no social cause was more effectively addressed in music than temperance, since women were the primary victims of alcohol abuse.

I'll Marry No Man if He Drinks broadside
Broadside for "I'll Marry No Man If He Drinks" by Mrs. E.A. Parkhurst.

Songs espousing the evils of alcohol through gruesome fantasies about dying children, drunken fathers, and shivering, starving moms were especially successful. One of the finest composers of such ballads was Mrs. E. A. Parkhurst.

Little is known about Parkhurst except that in the sixties she turned out a remarkable quantity of pieces of generally high quality, ranging from a campaign tune for General Grant to the minstrel tune "Sweet Evalina" to the admonitory "Don't Marry a Man if He Drinks." She contributed to the "brain" song epidemic with "Love on the Brain" and "Scandal on the Brain," and she helped out the temperance cause repeatedly with songs like "Girls, Wait for a Temperance Man," "Oh, Help Little Mary the Drunkard's Poor Child," and "Father's a Drunkard, and Mother is Dead." Many of her songs, especially the last, were popularized by her daughter, "Little Effie," on whom Parkhurst's success may have depended: in the seventies, when Effie would no longer have been little, her mother apparently stopped composing.

Design a temperance poster in the graphic style of the late 1800s. Write slogans for signs for a temperance march. Write new temperance words to a march like "John Brown's Body."

Research Jane Addams and other pioneering social activists of the 1880s and 1890s. Role-play how they might have helped Bessie at the Hull House settlement house in Chicago.