American popular music in the late nineteenth century was dominated by a style of songwriting called the "tear-jerker." Many of these songs are long forgotten now, but some are still around in the form of old recordings, sheet music, or through having been passed down from one generation's memory to the next. "In the Baggage-Coach Ahead" is one of the survivors, more than a century after it was written.

The lyrics and music were first published in 1896, and are credited to Gussie L. Davis, one of the earliest black Americans to achieve significant success as a mainstream popular songwriter.

According to some sources, the song recounts a story which Gussie Davis personally witnessed while working as a railroad porter in the years before his musical career began. One of the other porters wrote a poem about the incident, and Davis set the words to music years later, after acquiring the skills to become a composer.

"In the Baggage-Coach Ahead" became the biggest hit of Davis' career, partly because the publisher persuaded the contemporary popular singer Imogene Comer to incorporate the song into her performances. Unfortunately for Davis, he had sold all rights to the publisher for a small flat fee. He received none of the profits from its runaway success.

Images of the original sheet music for this song are currently available in a web archive, at the address given at the end of this writeup. It is usually performed in a slow waltz rhythm.

The first part of the lyrics might seem trite, but read through to the end. It will be no surprise that this became Davis' most popular and enduring composition. It is a thought-provoking poem with greater depth than most other works in the "tear-jerker" style.

"In the Baggage-Coach Ahead"

On a dark stormy night, as the train rattled on,
All the passengers had gone to bed,
Except one young man with a babe in his arms
Who sat there with a bowed-down head.
The innocent one began crying just then,
As though its poor heart would break.
One angry man said, "Make that child stop its noise,
For it's keeping all of us awake."

"Put it out," said another, "Don't keep it in here;
We've paid for our berths and want rest."
But never a word said the man with the child,
As he fondled it close to his breast.
"Where is its mother? Go take it to her,"
this a lady then softly said.
"I wish I could," was the man's sad reply.
"But she's dead in the coach ahead."

While the train rolled onward, a husband sat in tears,
Thinking of the happiness of just a few short years.
Baby's face brings pictures of a cherished hope that's dead,
But baby's cries can't waken her in the baggage coach ahead.

Every eye filled with tears when his story he told
Of a wife who was faithful and true;
He told how he'd saved up his earnings for years,
Just to build up a home for two;
How when Heaven had sent them this sweet little babe,
Their young happy lives were blessed;
His heart seemed to break when he mentioned her name,
And in tears tried to tell them the rest.

Every woman arose to assist with the child;
There were mothers and wives on that train.
And soon was the little one sleeping in peace,
With no thought of sorrow or pain.
Next morn at a station he bade all goodbye,
"God bless you," he softly said,
Each one had a story to tell in their homes
Of the baggage coach ahead.


To the best of my knowledge, this song is now in the public domain.

Sources for lyrics (and sheet music):

http://parlorsongs.com/issues/2001-10/thismonth/featurea.asp
http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/dynaweb/sheetmusic/1890-1899/@Generic__BookTextView/6170

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