Country Music’s Suffering Children

Child abuse is such an emotionally wrenching subject that even country music — that bastion of easy sentimentality — seldom addresses it. But when it does, the impact can be overwhelming, as it is in John Michael Montgomery’s recent No. 1 hit, “The Little Girl.” This story of a helpless, neglected child watching the murder/suicide of her parents and being divinely comforted throughout the ordeal is designed to melt all but the hardest of hearts.

Daughters mistreated — albeit to a lesser degree — are also the focus of Dan Seals’ “Everything that Glitters (Is Not Gold)” (from 1986) and Merle Haggard’s “Holding Things Together” (1974). In both songs, a mother has abandoned her young daughter, leaving the valiant father to carry on as best he can. “Little Casey, she’s still growing/And she’s started asking questions/And there’s certain things a man just doesn’t know,” Seals sings ruefully. “Today was Angie’s birthday/I guess it slipped your mind,” Haggard laments. (For the record, Casey’s mom ignored her birthday, too.)

Eddy Arnold set the standard for neglected-children songs with his 1944 weeper, “Mommy, Please Stay Home With Me.” Here, in spite of her son’s plea, the mother leaves him to go to a party where “She laughed and danced and did some drinking.” When she returns home, the little boy is dying, and she is marked forever with the memory of his calling out for her.

Written during World War II, when a large number of women were leaving home to take defense jobs, “Mommy, Please” seems to have had something of a political agenda. Not content with chronicling this one particular incident, it concluded with the general warning, “Now mothers, don’t neglect your duty.”

Two years later, after the war was over and America’s soldiers had returned and started families, there was a nationwide housing shortage. This condition gave rise to a practice that might be called “social child abuse” — refusing to rent homes to families with children. “No Children Allowed” examined this injustice in the light of the sacrifices soldiers had made. In the chorus, the singer muses, “No children allowed, no children allowed/Over there I said a prayer and I vowed/To keep my faith in men/But my worries just begin/When they tell me no children allowed.” (Roy Rogers, Art Gabbard and Wes Tuttle all recorded this song. Merle Travis also bemoaned the lack of places to live in his 1946 hit, “No Vacancy.”)

“Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy,” the folk and bluegrass standard, directs our pity toward an earnest, impoverished street urchin, whose father has “died a drunkard” and who now must hawk newspapers in the cold to support his mother. A similarly afflicted waif turns up in John Denver’s “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas).” Although this ditty has all the right sentimental elements, it plays them so broadly that one may reasonably doubt if it was ever meant to be taken seriously.

The little girl in “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast,” Wayne Newton’s 1972 recording, runs after her father as he hurries down the road, intending to leave home “for good.” It is only her heart-rending cries for him to slow down that make him turn back and resolve to “try to start a new life with the mother of my child.” Alas, there is no such happy ending for the youngster in T. Texas Tyler’s 1948 tune, “Dad Gave My Dog Away.” The title says it all.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to