In 1914, Christmas fell on a Friday, and on the following Monday, with the decorations still up and parties still scheduled, Billy Murray, a seasoned, popular vaudevillian Irish tenor with a hammer voice that could reach the back rows, joined his group, the American Quartet, and a few musicians assembled in the RCA building in Camden, NJ, to record a new song. The company was then The Victor Talking Machine Company. Records were an upcoming technology as more people bought the large windup Victrolas, and each Victrola needed a collection of records. Comedy and novelty songs were especially popular.
The singers and musicians crowded around the large acoustical horn, and Murray belted out the song loud enough to move the stylus carving a grove in the wax master. He stepped quickly back and forth in a planned choreography so the louder parts would not distort and to allow bass singer William Hooley to step up for the contrasting last line in each verse. The song was called “On the 5:15.”
Fast-forward about 30 years. Growing up before TV, let alone computers and the Internet, my sister and I listened to records as our main form of entertainment. Our favorite, by far, was an old record we inherited from our uncle called “On the 5:15.” Old-fashioned even then, it was a song that told a story that we only vaguely understood, certainly not a children’s story, but we loved it anyway. Many times we would stomp around the house imitating Hooley’s voice singing the line, “You’ll have to eat your baked potatoes all alone.”
The record, a large 78 rpm of hard, fragile shellac, finally broke, and I hadn’t heard it for 70 years until it recently appeared on the Internet, preserved by the Library of Congress.
The song was written just as people were moving out to the suburbs while still working in the city. The daily commute on the train became routine, but arrive at the station a minute too late and your whole life could be ruined, as the song describes. It still serves as a metaphor for the dangers inherent in our tightly scheduled lives.
On the 5:15
Talk about your subway, talk about your “El,”
Talk about your street car lines as well;
But when you’re living out where the fields are green,
You’ve got to go home on the 5:15.
You leave the office at five o’clock,
Stop at the butchers for a steak or a chop,
Get the evening papers and a magazine,
And you run like the dickens for the 5:15.
Oh, the 5:15! Hear the whistle blowin’.
Oh, the 5:15! Your Ingersoll is slow.
Oh the 5:15! Down the track she’s goin’
Bang! goes the gate on the 5:15.
Wifey’s home a-waiting, dinner in the pot,
Dishes on the table, and the fire red hot.
Gets the loving message on the telephone,
“You’ll have to eat your baked potatoes all alone.”
The next train home is the 7:38.
Hubby goes back to the corner to wait.
Meets the biggest crowd he’s ever seen.
Seventeen commuters missed the 5:15.
Oh, the 5:15! Seventeen commuters.
Oh, the 5:15! Lined up at the bar,
Oh, the 5:15! Their wife is home a-waiting,
Nobody’s home on the 5:15!
Everybody’s happy, everybody’s glad.
It’s about the seventeenth drink they’ve had.
Suburban quartet is singing “Home Sweet Home,”
And Hubby’s all excited singing baritone!
He gets home about half past one,
Carrying a steak and a chop and a bun.
The door is locked and the lights turned down,
Throws the steak through the transom, and goes back to town.
Oh, the 5:15! Seventeen commuters.
Oh, the 5:15! Still around the bar.
Oh, the 5:15! Hubby’s back to join ’em.
Now there’s a club called the 5:15!
Wifey’s home a crying, lying on the bed.
Hubby’s in the office with an awful head,
Little blue glooms marching through his brain
Yelling “All aboard the 5:15 train!”
He gets to the station at five o’clock
Forgets it is Saturday and gets a shock.
The guard says, “Hey, get out of the way.
The 5:15 doesn’t run today.”
Oh, the 5:15! The cause of all our sorrow.
Oh, the 5:15! Brought trouble to our house.
Oh, the 5:15! Wifey’s gone to Mother,
Bang! goes the home on the 5:15.
Wifey’s got a lawyer, looking up the case
Hubby’s sneaking ’round the office in disgrace.
He’s got no home and he’s got no wife,
He’s going to join the alimony club for life
He goes to court, his case to fight.
Takes a look around and everything’s all right.
The jury, the lawyer, the judge supreme,
All are commuters on the 5:15!
Oh, the 5:15! The jury won’t convict him.
Oh, the 5:15! They’re going to set him free.
On the 5:15! He always hits a hundred,
They all pick up the players on the 5:15!
You can hear the exact version I remember at http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/425. The lyricist, who deserves much of the credit, was Stanley Murphy. But this was show biz as low as it gets, and nobody got much credit, not even Billy Murray.
(I think the last chorus refers to Gin Rummy, the popular card game they played on the way home. One hundred is the winning number of points.)
Murray’s hard style seemed old-fashioned with the adoption of electronic amplification, and his career soon took a downward slide. He later found a niche career recording the songs for the sing-along “follow the bouncing ball” cartoons where his hammer voice was perfectly suited to lead the audience.