In Search of Women In American Song;
A neglected musical heritage.
Over the years at Parlor Songs, you have seen nearly 1,000 songs
published here most of which were composed by male composers and songwriters.
Only a few of the many women composers in America had their music published
and heard during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fewer still, enjoyed
the popularity that most male composers enjoyed, even though much of their music
was superior to much of what some of the more celebrated men wrote. In researching
works we have published by women composers, we have noticed that finding information
on women composers is much more difficult than for men. In fact, as I review
many of the reference works in my library, the lack of mention of women composers
is a glaring and embarrassing omission in our musical heritage.
Was it because women failed to make the grade as composers? Was it, as one
early, and a more recent controversial psychological study intimated; that women
lacked the mental spatial orientation to visualize and create music (but were
capable of playing it)? Or, was it the cultural biases and mores that led women
to other pursuits? This month's issue, a special feature and "in search
of" article, explores the issue of women in American popular music and
provides a sampling of some of the richness that can be found in the works of
many of the women composers who struggled to write and publish music in the
man's world of 20th century Tin
The image we have provided at the top of the page is a most fitting depiction
of women in music prior to 1900 (and even well beyond.) The "piano lady"
was the predominant image of women in music. The direction was that women would
perform music, not make music. They were an object to entertain
and it was something of a requirement that women in colonial times and well
into the 19th century play a keyboard or other home instrument for the purpose
of entertaining visitors and the family at home. Later, as shown in our picture,
women made a strong showing in music education to such a degree that women dominated
music education during the later half of the 19th century and well into the
20th century. In general, these were the roles of women in music, whether it
was classical or popular music. Composition was not considered "woman's
work," and women who attempted to compose were often discouraged or even
forbade by father or husband from pursuing that option.
Many talented women were thus prevented from adding their talents to our musical
heritage. Some, however, refused to be suppressed and found ways to either compose
surreptitiously or compose under male or androgynous pen names. Such was the
case with none other than Fanny Mendelssohn, the sister of Felix Mendelssohn.
Fanny produced some of the greatest music from the classical period yet early
on, much of it had to be produced behind her father's back. It has been said
she had as much, perhaps more talent than her brother Felix, yet her role was
more in support of him than competing with him. Some of the music attributed
to Felix was actually composed by Fanny and published under his name. Many of
the reference books from the past show a complete disregard for women composers.
Even their titles display the disdain shown for women composers. As an Example,
take the 1944 book; Men Of Popular Music ( Ewen, David Ziff-Davis Publishing
Company, Chicago, 1944 .) The title speaks volumes and of course inside, you'll
find no mention of a woman composer yet several women composers of American
music had far exceeded the accomplishments of the "men" Ewen writes
The period from Colonial times to the mid 19th century were marked
by very few published works by women composers or songwriters. Music performance,
not composition, was a feminine accomplishment
and was an ornament, or social skill for women. Though women were educated in
musical performance, they were not educated in composition and as a result,
the first women composers to emerge were amateurs, among them many notables
such as Martha Jefferson and her two daughters. The majority of females in music
were performers and the most well known at that time were English singers and
performers who came to America. Among these immigrants was one Mary Ann Pownall
who was among the first "Americans" to compose and publish songs.
Her Jemmy Of The Glenn, seen here, from before 1800 may be
one of the earliest compositions by a woman published in America. It is a somewhat
upbeat tune but with a somber, sad message, played here with harpsichord to
provide a period feel. Click on the cover image to see and hear the Scorch version,(Printable!)
click here for the midi version. To see the
complete Lyrics, click here.
An unfortunate practice in publishing of works by women composers
emerged around 1825 that has resulted in the loss of the
names of some of the better early women composers. That practice was the anonymous
publication of songs by simply identifying the composer/songwriter as, for example,
"A Lady of Maryland", or "a Lady of Charleston." One of
the better known and quite good keyboard works from this period was the Titus
March, published around 1825 by "a Lady of Baltimore." Again,
click the cover for the Scorch version (printable), here for the MIDI
(there are no lyrics for this one).
Research into secular music in print in America before 1825 shows
only about 70 works by women. composers, most by English women. An appalling
scorecard but certainly not a surprise given the social norms of the period.
Thankfully, by 1840, this "Lady of" practice had passed and we find
that more music by women was being published using their real names.
Though still dominated by English composers, American popular
music begins to show a number of talented songwriters emerging in the mid 19th
century. Among the more popular American songwriters during this period were
Faustina Hasse Hodges, Susan Parkhurst, Augusta Browne and Marion Dix Sullivan.
Among Sullivan's published works is a delightful song titled Marion Day.
Published in 1841 by Oliver Ditson of Boston (America's first major music publisher),
Marion Day is a sad tale of a young lady's life gone wrong. In many
respects, it reminds me of last month's (August, 2002) Death
Lady (Scorch format). To see and listen to the Scorch version, click the
sheet music image (printable), click here for the MIDI
version, and here for the Lyrics. Sadly, as is the case mentioned
above, almost all of these talented women gain little or no mention in the majority
of references related to American composers and their works. Even references
closer to the period make no mention of these women composers. On-line, there
are a number of resources that list or cite women composers, but even then,
as you can see for yourself, information about these women is very sparse indeed.
One of the best sites for information and biographies of women composers is
Another excellent source is The International
Alliance for Women In Music. And one other, which has a number of links
is Women Composers, A
Bibliography of Internet Resources. If you are interested in more research
related to women composers, I urge you to look at these sites. In spite of these
resources, finding information about women in popular music is a challenge.
That will become more evident as we move to the main body of our survey of music
for this issue.
After 1850, things began to change somewhat and the "piano
girl" began to be replaced by a new image of greater respect and acknowledgment
of accomplishment. Even then there was still little public acclamation of women
as composers and the homebody performer was still the prevailing social expectation
for women. However, during this period we find more women entering the area
of music education, and by 1900 women excelled and even dominated the field.
According to US Bureau of Census information, the proportion of women in "music
and music teaching" rose to over 60% from 1870 to 1910! The period from
1890 onward saw the emergence of a pioneering generation of women composers,
mostly focused on "classical" music and led by the likes of Amy Beach
who was the first female composer to have a symphony performed in the US (Boston,
1893). Others like our featured Anna
Priscilla Risher became patrons of the arts as well as accomplished composers,
playing an important role in the establishment of orchestras and musical organization.
By 1900, women composers and songwriters were finally flourishing but all was
not a bed of roses. Social norms still placed pressures on them and many were
still forced to use pseudonyms or initials to mask their sex. Often, a new composer
teamed up with an established male songwriter and rode on his coattails till
she had established her own reputation. As we will see, with the rapid social
changes that occurred in the US after W.W.I, the number of popular compositions
by women was significant.
This month's issue is not intended to be a complete survey of
all music by women composers, but to provide you with a view of some of the
works that have emerged from the pens of the women composers and songwriters
of America. Much of the music presented here is by neglected composers whose
life stories seem to be temporarily lost to us. As we have so often before,
we will be leaving the beaten path to bring you some obscure works from the
period that we think deserve notice and that are representative of the talent
of women in American popular music. We hope you find this month's issue informative
as well as entertaining. Be sure to note that this article is covered in two
pages so be sure to continue to page two after viewing this page.
Music by: Carrie Jacobs-Bond
Lyrics by: Bond
Cover artist: probably Bond
Though not in proper chronological order, the place of Carrie Jacobs-Bond
in American popular song and women composers likely places her as the
preeminent woman composer of the late 1800's and well into the middle
of the twentieth century. Bond was the first million selling woman composer
and in many respects, her music sets the mark that all who followed her
would seek. Her music is full of deep feeling and shows a great deal of
musical accomplishment. Unlike many popular songs that used standard construction
and "stock riffs", Bond's music reflects a great deal of thought
and in many cases complexity of construction.
This beautiful song is a good example of Bond's musicality and lyrical
ability. Written while she was at her peak of popularity and probably
skill, it is a great example of how a popular song can border on the classical.
Bond's life was one of affliction and hardship and serves as an inspiration
to anyone trying to overcome the odds against them. Our biography
on Bond is worth a visit if you've not seen it before.
Hear this work by the
"first lady " of American popular song (scorch format)
listen to MIDI version
Music by: Kate Kyro
Lyrics by: none, piano solo
Cover artist: unknown
Subtitled, "an African Characteristic", Kate Kyro's piano "one-step"
is clearly of the age of Ragtime.
A wonderful work that tells the story of a nighttime watermelon thief,
complete with narrative as to what the music is conveying, this is a fine
piece that should be in today's repertoire. Unfortunately, the song is
rarely if ever heard and Kyro has been relegated to the "missing
in action" file as far as her biography and other works by her goes.
Clearly, Kyro was very talented as this work is full of musical innovation,
good humor and stand up well against any of the Ragtime and period one-step
works. In some respects, she is our first of many poster children for
the lost heritage of women in popular music in America.
this excellent piano arrangement (SCORCH format)
listen to MIDI version
Wants You (It's Nice To Be Somebody's Beau)
Music by: Maude Nugent
Lyrics by: Nugent
Cover artist: Starmer
The cover of this work is unique. Published originally by Shapiro Bernstein,
apparently they had a rather large inventory and distributed copies as
a supplement to the New York Tribune, that's the rather ugly overprinting
at the top of the sheet. I've seen only a few sheets such as this as most
music supplements were included as specially printed items either inserted
into the pages of the newspaper or printed as a fold out on newsprint.
I can only assume that it was an inventory clearance on the part of Shapiro
Bernstein as the song does not ring as one of 1909's greatest hits. Regardless,
it's a wonderful tune and deserves preservation. The photo on the cover
is a performer of the period, Dorothy Drew.
Maude Nugent (1877 - 1958) is best known as the writer of a much
more remembered and popular song, Sweet Rosie O'Grady, published
in 1896. As with many accomplishments by women, Nugent's authorship of
the song was cast into doubt by some at the time who felt it must have
been written instead by her more well known husband, composer William
Jerome. However, Nugent's own performances of the song brought it into
popularity and her reputation as a songwriter became cemented as a result.
Nugent was born in Brooklyn NY and showed a great deal of musical and
performing talent. She was a successful singer, actress vaudeville performer
Many of her songs had an Irish theme and include several "Irish"
titles besides "Rosie", including, Down At Rosie Reilly's
Flat, My Irish Daisy and Mary From Tipperary. Much
to her credit, she retired from the stage at the tender age of 28 to raise
a family. Obviously, she continued to compose as this song would have
been written some four years after her "retirement." In her
later years she returned to the stage to perform in nostalgic "gay
nineties" shows and was featured a number of times on television
in the 1950's while in her eighties! Nugent died in New York in June of
Listen to and see this
New feature! Print this sheet music (scorch format only)
Listen to MIDI version
Don't Need The Moonlight To Make Love To You
Music by: Francis X. Conlan
Lyrics by: Charlotte Blake
Cover artist: Bert Cobb
Waltzes have always been a popular basis for songs and as such, they
lend a musical quality that can carry us off to dreamland, loveland or
any other state of reverie without much effort. This nice waltz song by
Blake and Conlan shows a great skill in combining a really meaningful
poetic line and a simple but effective musical setting to give us a momentary
escape to a time when love flourished and sentiments were unabashedly
maudlin, but honest. A very pleasant song indeed.
In 1880, George P. Upton, an otherwise intelligent music critic in Chicago,
wrote a book, Women In Music in which he put forth the idea that
women lacked the innate creativity to compose good music. He did not deny
that they could compose music but that they simply did not have the same
level of creativity as men to create good music. It was a biological predisposition
according to Upton. In the mid 1990's a similar theory was published that
stated women lacked the spatial orientation to accomplish certain things
such as reading maps, visualizing spatial relationships that included
the space and time relationships required in composing music. Those dissertations
acknowledged that there were notable exceptions but that overall, biology
was the determining factor that explained why fewer women than men were
noted composers. Of course we know that differences exist in the way women
and men think and that women are in general stronger in the literary department
and men in mechanical areas, but those naïve dissertations ignore
the social forces in play that kept women from success in the "man's
world" of composition and many other pursuits as well. The lyrical
contributions by women songwriters and the musical results surveyed here
in this article clearly show the strength of women to write extremely
good songs. We'll explore these ideas more as our issue continues
Originally, when we published this feature, we had been unable to locate
much information about Charlotte Blake, we originally thought
she could be yet another of our "poster girls". We recently
heard from Nan Bostick and Nora Hulse, two writers and researchers of
women composers (check out their latest at, http://home.earthlink.net/~ephemeralist/
) With their help, I offer this much better and more detailed biography
on Blake written and graciously provided by Nan Bostick.
Charlotte Blake (Born, May 30th, 1885, Ohio; Died August 21st,
1979, Santa Monica, CA). From around 1903 to 1912 Charlotte Blake was
a staff writer for Jerome H. Remick, proprietor of the Whitney Warner
Publishing Co., in Detroit, MI. Throughout this period she lived with
her family at the home address of Edward C. Blake, who headed up a truly
traditional Michigan enterprise: E. C. Blake & Co., "Dealers
in Raw and Dressed Furs." In the city directories, Charlotte Blake
was simply identified as a "pianist" or "clerk," but
in fact she composed over 35 titles for Remick including syncopated pieces,
rags, novelettes, waltzes, and songs, several of which received top billing
in Remick's advertising campaigns. At first she was referred to as "C.
Blake, composer of 'Missouri Mule,' etc." but by 1906 the Remick
ads revealed her full name.
"Dainty Dames" Novelette: This beautiful, little,
dainty semi-classic by Charlotte Blake stands out prominently with the
very best class of leaders and is played continuously. It is called a
Novelette and certainly is novel in every sense of the word, and exceedingly
melodious. Especially adapted for Theatre and Concert work and is a most
In 1911 Remick published three songs plus an instrumental rag, which
received this amusing review:
With "rags" in
general we are at enmity, and we pour out the vials of
our wrath on the ragger who invented rag. But seeing that "rags"
the market we must acknowledge them. As a sample of this peculiar kink,
Charlotte Blake's "That Tired Rag'" is as good as any of them.
[American Musician & Art Journal, Mar. 25, 1911,
After 1919 Charlotte Blake seems to have abandoned her composing career.
She continued living with her family in the Detroit area at least through
the early 1930s and apparently never married. Eventually she moved to
Santa Monica, California where she died in 1979 at age 94.
Nan Bostick's chronological listing of Charlotte Blake compositions found
via titles from the Whitney-Warner and Jerome Remick Library of Congress
claimants file, Detroit Public Library's collection of sheets by Detroit
composers, or titles in my own, or various other folks' collections:
King Cupid (1903); The Missouri Mule March. (1904); Dainty
Dames - A Novelette (1905); The Mascot (March) (1905); My
Lady Laughter (1905); Love Is King (1906); Could You Read
My Heart (1906); A Night, A Girl, A Moon (1907) Curly March
and Two Step (1907); Orchids, Novelette Three Step. (1907);
Hip Hip Hooray (1907); The Last Kiss (1907); I Wonder
If It's You. (1907); Boogie Man, A Creep Mouse Fun (1907);
So Near and Yet so Far (1907); Gravel Rag (1908); In
Memory of You (1908); It Makes A Lot of Difference When You Are
With The Girl You Love. (1909); Poker Rag (1909); The Wish
Bone Rag and Two-Step (1909); Yankee Kid (1909); Honey Bug
Song (1910); Bridal Veil Waltzes (1910); You're a Classy
Lassie (1910); Love Ain't Likin', Likin' Ain't Love (1910);
Meet Me Half Way (1910); Miss Coquette (1910); Love's Dream
of You (1910); Roses Remind Me of You (1910); The Road to
Loveland (1911); I Don't Need the Moonlight to Make Love to You
(1911); That Tired Rag (1911); The Harbor of Love (1911);
Queen of the Roses (1913); Land of Beautiful Dreams (1913);
Rose of the World (1915); Honey When It's Money (1919).
Things have fared less well for her partner in this effort, Francis X.
Conlan for I can find absolutely nothing about him (or her).
Hear this old wonderful
Listen to MIDI version
Music by: Dorothy Forster
Lyrics by: none, piano only
Cover artist: Frank M. Barton
As best I can determine, Frank Barton created only one other sheet music
cover, A Little Love, A Little Kiss in the same year as the Pelican's
Parade. What a shame for us he did not do many more as this cover
is one of the more striking and artistic to be found, certainly more unique
than the majority cranked out by the cover mills during the Tin Pan Alley
era. Dorothy Forster has fared about the same, few of her works survive
and little is known about her. If any work could dispel the preposterous
theory of biological incapacity to compose, this fantastic work douses
the idea in napalm.
In my own experience, I've developed some personal general feelings
about the works of women composers and songwriters. Of course, for those
of you who follow our site, it is clear my all time favorite composer/songwriter
is Carrie Jacobs-Bond. From her works and those of other women composers,
and at the risk of joining Upton as a demon, I believe there are a few
characteristics of women composers music that sets their works apart from
those of men.
First, I find the music and lyrics of women composers of the early 20th
century to be more sincere, to speak more to the heart than most popular
songs. The lyrics of these works tend to be more meaningful and less shallow.
While the lyrics of the majority of songs from this era are "cute"
and creative, they still seem to be shallow when compared to the general
trend of lyrics by women songwriters. The music of women composers, in
my opinion, tends to be more "musical." By that I mean that
while the majority of music churned out by Tin
Pan Alley seems to be rather simple and formulaic in construction,
many of the works by women show more complexity and musicality. Just look
at the Carrie Jacob's work Do You Remember, above to see and
hear the added depth and ornamentation Bond includes that makes the song
unique and sets it apart from the standard construction of most songs
of the era. Look at our Risher
biography to see examples of popular song elevated to the level of
art songs and even classical music. Likewise, this work goes beyond the
standard mass market appeal, commercial grade music to show a depth of
thought and care in construction only found in works by the most skilled
and caring composers. As you go through this month's issue, look carefully
at the scores (use the scorch player) and note the musical construction
of the songs composed by women and compare them to some of the construction
of popular songs in general. If you don't (or do) see a difference, or
if you think I've gone off my rocker,
e-mail me your comments.
Dorothy Forster is our third poster child this month, a virtual
enigma with little to no information available. We are aware of only one
other work by her, Sing Joyous Bird (a title used by a number of
different composers) which was recorded on a CD some years ago. One reason
biographical data for many of these women composers cannot be "found"
is that many either chose to write under pseudonyms, used stage names
or changed their names due to marriage or unmarriage.
this great one-step(scorch)
Listen to MIDI version
Yo' Heah Me Callin' Caroline
Music by: Caro Roma
Lyrics by: Wm. H. Gardner
Cover artist: unattributed
Speaking of names, Caro Roma is one of those androgynous names that gives
no clue as to the sex of the individual. Make no mistake though, Caro
Roma was one of America's more well known and popular composers of the
Tin Pan Alley era. Of her many published works, this song is considered
her most popular and the one with which she is most associated. A "blackface"
or "coon song" in style, it uses the now offensive but then
popular imaginary black dialect that was so popular for many years in
American popular song. See our article
about coon songs to learn more about this phenomenon. It has a catchy
tune and tells a good story. The song enjoyed immense popularity when
first published and was a staple for many years after. It has fallen from
grace in more modern and "enlightened" times. Regardless of
political correctness, it is a charming work that deserves preservation
in our musical heritage.
Caro Roma (1866 - 1937) was the stage name for Carrie Northly
(as we said, use of pseudonyms is one of the problems in finding reliable
information about many women composers). Northly was born in California
in 1866 to a father who had moved there to take part in the gold rush
and by age three was performing on stage. Her talent prompted her family
to send her to Boston to study at the prestigious New England Conservatory
of Music at an early age. By the time she was a teenager, she was retained
by a French Opera company on tour in Canada as their orchestra conductor.
When she returned to Boston she joined the Henry Savage Opera Company
and soon became prima donna. She sang opera in San Francisco as well as
Europe and performed for Royalty in several countries.
At the same time she was developing as a classical performer, she developed
her writing and compositional skills. From early childhood, she wrote
songs and poetry and wrote over 2,500 poems during her life, many of which
she set to music. Interestingly, she wrote a number of sea songs and composed
at least one song cycle, The Wandering One, with lyrics by Clement
Scott. Besides her most famous song, Can't Yo' Heah Me Calling,
she also wrote; Faded Rose, The Angelus, Thinking of
Thee and Resignation. In collaboration with the famed "Irish"
song composer Ernest R. Ball she also wrote lyrics for In The Garden
Of My Heart, Love Me Today and Tomorrow May Never Come.
In 1932 Roma gave a concert at age 71 in Los Angles where she personally
performed 19 of her own compositions. She died in California in 1937
Listen to this terrific
Roma hit song
Printable! (scorch format only)
Listen to MIDI version
Music by: Katherine A. Glen
Lyrics by: Carrie Shaw Rice
Cover artist: unknown
Here we have a song that demonstrates that less can be more, very much
more. A song that supports my personal ideas about the high musical quality
of women's compositions, it is short, but shows an incredible talent from
both the composer and lyricist. Dedicated simply
"To my Mother," this song has a wonderful quality that shows
a depth of feeling and emotion that only music can provide. The shortest
song in this month's issue, it may well be one of the best. It takes a
great talent to say more, with less. Perhaps with that said, I should
stop and take my own advice.
Katherine Glen (dates unknown) was from the Portland, Oregon area
and a number of her works are in the Multnomah County Library there. Her
songs were published primarily in the period from 1910 to 1920. Though
she never achieved national prominence, she composed several fine works
using poems by Sara Teasdale and other authors for her songs, as they
appeared in Harper's Magazine. Among her works are; Entreaty.
(1916); Homeward Bound (1919); Twilight (1916); Folks
Need A Lot Of Loving (1921); Good Night (1920); Little
Moon (1920) and Mr. Robin (1920).
Carrie Shaw Rice is yet another talented woman in music whose
vital statistics seem to be lost to us. I am not able to find any mention
of her nor am I able to find any other titles by her.
Listen to this great
(scorch format only)
Listen to MIDI version
See our resources page
for a complete bibliography of all resources used to research this and other
articles in our series.
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