JAZZHERS: A partial hyperHERstory of women popular songwriters and jazz composers

JAZZHERS: A partial hyperHERstory of women popular songwriters and jazz composers

One stream feeding the musical river in racially segregated America was contributed by white female songwriters. Although only tangentially involved in jazz music, if at all, the example of early women popular songwriters is instructive and inspiring. Carrie Jacobs Bond (l862-l946) was a musically gifted homemaker, but after her husband suddenly died, she would have been just one more impoverished widow and mother were it not for a vision and the determination to succeed.

Moving to Chicago, where she worked assiduously at her songwriting, Bond went on to become one of America’s premier popular songwriters. Her “heart and home” songs, as they were called, sold millions of copies of sheet music, including “I Love You Truly” (1901) and “Just A-Wearyin’ for You” (1901). “A Perfect Day” (1909) sold a phenomenal five million copies. Indeed, Bond, who also founded her own music publishing company, was the first woman composer to earn more than a million dollars. Anita Owen, her contemporary, favored sentimental ballads or parlor songs, some examples of which are “Daisies Won’t Tell” (l908) and “I Cannot Bear to Say Goodbye” (l9l8).

Hattie Starr wrote a very different genre of songs: the widely popular “coon” songs sung by blackface minstrels, so politically incorrect that they are off the charts by today’s standards. Starr grew up in the South, but made her way to New York City at the turn of the century with a music manuscript in a satchel. She persuaded vocalist Josephine Sabel to sing her “Little Alabama Coon” in l903, which audiences apparently loved. Her “Climb de Golden Fence” from the same period, was introduced in the musical revue Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Tivoli Opera House in San Francisco.

Ragtime swept the nation during the same period. One of the most successful women to compose in the form was Indianapolis native May Aufderheide (1888-1972) with “Dusty Rag” (l908) and “Novelty Rag” (l911). She proved so successful that her father started a music publishing company for her, producing many more of her compositions. Adeline Shepherd (1883-1950) wrote “Pickles and Peppers” (l908), while May Irwin (l862-l938), largely a performer, wrote a classic ragtime number called “The Bully” (l908). Muriel Pollock (1895-1971) was also a pianist with formidable technique, who wrote the “Rooster Rag” (1917) and a substantial number of other compositions.

Although we tend to think of ragtime as a piano genre, its infectious rhythms worked their way into popular “ragtime songs” and dance arrangements, like the smash hit “Hello, Ma Baby” (l899) co-written by Ida Emerson. (The tune remains familiar to audiences today through Warner Brothers cartoons featuring an audience-shy singing frog: “Hello ma baby, hello ma honey, hello my ragtime gal.”)

Then, as now, many a song gained popularity from a musical show and later from films. Not surprisingly, many of the best-trained female composers worked in the evolving forms of the American musical theater and in the movies. A number of women writers penned lyrics to shows—and indeed, often wrote the shows themselves—from the early part of the last century, notably Rida Johnson Young and Dorothy Donnelly. Anna Caldwell O’Dea wrote the music for a Broadway show called The Top O’ The World as early as l907. Rosetta and Vivian Duncan, a sisters team in vaudeville, wrote the music and the lyrics to the l925 musical Topsy and Eva, based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Vaudeville performer Maude Nugent (l877-1958) performed her own “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” in l896, thereby making it a hit. Some of the songs by twins Sue and Kay Werner were recorded by pop and jazz singers. In the l940s, Ella Fitzgerald recorded their “I Got the Spring Fever Blues,” “Rock It To Me,” and “I Want the Waiter (with the Water).” Another vaudevillian, Bernice Petkere (l901-2000), dubbed the “Queen of Tin Pan Alley,” wrote “Close Your Eyes” and “Lullaby of the Leaves” in l933, now considered standards. The music that all of these women wrote was grist for the developing mill of American popular music, played by soloists and theater and dance bands around the country.

In the first rank of women songwriters is Kay Swift (1897-1993), whose “Can’t We Be Friends?” (with lyrics by her first husband “Paul James,” banker James Paul Warburg) became a hit song and jazz classic. It debuted in The Little Show (1929). Swift followed with the entire musical score for Fine and Dandy (1930), which ran for 236 performances. Other songs include “Can This Be Love?” (1930) and her personal favorite, “Up Among the Chimney Pots” (1930).

Highly trained as a classical pianist, Swift became one of George Gershwin‘s closest musical confidants. After his death, she turned some of his unused musical jottings into new songs, such as the film score for The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (l946). She remained active as a writer of music through the 1980s, except for a hiatus out West when she married a cowboy. He was a rancher at the 1939 World’s Fair where she worked as a music director. Who Could Ask For Anything More?, her memoir from that period, was made into a movie starring Irene Dunne and Fred MacMurray titled Never a Dull Moment (1950). (Yes, she contributed some songs, but someone else wrote the score.) Later commissions included music for Cornelia Otis Skinner‘s play Paris ’90 (l952), the Seattle World’s Fair (l962), and a ballet by George Balanchine.

A number of other women composers added substantially to the American Popular Songbook. Ann Ronell (b. 1908), who was also befriended by George Gershwin early in her career, pursued advice from Irving Berlin. “I got to his office at 8:30 one morning,” she once recalled, “and was met by the scrub woman. I didn’t know then that he usually got in about l0:30. But I waited. And when he came in, he just couldn’t escape me—I told him I’d been waiting a long time.”

The composer of the standard “Willow Weep for Me,” Ronell boasted a much more famous song: “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” (l933) for the Disney cartoon Three Little Pigs. She is said to be the first woman to compose and conduct film music in Hollywood. She won an Oscar nomination for her work on The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and other film scores include the Marx BrothersLove Happy and additional music for One Touch of Venus adapted from the Broadway music by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash. Ronell also counts among the earliest to write both music and lyrics for a Broadway musical; while it was not a commercial success, Count Me In (l942) received staunch critical praise. She adapted many operas and classical works, including Mozart‘s The Magic Flute and StraussThe Gypsy Baron. Inspired by Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, she composed O Susanna, a folk opera based on the life of Stephen Foster.

Dana Suesse (1909-l987), a Missouri-born prodigy often called “the girl Gershwin,” turned to popular songwriting rather than classical composition for her bread and butter. Suesse, working mainly with lyricist Edward Heyman, wrote a slew of enduring hits. Among them are “My Silent Love” (1932), “You Oughta Be in Pictures” (1934), and “The Night is Young and You’re So Beautiful” (1937) with Billy Rose.

In 1932, Paul Whiteman presented her at Carnegie Hall playing her composition “Valses for Piano and Orchestra”; the bandleader would later perform her “Jazz Concerto in Three Rhythms,” “Symphonic Waltzes,” and the suite “Young Man with a Harp” during a l933 Carnegie Hall performance. After laboring in the pop vineyards all through the l940s, writing for nightclub revues such as The Casa Manana Show and (shades of Kay Swift) The World’s Fair Aquacade (l939), and creating film music for Young Man with a Horn (1950), Suesse moved to Paris. She remained there, writing music for films and studying composition with the acclaimed Nadia Boulanger.

The songs of many other women were played by swing bands and sung by the better popular and/or jazz vocalists during the ’30s and ’40s. Mexican-born Maria Grever (1885-1951), who published around 800 songs, wrote “What a Difference a Day Makes,” one of Dinah Washington‘s signature tunes. Mabel Wayne, a concert pianist turned vaudeville performer, wrote many well-known songs in the l930s and ’40s, including “Ramona,” “It Happened in Monterey,” and “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day,” recorded by Sarah Vaughan.

Pianist Ruth Lowe, who played for the all-woman big band Ina Ray Hutton and the Melodears in the l930s, wrote “I’ll Never Smile Again” and “Put Your Dreams Away,” both recorded by Frank Sinatra in the ’40s. Doris Fisher, daughter of songwriter Fred Fisher, co-wrote many hits beginning with “Tutti Frutti” (1938; with Slim Gaillard). “You Always Hurt the One You Love” was sung by the Ink Spots and “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” by Ella Fitzgerald. In the same year, Pearl Bailey recorded her “Tired.”

Another Doris, Doris Tauber, began her career as a secretary to Irving Berlin. (Perhaps she was the one who held Ronell at bay?) She began co-writing songs in the mid l940s. Billie Holiday immortalized one of her best works “Them There Eyes,” and Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington recorded her torrid “Drinking Again.” Irene Higginbotham, a concert pianist, co-wrote “Good Morning Heartache” and “Ghost of Yesterday,” while also in the 1940s, another pianist named Irene Armstrong Wilson Kitchings (she was married for a time to pianist Teddy Wilson) wrote “I’m Pulling Through” and “Some Other Spring.”

From JAZZHERS: A partial hyperHERstory of women popular songwriters and jazz composers
By Linda Dahl
© 2002 NewMusicBox

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.