Women in Ragtime

Content warning: sexism, racism, racist drawing (covered)
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Much like the retelling of many aspects of history, the lives and contributions of women are not equally discussed and celebrated as those of their male counterparts. Fortunately, several scholars have been keen on preserving and investigating the stories of female composers of the Ragtime era. It is important to note that there is an enormous disparity in whose history is able to be recovered; White middle-to-upper-class women are far more likely to have a paper trail to follow than Black women of the 1890s to 1910s.

Women had diverse career paths as musicians and composers during the Ragtime Era. Some were prolific composers while others may have only published a couple pieces. [1] Often, women’s careers were stifled after marriage. There are exceptions such as Fleta Jan Brown Spencer, who teamed up with her husband Herbert Spencer to pen several hit songs (straying from the Ragtime idiom) including Pansies Mean Thoughts and Thoughts Mean You (1908) and Prairie Flower (1910). [2]

Brown and Spencer’s Pansies Mean Thoughts and Thoughts Mean You (1908)

One tactic female composers used in order to have their sheet music published was to write under a pseudonym or solely a first initial preceding their last name. While this may have helped sell their music during their lifetimes, it added layers of complexity to tracing back the identities and histories of these women. For instance, Fannie B. Woods’ composition Sweetness (1912) was thought to be written by male composer Charles L. Johnson until 2005. A 1960s home recording of Woods playing her composition, among other evidence, has surfaced to confirm that she was indeed a real person and composer.

Fannie B. Woods’ Sweetness (1912)

Even more severe, it was thought that pianist and composer Mary Celina Mamie Desdundes Dugue was an imaginary figure when she was in fact a real person who was highly influential in the New Orleans music scene. In a 1938 interview with scholar Alan Lomax, Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, better known as “Jelly Roll” Morton recounted his memory of Mamie Desdunes.

“Jelly Roll” Morton talks about Mamie Desdunes with Alan Lomax and demonstrates Mamie’s Blues, also known as 219 Blues

Note: In the recording, Mortan says, “she hardly could play anything else more.” On the surface level, this could be construed as a sexist remark, that Mortan doubted Desdunes’ abilities. However, this comment was likely in reference to the fact that Desdunes had an injury resulting in the need to amputate two fingers on her right hand [3], limiting her ability to play larger chords, which is reflected in the way Mortan performs in the recording.

Perhaps Mamie Desdunes’ near erasure from history is an example of the disparity between Black and White women musicians of the Ragtime Era. White women from middle-to-upper class families were more likely to have access to a piano and private lessons, as playing the piano was seen as a social skill. [4] It was also common for White women to hold jobs as pianists at stores for the entertainment of shoppers and also to promote the sales of sheet music and pianos. [5] It is important to remember that during this time period there was no television, radio, or recorded music other than piano rolls toward the end of the era.

Women were the subjects of a substantial amount of sheet music cover artwork, but the way White and Black women were portrayed were worlds apart. White women were typically portrayed as being sophisticated, well-dressed, and adhering to Eurocentric standards of beauty while Black women were regularly depicted as caricatures, unkempt, and with exaggerated features. Sometimes these images would be accompanied by racist language whether that was in the title or subtitle of the piece, lyrics, or other text elements. There are also instances of derogatory images of non-Black women of color such as Native Americans fronting sheet music of the period. Compare the way women are depicted in these two examples – The Thriller (1909) and Gladiolus Rag (1907).

The Thriller (1909), composed by May Frances Aufderheide

Scan of original sheet music available on the Library of Congress website

Gladiolus Rag (1907), composed by Scott Joplin

The practice of using women, especially women complying with Eurocentric beauty standards, to market music is a practice that extends far beyond the Ragtime era and continues to this day. Lara Pellegrinelli’s JazzTimes article entitled The Women Jacketed By Records discusses this history in detail.

It is clear that women contributed to Ragtime music in a variety of ways as composers, lyricists, and performers. In the lay discourse on Ragtime music, women are largely overshadowed by the “big three” composers – Scott Joplin, James Scott, and Joseph Lamb. It is time for the female pioneers of this art form to be given their due recognition, along with an acknowledgement of the intersectional disadvantages imposed on women of color.

Learn More About Women in Ragtime

These are the works of scholars who have done extensive research to uncover the histories of women musicians in the Ragtime era.

Websites not available: Nan Bostick, Dr. Nora Hulse, Richard Zimmerman

Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.


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