Queen of the Castle

Looking for Mama Lou, the legendary singer whose work helped inspire American ragtime


One evening in the early 1890s, after giving a concert in St. Louis, the Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski asked his friend George Johns whether the city had “anything novel, anything out of the ordinary, a trifle bizarre” by way of nightlife. Johns hustled him over to the Castle Club, an opulent bordello run by Babe Connor. There, a dozen beauties danced “in little more than stockings” while a blind pianist played and a Black woman named Mammy Lou belted out bawdy songs. Paderewski was especially taken by one number, “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.” “He went to the piano and asked her to sing it again and again,” Johns’s son wrote in a memoir. “In a season or two the song, like many others that originated with Mammy Lou, got into vaudeville by way of some manager who visited Babe’s, and became a sensation.”

Johns’s timeline may be slightly off—“Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay” had already debuted on the vaudeville stage by the time Paderewski first visited St. Louis. But there’s no question that Mama Lou (as she is more commonly remembered) had been performing the song for years by then. Henry Sayers, who published “Ta-ra-ra” under his own name in 1891, talked openly of having first heard it at Babe’s.

If the history of American popular music were itself a song, the theft of Black melodies by white opportunists would be the refrain. But there may never have been an artist more serially or consequentially stolen from than Mama Lou. Many experts believe that she was the source not only of “Ta-ra-ra” but also of “A Hot Time in the Old Town,” a song so popular during the Spanish-American War that Europeans mistook it for the U.S. national anthem, as well as May Irwin’s “Bully Song” and several other ragtime-era smashes. And yet, Mama Lou remains a half-mythical figure—unrecorded, unphotographed, and only barely present in the documentary record. Until now, even those most invested in her story didn’t know that her real name was Louise Rogers.

When Babe Connor died in 1899, the St. Louis Republic devoted much of its obituary to her musical legacy, describing the Castle Club as a kind of unacknowledged hit factory. The author praised Connor for “sponsor[ing]” early versions of both “Ta-ra-ra” and “A Hot Time,” as well as “Mr. Johnson, Turn Me Loose,” “Mamie, Come Kiss Your Honey Boy,” and “I’m a Natural Born Gambler, and That Ain’t No Lie,” but he credited the performance of those songs only to “hired singers.” Mama Lou did earn a mention in a 1909 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, though she is described almost anonymously, in passives and the past tense, as though obscurity itself were her identity: “A negro woman, whose name is unknown to fame, is declared to have invented ragtime in St. Louis in 1888. … It soon became a fad with young men to visit the slums to hear ‘Mammy,’ as she was called, sing her new music.” This was laziness masquerading as reverence; Mama Lou was still alive and still singing at the time.

By the middle decades of the 20th century, the name Mama Lou had started appearing in popular histories of American music. But the belatedness and gauzy exoticism of these tributes did little to demythologize her. As David Ewen, the author of biographies of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin, wrote, “She seemed to dig deep inside her entrails for the songs of her race that she emitted like some mighty lamentation.” At some point in the past 25 years, writers began introducing bits of biographical information about her, including a name: Mama Lou was now Letitia Lula Agatha Fontaine, a Santo Domingo native with an improbable British accent. But that’s just more myth; there’s no trace of that name or anything like it in contemporaneous documents.

Mama Lou did leave a few genuine glimpses of herself in the archives. And now that those documents have been digitized and are keyword-searchable, she can at least be reunited with her real name.

For his 1942 book Lost Chords, Douglas Gilbert asked a veteran St. Louis journalist to compile a dossier of old-timers’ recollections of Mama Lou. From their narratives he described her as “short, fat,” “often belligerent, and always herself. … She wore a calico dress, gingham apron, and head bandanna, and nine tenths of her songs were obscene.” The old-timers recalled that Mama Lou eventually parted ways with Babe, opening “in direct opposition with a house in Lucas Avenue, establishing there what one might call the wellspring of the ’90s’ popular songs.” That passing reference to Lucas turns out to be an important clue. A 1912 article in the St. Louis Star describes a brothel at 2636 Lucas where the proprietor, “Mamma Lou, a colored woman,” sang for her customers. As far as I know, that’s the only time her professional name appeared in print while she was alive.

Mama Lou did leave a few genuine glimpses of herself in the archives. And now that those documents have been digitized and are keyword-searchable, she can at least be reunited with her real name.

According to the 1910 federal census, 2636 Lucas was a “boarding house” operated by Louise Rodgers. Every city directory from 1908 to 1914 places her there as well, the only discrepancy being the spelling of her name (Louisa Rogers). A further search of the censuses for that name and its variants reveals that as early as 1900, Louisey/Louisa Rodgers was running a “lodging house” at 2312 Chestnut Street—with eight young, single women as tenants. That’s the piece of evidence that closes the case: in 1898, Babe Connor had moved her entire operation to “the Palace,” a double house at 2310 and 2312 Chestnut.

The picture that emerges is pretty clear. Newspaper searches for “Lou Rogers” find her present at the Castle Club as early as 1888. After the move to the Palace—and contrary to Gilbert’s account that Mama Lou competed with her former boss—the two remained business partners until Babe’s death in 1899. Mama Lou then continued running the Palace at the same location for seven more years. In the 1906 city directory, Louisa Rogers is still listed at 2312 Chestnut. A newspaper ad from that same year announced that all the contents of the “the elegantly furnished mansion of the late Madam Babe Connors”—including brass beds, crystal chandeliers, “25 Magnificent Mantel and Pier Mirrors,” and five pianos—would be auctioned off at the Chestnut address. Mama Lou didn’t open her own house on Lucas until about 1908, by which time it could hardly have been “the wellspring of the ’90s’ popular songs.” But, of course, she was still performing.

To be clear, no one is arguing that Mama Lou composed every song that has been attributed to her. She probably adapted much of her material from folk traditions—African-American, African, and others. “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,” specifically, appears to have European antecedents and may be centuries old. The argument is that Mama Lou was the proximate source, the inspiration; she supplied the infectious renditions that the Castle Club’s white patrons transcribed and took to the publishers, and to the bank.

In the case of “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,” that argument is a slam dunk. Elsewhere, a little circumspection is probably in order. An 1894 newspaper item asserting that “Mamie, Come Kiss Your Honey Boy” was “one of Babe Conner’s St. Louis plantation songs” may indeed be evidence that the vaudeville star May Irwin swiped it from Mama Lou. Or it may be evidence that the mythology was already at work—that any hit song of the early ragtime era might be attributed to “Babe’s place” in the same way that any clever quote might be attributed to Mark Twain. The United States in the 1890s had no shortage of Black saloons, Black piano thumpers, and aspiring song mongers. What are the odds that one St. Louis joint was “the wellspring”?

Of course, Mark Twain gets credit for things he didn’t say because of things he did say. The Castle Club wasn’t just any joint; it was famous, and bound to attract song hunters. St. Louis was also, at exactly Mama Lou’s moment, cultivating a syncopated sound that would change American music forever. Some historians believe that Tom Turpin, the first Black composer of a published “rag,” was one of Babe Connor’s house pianists, and it’s quite possible that he pulled shifts as Mama Lou’s accompanist.

Clearly, Mama Lou was brilliant and singular: she wouldn’t be so stubbornly, vividly present in narrated histories of the Gay Nineties if she hadn’t sung her way into people’s memories. Even if her only contribution to American culture was the introduction of “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,” she’d still be grossly underacknowledged. But I think she has a strong claim on “A Hot Time in the Old Town,” too. Theodore Metz, the original copyright holder, insisted that he’d written the music in 1886, then titled it when the train he was riding rolled past a bucket brigade that was trying  to extinguish the flames consuming a log cabin. He also patronized the Castle Club, and some of his contemporaries—including the composer George M. Cohan and the legendary Sigmund Spaeth, whose ability to trace melodies to their sources earned him the title Tune Detective—suspected that he’d first heard it there. “Although there is much conflicting legend about ‘There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,’ ” Alain Locke, the dean of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote in 1936, “all the stories agree in at least one particular,—that it is a polished-up version of a less polite Negro cabaret song and dance from St. Louis.”

The Castle Club wasn’t just any joint; it was famous, and bound to attract song hunters. St. Louis was also, at exactly Mama Lou’s moment, cultivating a syncopated sound that would change American music forever.

As far as Locke was concerned, there was more at stake in the debate over authorship than who deserved royalties. Metz’s claim was an erasure not only of Black creativity but also of an entire chapter in American musical history. “The importance of this is not merely to document the Negro source of a tune that after all is no musical gem,” Locke wrote, “but to show that ragtime, like its successor, jazz, is a child of the Mississippi bends and levees, and Memphis and St. Louis in particular.”

On a Saturday night in September 1891, a young man known as Sporting George stabbed 16-year-old Nellie Rogers in an alley in South St. Louis, just a couple of blocks from the Castle Club. She died five days later from her wounds. At the coroner’s inquest, her mother, Lou Rogers, said she’d first heard about the attack when Nellie’s sister “came running down to Babe’s after me, and says to come out, Nellie was cut.” It’s unfathomably sad that a few anguished sentences about her daughter’s murder—“she was nothing but a child”—are the only recorded words attributed to Mama Lou, other than song lyrics. But those are Mama Lou’s words. By linking herself to Babe’s place, she left no doubt about which Lou Rogers she was. And that, in turn, links Mama Lou to an extended family, various addresses, and a death certificate.

Louise Rogers was buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery on March 30, 1918. There are almost no markers in the “commons” area of section 30, where she lies in row four, grave 298; it’s a potter’s field, for the poor and indigent, who were interred west-to-east as they arrived. Her mother is buried right next to her, because they died only a few days apart.

I disagree with Alain Locke that “A Hot Time” is “no musical gem.” I find it irresistible. Part of my enthusiasm for it may be due to positive associations. I live in Lawrence, Kansas, about a mile from the KU football stadium, and on windless Saturdays in the fall, I can sit on my back porch and hear the team score touchdowns: there’s a roar, followed by some sounds from the PA announcer, followed by the strains of the marching band’s rendition of “A Hot Time in the Old Town.” If the point-after kick is successful, I hear it again in double-time. My brother, who played trumpet in the marching band 30 years ago, told me that he never knew the song’s name; the sheet music just said “Touchdown” and “Extra Point.”

In old books and newspapers, melodies are often called “airs,” and I’m sorry that usage has fallen out of favor. I can think of no better term for “A Hot Time” as it floats up the hill and into my back yard. It’s a beautiful air, a welcome change in the atmosphere. Mama Lou may have no copyrights to her name, no living descendants, not even a headstone, but on autumn afternoons when the Jayhawks are at home, I can hear her from a mile away.

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Eric McHenry is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in The Yale Review, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and The Threepenny Review. He teaches creative writing at Washburn University and is a former poet laureate of Kansas.


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