Tuning Up - Autumn 2023

Queen of the Castle

Subscription required

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

By Eric McHenry | September 5, 2023

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.

Login to view the full article

If you are a current digital subscriber, login here.

Forgot password?

Need to register?

Already a subscriber through The American Scholar?


Are you a Phi Beta Kappa sustaining member?

Want to subscribe?

Print subscribers get access to our entire website

You can also just subscribe to our website for $9.99.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus