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Helen May Butler

WBDI Hall of Fame Pin - 1.17.24.png
1995 WBDI Hall of Fame Inductee

Butler, Helen May (1867–1957)

Composer, conductor, and politician, known as the "Female Sousa," who helped establish careers for women musicians and was the first American woman to lead a professional concert band. Name variations: Helen May Spahn, Helen May Young. Born Helen May Butler on May 17, 1867, in Keene, New Hampshire; died on June 16, 1957, in Covington, Kentucky; daughter of Lucius M. (an engineer) and Esther (Abbott) Butler; attended primary schools in Keene and secondary school in Providence, Rhode Island; married John Leslie Spahn, November 5, 1902 (divorced, 1908); married a Mr. Young, around 1910; children (first marriage) Leslie and Helen May.

Moved with family to Providence (c. 1890); began Talma Ladies Orchestra (1892); founded Talma Ladies Military Band (1896); initiated band tours with manager John Leslie Spahn (1898); led performance at Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York (1901); conducted at the New York Women's Exposition and White House Concert (1902); conducted at Willow Grove Park, St. Louis World's Fair (1904); composed "Cosmopolitan America" for Republican Convention (1904); conducted at Barnum & Bailey Show (1914); ran for U.S. Senate (1936).

Compositions: "Cosmopolitan America March" (1904); "The Billboard Girl March" (1904); "What Cheer March" (1904); "United States Indemnity Medley."

Marking the beginning of the popular music craze, 1892 was a banner year for American music in general and for band music in particular. The song that brought it about was "After The Ball" by Charles K. Harris, which touched the hearts of millions of Americans and sold at least that many copies in the form of sheet music and arrangements for orchestras and bands. Few professional orchestras were in existence in the U.S. and bands were the purveyors of America's

popular music. "After the Ball" was introduced by John Philip Sousa, leader of the professional concert band that earned him the title of "The March King," while much of the nation mourned the passing that year of Patrick S. Gilmore, "The Father of the Modern Concert Band." In the midst of these great musical traditions, Helen May Butler, at age 25, began her own "ladies" orchestra, which would evolve into one of the finest women's concert bands in the world.

Butler was born into a musical household and developed a great love for singing at an early age. In her youth, the family moved to Rhode Island, where she took up the study of the violin with Adele Shepherdson of Providence, and later with Bernard Listerman, the concert master of the Boston Symphony. Few women studied violin at that time, and Helen's skill on the instrument must have been exceptional for Listerman to take her on as a student. It is likely that her father contacted the concert master on her behalf, as he was supportive of her musical ventures throughout the years.

It was through a local social group, the Talma Ladies Club, that Butler first encouraged her friends to learn instruments and perform in ensemble in member homes. The small chamber orchestra included men in the beginning, but, as more women became proficient, the men were replaced. As the Talma Ladies Orchestra, the group accumulated enough funds from the sale of concert subscriptions to purchase its own theater.

With band music sweeping the country, Butler decided in 1896 to organize her players into an all-woman band. The project proved difficult, since there were few male musicians who would teach her to play the brass instruments. It took her father several inquiries before he found a bandmaster willing to take her on as a student of the cornet. D.W. Reeves was renowned for his skill as a cornetist, composer, and conductor and had performed as a cornet soloist in Europe and the United States. Marches he composed were later to be extremely popular. Reeves was leader of the American Band, located in Providence, which was considered one of the finest in the nation; compositions and arrangements by Reeves were often a part of Butler's concert programs.

After mastering the cornet, Butler began to teach other women how to perform on band instruments. Sometimes the women had difficulty purchasing their equipment, since many of the instrument makers would offer credit only to men, assuming they were the only ones capable of earning money through performing. Butler's father and brothers would then step in, making the contract arrangements for the instruments in their names. The band leader also taught violin, and the success of her studio served as a model for a number of her own musicians, who would return to teaching music when their touring days were over or after they married.

Happiness and unhappiness are habits. You can cultivate whichever habit you choose.

—Helen May Butler

In performance, the Talma Ladies Military Band wore handsome uniforms in military style. While the novelty of their enterprise was a selling point and guaranteed that the group received attention in the newspapers, once the audience had arrived Butler saw to it that they were treated to the sounds of an exceptional band. In later years, she would be able to say without exaggeration that the group had never received a poor review. Judging from its duration and success, Butler's band far exceeded all other women's ensembles in performing in its day.

In 1898, the ensemble had been together for two years when J. Leslie Spahn undertook its management. Experienced in promotion, Spahn obtained bookings with promoters and park managers who would have been uncomfortable speaking to women about work. He set about arranging a tour that took the band to cities including New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Routed along the railroad lines, the group often gave two concerts a day for close to 50 weeks a year. Spahn once wrote that he had the band busy for 54 weeks straight and was trying to make it 56.

With Spahn taking care of the management and travel details and Butler in charge of the artistic side, the two made a successful team. Butler was also careful in the selection of her performers. Players had to be excellent musicians; they also had to associate easily with the other band members. Care was taken to see that the single women were properly chaperoned. Traveling around the country at the turn of the century was inevitably rigorous, however, and it is a testament to Butler's good judgment that the band endured as long as it did.

Her first band members had been drawn from the New England area. Later she was able to choose from hundreds of women musicians who wrote to her, and she had the benefit of hearing worthy musicians everywhere the band toured. Butler did not find it difficult by then to hire exceptional performers. Although she bemoaned the fact that matrimony often took away her best musicians, the band was not made up exclusively of single women. A number of older married women were part of the traveling group. At its largest, it numbered 49 players and was sometimes known as "An Adamless garden of musical Eves." What had begun as the U.S. Talma Ladies Band eventually became Helen May Butler and her Greatest American Ladies Concert Band. Butler's conducting style led to her sobriquet as "The Female Sousa." In the design of its first uniforms, musical selections, tour routes, instrumentation and concert style, the ensemble was in fact modeled after Sousa's entourage.

A few women's orchestras had come into existence and would occasionally ask for "Butler's Band" to join them in a concert. In answer to one such request, Butler was quoted in the New York World:

I am ready to play my twenty brass girls against the Bostonian's forty strings and let the public decide on its merits. But I will not combine with the orchestra—put my players in the background. Mine is the only woman's military band in the world, and I won't play second fiddle.

In 1903, Butler was chosen as the musical director for the International Women's Exposition held in New York City. The event took place at Madison Square Garden where the Butler Band performed daily concerts, costumed in the eye-catching uniforms of Algerian Zouaves, which included balloon trousers and red leggings, in a period when the wearing of "bloomers" by women was still considered something of a sight. It is quite likely that the exposition would have led Butler to make the acquaintance of the leading women's rights activists of the day, but she never considered herself an activist. Her credo seems to have been more along the line of an honest day's work for an honest day's pay.

Another event in 1903 was a performance on the White House lawn, which became a highlight in the band's history. Theodore Roosevelt had succeeded President William McKinley, who died in office, and Roosevelt invited the band to perform while they were on tour in Washington, D.C. Roosevelt remained a great supporter of the band throughout his life. In 1904, he was running for election when the commission to compose the official march for the Republican Convention was tendered to Butler. Her "Cosmopolitan America" went through several printed editions, was played by bands from coast to coast, and was also popular in a sheet-music edition for performance on parlor pianos. Butler followed this composition with a few other marches that year, while press releases sought to establish her as "The March Queen."

In 1902, Helen May Butler had married Spahn. After the birth of her daughter Helen May, Butler toured with the child. When the couple's second child, Leslie, was born, it was thought that it would be better for the children to be brought up in a home. Arrangements were made with a caring friend, while Leslie Spahn tried to arrange for band routes that made visits possible.

Though Butler's marriage to Spahn ended in 1908, the band continued to tour until 1914. Butler by then had married a Mr. Young and settled eventually in Cincinnati to raise her two children and run the Burlington Hotel with her husband. She continued to take a great interest in the band members, who would write to her and send their latest publicity photos or reviews, which served in part to maintain a wideranging network among the women musicians. Butler returned to playing the violin for various church and lodge functions, and became involved in teaching music again. Cincinnati was a lively cultural center, and a fitting place for her to settle. The Cincinnati Conservatory was close at hand, and though it is uncertain whether she actually taught there, it is known that she worked with young students, especially violinists.

A tall, stately woman, about 5′8″ in height, Butler was attending a performance at the Cincinnati Zoo of John Philip Sousa's Band, when she was recognized in the crowd by Sousa's manager. Invited backstage, she met the bandleader she had long admired, and who had followed her career for a number of years. Sousa paid her the rare honor of inviting her to conduct his world famous band in "Semper Fidelis," his own march.

In her later years, Butler also became active in politics, as a member of the Republican Club and serving at the polls on election days. Her years of touring had given her opportunity to meet many leading political figures of the day, including William Jennings Bryan and Robert M. LaFollette as well as Roosevelt. In 1936, at age 69, she announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate. According to the Kentucky Post, Butler had decided to run "not because she feels certain she can win the Republican nomination and eventually a seat in the Senate, but because she may open the way for some other woman."

Helen May Butler's passions carried on until her 89th year, when she finally began to slow down. By the time of her death, at age 90, women were accepted as performing musicians, working in ensembles alongside their male counterparts. In areas of public service, they were beginning to make important contributions to the nation that she had crossed dozens of times during her career.

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