Helen Traubel Defends Popular Music

My grandmother used to say she couldn’t see because she had Cadillacs in front of her eyes. Well, it must be genetic because I’ve gone from Volkswagen Bugs to Ford Transit Vans blocking my vision. However, I recently received good news. I am eligible for cataract surgery in June that should clear my visual parking lot.

Meanwhile, I’m blowing off the dust this month on a remarkable archive collection Dr. Gary Tash and his wife Sharon have shared with me. With writing assistance I’m anxious to describe what they have.

Hot Jazz Jubile

This remarkable couple actively support their local ragtime community. Sharon was a St. Louis accompanist and piano teacher for over 50 years. Gary, a retired physician, discovered ragtime thanks to Max Morath concerts and recordings.

He contacted me a few years ago about Max and has stayed in contact. In a recent telephone conversation, he happened to mention a collection of documents he had acquired some time ago, and wondered if I would be interested in what he had.

It turns out the documents comprised the research papers a graduate student had accumulated on St. Louis opera and cabaret star Helen Traubel. The Tashes had carefully stored the archive all these years wondering about its significance. The graduate student died before writing the paper and his work was destined for a dumpster when Gary and Sharon salvaged it.


It has been fascinating to go through the collection of old newspaper clippings, Ms. Traubel’s own scrapbooks from childhood through her career, and many beautiful photographs, including a large lot of publicity photos and posters from her movie with Jose Ferrer, Deep in My Heart: The Story of Sigmund Romberg. The autographed photographs of opera stars had apparently been gathered by the student for his own collection.

Traubel as Brunhilde

The photographs illustrate Mme. Traubel’s colorful career from her Met performance as Brunnhilde in Wagner’s Gotterdammerung to playing straight roles opposite Groucho Marx, Red Skelton, George Gobel, or Jimmy Durante, or doing the Turkey Trot with Jose Ferrer in Hollywood, or giving Margaret Truman voice lessons at the White House, to throwing out the first ball for the St. Louis Browns, which she partially owned.

What I was most anxious to find, however, was anything referring to Helen Traubel’s split with Rudolph Bing and the New York Metropolitan Opera. Helen was a powerful Wagnerian soprano and had gained considerable fame during her 1939-1953 tenure with the venerable opera company.

As a middle school child, I was intrigued by the Diva’s decision to leave the Met and perform in her old concerts with a classical AND popular music repertoire. Her performances in cabarets while still at the Met had enraged Rudolph Bing and ultimately the two clashed over the issue.

I should mention that my mother had quite a fascination with opera star James Melton. She was convinced we were related (though I have since found that highly improbable) and she followed Met radio broadcasts and opera news as I was growing up. I hardly understood the break with opera that Traubel and Melton pursued but it was big news at the time. Bing had dropped Melton in 1950 as he was also too associated with “popular” music. He was suspect because he had toured with Gershwin through 1934 and tended to enjoy music Bing considered pedestrian.


So far, this column must undoubtedly seem to be out of place in this publication, so I will explain. The great divide between classical and popular culture has split the Arts for a long time. However, by World War II that division was blurring and in the music world, Traubel and Melton were contributing to a re-evaluation of the terms due to their popularity with audiences as they performed in both spheres of music.

(Another example is the modern confusion over how to categorize Scott Joplin’s ragtime compositions. He is often to be found in the classical and popular sections of record catalogs.)

So, this is what I had hoped for from Helen Traubel’s resignation letter to Rudolf Bing:


“Artistic dignity is not a matter of where one sings. It is not the environment that characterizes the performance. The artist of integrity who refuses to compromise her standards is able to imbue whatever place she appears in, with her own dignity.

“America has produced a wealth of fine, popular musicmusic written by Americans, loved by Americans. In other countries in the past, this would have been called folk music and would have been highly regarded. I think the time has come for American artists to recognize that American folk music is as much their province as Wagner, Beethoven, and Verdi. To assert that Art can be found in the Metropolitan opera house but not in a night club is rank snobbery that underrates both the taste of the American public and the talents of its composers.

Traubel and Ferrer dance the Turkey Trot in Deep in My Heart (1954)

“I love the songs of Gershwin, Handy, Kern, Rogers, Berlin, and other great American composers. I am glad to be able to sing them and bring to them my training and equipment as a singer. Since I cannot sing them at the Metropolitan Opera House, I am singing them at night clubs, and I am happy to have found that night club audiences are enthusiastically accepting me on my own terms.


“Helen Traubel”

Thus, thanks to these pioneers, the elitism of Opera and the plebian nature of popular culture began to be reconciled in America as folk music had been classically adapted in Europe.

I long for the day that sculptured busts of Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, and John Williams take their place along side Mozart, Strauss, and Beethoven. (I might add that the classical composers have already contributed considerably to American popular music…think “All By Myself,” “It’s Now or Never,” or the alternative to tilting at windmills, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.”)

Larry Melton was a founder of the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in 1974 and the Sedalia Ragtime Archive in 1976. He was a Sedalia Chamber of Commerce manager before moving on to Union, Missouri where he is currently helping to conserve the Ragtime collection of the Sedalia Heritage Foundation. Write him at [email protected].

Or look at our Subscription Options.