Helen May Butler - "The Female Sousa"


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B May 17,1867 in Keene, NH to Lucius Marshall Butler and Esther L. Abbott
M John Leslie Spahn 11-5-1902, J Herbert Young
D 6-16-1957 in Covington, KY
C Helen May Spahn (Young) and Leslie Erlanger Spahn (Young)
Inducted into the Women Band Directors Hall of Fame, 1995




As a Teenager

As a Teenager

From Helen May Butler's daughter, Helen May Young:
Helen May Butler was born in Keene, N. H., May 17 1866, when the lifestyle was extremely proper and decorum was the guidepost.

Her parents were Lucius M. Butler and Esther L. Butler, the former an engineer on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, eventually being elevated being elevated to the position of purchaser. He remained to invest and design some of the earliest Pullman cars.

Helen May's penchant for music showed at an early age which prompted her to study the violin under the concertmeister of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was from his private collection that she purchased her first "good" violin which was of the same vintage as the stradivarius.

In 1885 the ambition young director formed the Talma Ladies Orchestra and she and they were on their way up.

The girls performed for many functions in the homes of the socially and financially "great" including the Heinz family. But Helen May was dissatisfied. She wanted to direct an all ladies brass or concert band. That's when her troubles began. She was of the opinion that no one should be excluded from a field if she were talented just because she was a female.

But in those days, the use of the word "sex" was a no=no.

She enrolled in a directing class and her teacher asked a male band leader if she could merely sit in for the experience. Came an immediate and decisive "NO". Added was "One of these days women will be taking our jobs away from us."

Finally, she organized a band of 20 to 40 women, fluid in numbers, depending on the engagement requirement. Helen May Butler's daughter relates with glee an ironic incident that occurred a number of years later when band contests were staged at Madison Square Gardens in New York

According to Helen May, "There were from 6 to 8 bands and the elimination was down to 2. Mother's band was at one end and a man's band was at the opposite end.

The director was the same who had refused to allow her to learn through his band. Mother's band captured top honors and she was presented a gold bar set with a diamond and from the pin was a golden harp bangle. This proved to be a diamond studded night for Helen May Butler and her band!

Helen May Butler's name appeared with circa band greats, including Creatore and John Phillip Sousa. She was often referred to as "The Female Sousa", because they were both very forceful directors. Helen May Young, the daughter, adds that Sousa had come by his name in an amusing manner. "When he first arrived in this country, he printed on his trunk, "Mr. So. USA." It was mistaken and was introduced as Mr. Sousa.' He became so enamored with the name that he had his name legally changed to Sousa. It was during one of Sousa's engagements in Cincinnati that he noted Helen May in the audience and invited her to come to the platform and direct a number."

After her first retirement in 1912, she was requested to form a band and play for the season at the lagoon amusement park in Ludlow. Her daughter recalled reminiscenses of her mother. "It was fun as well as work. Each day the band departed from Cincinnati in open street cars and all rides were five cents."

After her second retirement she was called into action again by Barnum Bailey Circus and described the experience as "Wonderful."

Helen May Butler's place in the Smithsonian exhibit includes one of her prized conrnets used in her favorite closing "Semper Fidelis" which brought down the house as a silk American flag emerged when the cornet opened. It also includes a beautiful large hat she wore at the World's fair.

Helen May Young reports that her mother was very strict with her girls, many of them from wealthy families who permitted their daughters to perform with her because they would be "safe" since she was so highly recommended.

Helen May Butler spent 20 of her years in Cincinnati before moving to Kentucky when she lived in Dayton and in Covington 46 years before she died in 1957.

Helen May Young described herself as a "trunk baby", explaining, "I spent the first 3 years of my life going to sleep behind the stage to the music of from 20 to 40 bands.  Mother travelled until about a month before HMY was born and started travelling again 6 weeks after HMY was born.




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