The ticket box of a large theater advertising vaudeville.

Lillie Western, Banjo Queen

It should come as no surprise that the Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists list includes only two women, Bonnie Raitt at #89 and Joni Mitchell at #75. The unyielding maleness of guitar culture stretches across decades and genres, even in the face of necessary corrections like Gayle Wald’s biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe or the magazine She Shreds. I offer to this project the modest addition of Lillie Western, the most popular banjo player the canon has yet to exclude.

A highly versatile instrumentalist who specialized in playing two instruments at once, Western’s twenty-year transatlantic career in variety and vaudeville can help us think in new ways about the limits and possibilities of women on stage. The conditions of Gilded Age show business allowed her to amass a small fortune without the assistance of a manager or agent. Unlike her contemporaries who have captured the attention of historians, Western did not engage celebrity culture or offer a spectacular gender presentation. Neither a burlesque performer nor a male impersonator, she did still rely on a stage type: the skilled instrumentalist, long associated with European men. This more conventional but equally constructed persona allowed Western to pursue a private life of her own making, protected from public criticism until after her death.

A black and white illustration of a woman with short hair.
“Miss Lillie Western, Instrumentalist,” Clipper, July 2, 1881.

Lillie Western was the stage name of Cecilia Woolsey. Born in 1862, she was adopted as an infant and sent to St. Joseph’s Convent in Flushing at age five.1 The sisters encouraged Lillie’s musical interest, and a year after she left the convent — at age sixteen — Lillie Western was on stage in the booming oil town of Bradford, Pennsylvania.2 Bradford may seem like an unusual place for a stage debut, but variety theater thrived far beyond major urban centers thanks to the infrastructure designed to facilitate Gilded Age industry. Western was one of the hundreds of young women from modest backgrounds who made variety theater the era’s most lucrative stage genre.

If you’re familiar with variety, you’re likely thinking of sentimental songs, racy jokes, and tights. But variety audiences expected not so much a specific style of performance but a juxtaposition of familiar elements at unprecedented speeds and scales. One Philadelphia theater promised a “rapid succession of performances” on which “the curtain, like the American Flag […] never goes down.”

Variety was a perpetual motion machine; it recruited the catchiest local acts into a loosely-affiliated circuit of venues. And Western debuted into its centripetal force, playing venues from Milwaukee to Liverpool at breakneck speed alongside comedians, trained animals, and trapeze artists.3 In the 1887–1888 season, she played ninety-five cities in multiple countries and was a soon a regular in the vaudeville monopolies that dominated live entertainment.4

Her success was predicated on a flexible solo act that could play in a range of venues, from a dime museum in Pittsburgh to B.F. Keith’s Union Square Theater. “My turn is neat and strictly first class,” she explained to a prospective employer. “It consists of difficult and catchy solos on nine distinct instruments including playing upon two banjos at one and the same time. Juggling banjos in all manners of positions while playing.”5

Western was being modest. She played over twenty instruments on stage, from wind instruments (trombone, flute, mellophone) to percussion (drum, hand-bells, xylophone) to the accordion family (Milanese pipes, concertina, harmonium, and organ) to plucked, struck, and bowed string instruments (guitar, harp, violin, dulcimer, piano, and three different banjos).6 We can only guess how she played two banjos at once, based on the account that “she caused [them] to oscillate like pendulums.”7

In designing her act, Western was also shaping how she would be received. Her act called forth terms usually reserved for men: she was celebrated as a “musical expert,” a “finished artist,” and “more than a phenomenon […] a genius” of “great versatility and talent.”8 On a tour supporting star banjo player Sam Devere, it was Western whom reporters singled out as “the principal hit of the evening,” and other viewers noted her capacity to hold an audience’s attention for a full thirty-two minute set.9

Shredding Verdi on swinging banjos, Western straddled the eclectic spectacularism of variety and the cultural authority of European tradition. This combination was well-suited to a major transition in mass cultural entertainment in the 1880s when managers seeking national monopolies pursued acts that could appeal to the widest possible demographic. Western could play any bill with a low risk of duplication, but she did not engage in raunchy humor or perform in blackface, and she convincingly pitched herself as art music. When a St. Paul manager wanted to promote his theater as “clean, high-class vaudeville entertainment,” he hired Western, a “master of twelve different musical instruments” with “a splendid European reputation.”10

A newspaper clipping with styled text that reads Wonderland Theater High Class Vaudeville.
Notice for Wonderland Theater “High Class Vaudeville” promoting Lillie Western, “The Queen of Instrumentalists.” (Democrat and Chronicle, October 13, 1897)

In emphasizing her mastery as an instrumentalist, Western commanded the spotlight without drawing attention to her embodiment as a woman on stage. Western did not speak on stage or wear tights, and she thus avoided the critical scrutiny turned on performers associated with burlesque.11 At seventeen Western was referred to as “a comely lass,” but the only other reference to her appearance was twenty years later when a Rochester paper remarked that she “combines considerable skill as a musician with a neatly dressed and neatly presented specialty.”12 A vaudeville memoirist recalled that she dressed in male attire while performing, but there is no mention of this from first-hand observers, and the only portrait I have found is inconclusive.13 Instead, Western took advantage of her capacity as a white U.S.–born performer to spectacularize the instrument rather than the performing body.

The recollection of Western’s masculine presence may also reflect her managerial acumen. She was a savvy promoter of her own brand, placing advertisements as a teenager that aggregated positive reviews of her “unqualified success” and endorsing musical products.14 It is particularly notable that she orchestrated her career without any significant male involvement. While touring Britain in her early twenties, Western was caught in a rivalry between managers. In a move that she never walked back, she soon announced that she “recognize[d] no Agent.”15

This was not an easy path. Female instrumentalists playing for a living were a rare occurrence in the Anglo-American stage tradition, and Western may have achieved a higher profile if she had been willing to sing and dance as part of a duo. She was not. “Miss Western does NOT wish to become a partner in the musical moke or any other line of business, preferring to perform alone,” she wrote in an early advertisement summarizing her success. “This is in answer to many letters written with the object of arranging a partnership.”16 Western may simply have preferred performing alone, or she may have correctly guessed that it would eventually be a draw. At the peak of her success, one observer noted not only Western played the xylophone without an assistant, “and the patrons appreciate this fact all the more.”17

Western’s professional solitude and her choice not to reveal personal details of her life in pursuit of celebrity may ultimately have allowed her to live as she pleased off-stage. At her death in 1905, she left her estate to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and “my dear friend” Harriet Gates, who was also “to give a good and comfortable home to my dog, parrot, and small birds.”18 According to Gates, the two women had met as teenage neighbors in Bedford-Stuyvesant; Harriet took care of Lillie’s pets while she was on tour until they moved in together. It was not until after her death that the public was offered a glimpse of the banjo virtuoso’s private life.

The press framed her as an unstable eccentric, fixating on her devotion to animals as proof of her non-normative affections. Perhaps, in developing her stage persona, Western had anticipated this response. In the sole spoken comment attributed to Lillie Western, she displayed a sharp wit that allows us to imagine what she was thinking as she took her many encores. “What need have I of a husband?” she was rumored to have said, in response to a question about her perpetual independence from men. “I have a cat that stays out all night, a parrot that swears and a monkey that chews tobacco.”

Notes

  1. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 6, 1906. Return to text.
  2. Clipper, May 18, 1878; December 30, 1905. Return to text.
  3. Clipper, February 1, 1879; St. Paul Globe, October 13, 1879; Buffalo Commercial, November 4, 1879; Baltimore Sun, December 1, 1879; Hartford Courant, March 17, 1880; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 12, 1880. Return to text.
  4. Belfast News-Letter, February 16, 1888; Star Tribune, June 10, 1883; Buffalo Evening News, August 16, 1883; Detroit Free Press, October 4, 1892; Boston Post, January 7, 1893. Return to text.
  5. Lillie Western to James F. Milliken, April 29 and June 22, 1891, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin. Return to text.
  6. Era, January 8, 1887. Return to text.
  7. Clipper, May 3, 1879. Return to text.
  8. Times (Philadelphia), January 31, 1886; Era, October 2, 1886; March 5, 1887; October 27, 1888; February 8, 1889. Return to text.
  9. Richmond Item, December 4, 1890; Philadelphia Inquirer, March 27, 1894. Return to text.
  10. St. Paul Daily News, April 1, 1893. Return to text.
  11. Robert Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Susan Glenn, Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002). Return to text.
  12. Clipper, May 3, 1879; Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester), February 26, 1899. Return to text.
  13. Joe Laurie, Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace, 93; Jodie Taylor, Playing it Queer: Popular Music, Identity and Queer World-making (Bern: Peter Lang, 2012), 89. Return to text.
  14. Clipper, November 22, 1879; Hartford Courant, December 6, 1886; September 17, 1898. Return to text.
  15. Era, May 28, 1887. Return to text.
  16. Clipper, February 7, 1880. Return to text.
  17. Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester), April 21, 1896. Return to text.
  18. Will of Cecilia A. Woolsey, September 12, 1904, New York Surrogate’s Court, Kings County, Wills and Indexes, 1787-1923. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 29, 1905; Pittsburgh Press, December 31, 1905; New York Times, December 30, 1905, March 7, 1906. Western’s provisions for her pets was also recorded in the Butte Daily Post (March 29, 1906) and the Austin American Statesman (April 16, 1906). Return to text.

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4 Comments

Kim

Are there an surviving recordings or scores, do you know? This is such an intriguing portrait of a performer.

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Rachel

Hi Kim! No recordings that I’m aware of, but the Harry Ransom Center holds several scores and songbooks with annotations by Western. I haven’t seen them, but they are in the Tony Pastor Collection.

Reply
Kim

Thanks, Rachel. I’m going to have get my local reference librarian in on this action and request scans. I’m so curious now.

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