Female songwriters were rare in the first half of the 20th century. A few lyricists come to mind:
- Dorothy Fields (“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”)
- Betty Comden (“The Party’s Over”)
- Carolyn Leigh (“Young at Heart”)
A handful of successful women who composed melodies:
- Dana Suesse (“You Oughta Be in Pictures”)
- Kay Swift (“Fine and Dandy”)
- Maria Grever (“What a Diff’rence a Day Made”)
And some who wrote the words and the tune:
- Carrie Jacobs-Bond (“I Love You Truly”)
- Maude Nugent (“Sweet Rosie O’Grady”)
Another in this last group is Ann Ronell, a woman you likely have never heard of.
Ronell started composing in high school in Omaha, Nebraska, and wrote her class song. While a college student, she interviewed George Gershwin for the campus magazine, The Radcliff, and he took an interest in her songwriting. She later said that Gershwin suggested two ways she could get into Broadway musicals: by dancing in the chorus or playing piano for rehearsals.” She chose the latter.
Ronell began working for the musical Show Girl, and was able to make some connections in the music publishing business. Her first successful song was “Baby’s Birthday Party,” a fox trot published in 1930 and recorded by Guy Lombardo and then by Rudy Vallee, but rarely heard today. It’s a novelty song inspired by the first birthday of her nephew—a song about children, not for children.
That success helped her get the attention of Irving Berlin, who liked and published her best-known song, “Willow Weep for Me.” Dedicated to George Gershwin, it’s a sophisticated, bluesy tune recorded by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in 1932.
Next Ronell looked for work in Hollywood, and ended up writing the words for “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” from the 1933 Walt Disney cartoon The Three Little Pigs. The lyrics expressed the resolve that many felt toward the Depression, the big, bad wolf of the 1930s. I was surprised to discover “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” on Barbra Streisand’s first album.
Ann Ronell became the first woman to score a film, Algiers, in 1939. But perhaps the most important part of Ronell’s musical story came as World War II was ending, and she and Louis Applebaum co-scored The Story of G.I. Joe, a 1945 film based on the writings of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, starring Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum. The standout song was Ronell’s “Linda,” a sentimental ballad nominated for Best Song of 1945. (The winner was Rogers and Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring.”)
Unfortunately, Jack Lawrence (“If I Didn’t Care”) also published a song titled “Linda” two years later, leading to a lot of confusion about authorship of the two tunes, and leaving Ronell with barely any credit for her “Linda.”
Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me” became a jazz piano standard, but her name is still largely unknown. A shame.
Here’s Sarah Vaughan performing the song (audio only). Toward the end there’s some kind of mistake—maybe a dropped microphone? Vaughan revises the lyrics on the spot, a humorous acknowledgement of the mishap. Enjoy.
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.