Katherine "Kitty" Cheatham
Early twentieth-century singer, actress, and children’s entertainer, Kitty Cheatham was born and raised in Nashville. She was the daughter of Colonel Richard Boone and Frances Bugge Cheatham and had a colorful genealogy, including ties to early Virginia and Tennessee settlers and veterans of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Among the first to settle Middle Tennessee, her father’s family came from Virginia and included General Archibald Cheatham, who fought alongside Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, and Benjamin Franklin Cheatham, a major general in the Confederate Army. Kitty Cheatham, who moved to New York from Nashville, was well connected with Europe’s elite and performed in front of thousands in the United States, England, France, and Germany. Throughout her career she appeared with the New York Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonic Society, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, among others.
In 1904 Cheatham debuted on stage in London, performing renditions of old Negro folk songs; some sources claim she was a pioneer in the preservation of these songs. She was better known, however, for her entertainment of children, gaining worldwide fame performing children’s literature in both song and story. In her 1938 book, Letter to M, Cheatham said, “Children inspire, cheer, and fill me with fresh desire to dedicate myself to their welfare, as I have always endeavored to do, through my art and in every possible way.” A 1914 handbill published by the Parents’ League of New York praises her contributions to children and advertises her spring performances at New York’s Lyceum Theatre and Yale University’s Woolsey Hall, as well as in Louisville for the Woman’s Club and Minneapolis at the National Conference of Music Supervisors. Having gained popularity, she published her first book in 1915, Kitty Cheatham: Her Book, and her second in 1917, A Nursery Garland. Both were collections of her songs.
Cheatham proudly proclaimed her southern heritage and was exceptionally patriotic and religious, often writing and singing about God and country. In 1918 she published a booklet entitled Words and Music of “The Star Spangled Banner” Oppose the Spirit of Democracy which the Declaration of Independence Embodies: A Protest in Defense of Children. In this publication she said, “The music of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is the music of an old English drinking song, written for the Anacreontic Society of London, about the time our ancestors were struggling to break the shackles which fettered them to European autocracy, and which prevented them from worshipping God according to the dictates of their own conscience.” Moreover, Cheatham called for a national anthem free of the words “bombs bursting in air.” Parts of this publication were printed in the New York Times, inciting much controversy.
Cheatham continued this patriotic theme in her 1920 publication, America Triumphant Under God and His Christ. Cheatham also discusses America’s “parental mission among the nations” much like the biblical Abraham was a leader among people. She often intertwined religion and patriotism, insisting, “The Bible has inspired every symbol which represents America.” Cheatham was a member of the Christian Science Church and a personal acquaintance of the church’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy.
Cheatham was often invited abroad to speak of her travels and experiences. In 1930, for instance, the Icelandic Parliament invited her to deliver a speech at the Millenial Celebrations. In 1937 she spoke to the delegation of the International Women’s Congress at Budapest, Hungary, and later wrote about this occasion in Letter to M.
In addition to her choral performances, speeches, and political and religious writings, Cheatham held several honorary titles, including honorary vice-president of both the International Women’s Congress and the Benjamin Franklin Society. She was also associated with various clubs and societies.
Kitty Cheatham never married. She died on January 5, 1946, and was buried at Nashville’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery.