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The Queen of Whistlers: Nov. 1920 - May 1929

by Margaret McKee

In Venice 02:52
Mocking Bird 03:02
Spring Song 02:53
Song Bird 03:07
Bird Calls 02:50


The American cultural phenomenon of a woman whistling in public was part of the feminist movement at the end of 19th and early 20th centuries that lead to 19th Amendment to the Constitution that in 1920 included women as a voting constituency. Whistling in public was one of the innumerable social restrictions placed on women for over a century in the U.S. The women who broke with those conventions were joining a social movement toward liberation that was gradual, complicated, and spanned many generations. A prior Canary collection titled Siffleuses, including women whistlers from 1907-47 has described some of this period. canary-records.bandcamp.com/album/siffleuses-professional-women-whistlers-on-discs-1917-27-1907-1947

Arguably the most prolific performer of the era was a young woman whose story is a distinctly American and specifically Californian story of show business, tied to some of the most popular performers and preachers of her era. Her disc recordings were generally conventional and conservative, even during her era, appealing to as broad an audience as nearly any woman of the time, but her particular skill as an imitator, an impersonator, of birds is a lost art-form that connects us as humans with the planet, the creatures around us, and the daily experiences of solar radiation, atmospheric changes, and our inborn pleasure in the safety that the world can give us. (Two further Canary albums deal with bird imitation: Ecstatic & Wingless canary-records.bandcamp.com/album/ecstatic-wingless-bird-imitation-on-four-continents-ca-1910-44 and Wiser Than the Wisdom of Geese canary-records.bandcamp.com/album/wiser-than-the-wisdom-of-geese-u-s-game-culture-discs-1940s-50s )

Born in Los Angeles on July 17, 1898, Margaret McKee was the eldest of four children. Her father William Edgar McKee was born in L.A. in 1876; her mother Agnes Marion Gray, the daughter of a Scottish immigrant, was born in 1875 in Madison, Tennessee, and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. By the time Margaret was 12, her father was working as a shipyard inspector, and their family of six had two boarders living with them. Her mother, a musician, was likely the motivating force behind the career that dominated Margaret’s life over much of the next decade.

The earliest press reference we’ve found of Margaret McKee came from when she was 13 years old where she was mentioned as one of the best students of Agnes Woodward, who ran the California School of Artistic Whistling and subsequently published a book on the subject. Among the all-female graduates of Woodward’s school was perhaps the other most ubiquitously heard, if not well-known, whistler Marion Darlington (b. 1910; d. 1991), who performed in the first Disney animated features including Cinderella, Pinocchio, Snow White, and Bambi, along with dozens of short films.

McKee first appeared in public at the age of 14 in October 1912 at the Los Angeles Dixie Society’s Ebell clubhouse along with a blackface minstrel act with a cakewalk and banjo solo, dialect reading, and Spanish dances. Six months later, she appeared for the first time at the Los Angeles Temple Baptist auditorium, the church of the charismatic and enormously popular preacher James Whitcomb Brogher (b. 1870; d. 1967) who was instrumental in the course of McKee’s career. Throughout 1913-1919, the entirety of her adolescence and teen years, McKee performed three or four times a month at Baptist and Methodist churches in and around Los Angeles (Santa Monica, Pomona, Santa Barbara, Redondo, San Pedro, etc.). She returned constantly to Brougher’s church, and he used her appearances consistently as a draw to his services. When on December 19, 1919, McKee’s engagement to medical student and naval reservist Samuel C. Glasgow was announced, Brougher was announced as the officiate. She performed one last time at his church in February 1920 before moving to New York City for her big break.

In December 1920, she was added to a popular variety show called Good Times that had been running since August of that year. It was a musical spectacle that included trick horsemen, diving girls, elephants, trick cyclist Joe Jackson, a stilt-walker (the newly-arrived immigrant Carey Grant), and “Abdullah’s Arabian Troupe.” By January 1921, it was reported in her native California that McKee was being lowered from the theater’s rafters in a cage wearing a yellow feather costume. The show closed in April 1921. Coincidentally with the show, she got work as a whistler on records with some of the most popular recording artists of the time, including Paul Whiteman.

From the end of 1920 through the rest of the decade, she appeared frequently at recording sessions, often as a soloist with popular bands as well as a featured performer. She recorded mainly for Victor from 1920-22 and then, mainly, for Brunswick for the next few years, although she also recorded for Okeh, and her recordings were licensed out to various smaller labels (Perfect, Pathe, Montgomery Ward, etc.) into the mid-1930s. Many variant takes were issued in Canada and Europe. On at least three separate occasions, she recorded a 3-minute section of her stage act as “Bird Imitations” or “Bird Calls.” (Two of those are presented on this album. A third variant with a male announcer can be heard on the Canary album Ecstatic & Wingless.) Ultimately nearly 40 of her performances were issued on discs in the ‘20s. In 1927, she recorded a Vitaphone film, an early sound movie, a print of which is known to exist but which has not been seen since it was released nearly a hundred years ago.

She returned to California to visit in 1926 and was divorced around 1928. She did not travel much, performing only as far as Hanover and Reading, Pennsylvania in 1929, where she was an opening act for movies. On July 14, 1931, she married one Lawrence Woodward (no relation to her teacher Agnes, b. 1899; d. 1953). Their daughter Margaret Lauretta Woodward was born just under seven months later on Feb. 11, 1932. When recording and performing work dried up completely during the Depression, she connected with Russell Brougher (son of Rev. J. W. Brougher), who had a storefront church in Brooklyn. She performed twice a week for his congregation from the end of 1932 until September 1935, at which point she returned home to California.

She spent the late ‘30s and early ’40s performing sporadically at ladies' functions. Public records largely disappear around that time. But a couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to talk with Melody Woodward, who is McKee’s closest surviving descendant and who lives only about an hour from me in Maryland. We exchanged details that we knew about her life. She recounted to me, in particular, that she was raised by McKee. Her birth mother was, in fact, McKee’s daughter who became pregnant out of wedlock and was sent away to give birth while McKee, then approaching middle age, appeared publicly wearing padding to show herself as pregnant so that when Melody was born, McKee could claim that Melody was her own daughter. Melody herself did not know the truth for decades. McKee, meanwhile, was a complicated individual who kept mementos of her career in the back of her car because, one supposes, they might be safer than in the house. And she became a habitual gambler on horse racing. Her second husband Lawrence Newell died in 1953

Margaret McKee died at the age of 61 in her native Los Angeles on March 5, 1960, largely forgotten, despite her decades of performing and her years of stardom.


released May 16, 2023

Transfers, restorations, and notes by Ian Nagoski
Many thanks to Melody E. Roelke-Parker

Recording dates via the Database of American Historical Recordings at the University of California, Santa Barbara:
1 & 9 ca. June 1922
2 Nov. 18, 1920
3 Nov. 2, 1920
4 May 18, 1922
5 April 11, 1921
6 Mach 1, 1923
7 May 1929
8 & 12 Nov. 11, 1925
10 Feb. 1922
13 May 1921
14 March 1929
15 Nov. 11, 1920
16. untraced

Cover photo of Margaret McKee likely from the early 1920s in the New York area.
Attached detail of a promotional photo of Margaret McKee ca. 1916 making socks for soldiers
Thanks also to Rich Pell


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