The daughter of a Confederate general Frank Cheatham, raised in the schools of Nashville, Tennessee, Kitty Cheatham was a peculiar figure on the stages of Europe and America during the 1890s to 1920s. A singer and concert performer, a folklorist with a passion for field collection that rivaled any anthropologist, she specialized in children's songs and negro spirituals. Her performance style was emphatic, inhabiting the imagined worlds of the lyrics, and her ventriloquizing young girls, antic boys, and southern fieldworkers struck contemporary audiences as daringly unselfconscious. She performed in royal courts and European universities as well as the athenaeums, church halls, and opera houses of the United States. Sometimes her evenings had a didactic frame, the songs illustrating a history of, for instance, childhood game songs, or African-American work songs. Her absolute sincerity about the worth of the songs she sang, even the nonsense ditties, won even the cynics and ironists in the city audiences. One testament to her talent as an artist in her chosen metier was her ability to move small children to laughter and senior citizens to tears. An egalitarian progressive and Christian scientist, Cheatham's interest in childhood partook in a philosophy of education that stressed the development of democracy in children.
Cheatham's penchant for performing originally took a conventional shape, playing ingenue roles in provincial acting troupes. In 1885 she toured the Midwest as Daisy Brown in the "Professor" with the Madison Square Theater company. In 1887 she toured with the McCaull opera company in "Falka." In 1888 she played in "Ermine" at the Casino Theater in New York City, on of the great comic opera successes of the Gilded Age. In 1893 she switched allegiance to manager Charles Frohman, and enjoyed success as the leading lady in "Jane." Eventually, however, the artifice of the comic opera world began to pall on Kitty Cheatham. David S. Shields/ALS