By Her Aim Is True director, Karen Whitehead
It would be easy to write this as a rousing celebration of women’s achievements in rock and roll history, especially if you scan recent decades – take your pick from Patti Smith, Madonna to Lady Gaga – you can name your own! But I am not going to do that. While there are plenty of women musicians out there pursuing their own creative vision now, it’s a more complicated history full of missing stories, tales of perseverance and forgotten pioneers.
This much I learned in my recent conversation with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame curator, Meredith Rutledge-Borger about her work putting together the exhibit “Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power” which has just started touring across the US. As Borger tells it, rock and roll really started as a forum for the voices of the marginalized; “ but while women really were some of the pioneers of the art form, we became marginalized or objectified to a large extent as rock and roll became a “boy’s club.”
Delving in to the origins of this exhibit which included a critical nudge from Cyndi Lauper who asked after her tour of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a couple of years ago, “where are the women?”, I was struck by Meredith Rutledge-Borger’s own conviction and determination to share these stories. There is also an uncanny parallel to the dilemma I found myself in when I launched production on my documentary about pioneer rock n roll photographer Jini Dellaccio. Few have heard of her, yet there is a 50-year-old archive harboring a rich artistic legacy of a masterful photographer.
So, while many women rockers may now be standing “toe to toe” with the best of the best, as Borger says – it is worth looking back to some forgotten voices. Early gospel and jazz musicians like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, along with blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were breaking new ground for women. Ma Rainey made over 100 recordings in the 1920s! Rosetta Tharpe was fearless, according to Borger, she had no boundaries, no sense of I can’t do this. “She just did whatever her muse told her to – she didn’t say I’m a gospel singer, I can’t do blues”. (And fortunately for me, Dellaccio displayed the same artistic courage as will be revealed in Her Aim Is True)
But even as talented women singers and musicians found a spotlight in the jazz scene through the 1930s, it seems it was always in the context of following the men. Jini Dellacio describes this in her interviews for the documentary. As a talented saxophone player, Jini found plenty of work, but in all girl bands that were often characterized as the “off” bands, playing when the (male) Big Bands were not on the stage.
By the 1950s women were definitely on the sidelines relegated to providing harmonies. How did this change? Take stories like this one Borger shared with me about New Jersey housewife, Florence Greenberg who was behind The Shirelles. No one knew who she was but she founded her own indie label, and she gave her daughter’s high school friends a place for them to record. As Borger says she wanted them to get the chance to show their talent to the world and in the process, she set about an improbable career owning a small record label.
“That story was in nutshell, so inspiring and so surprising. Not a lot of people know about her, but everyone knows Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”
Although the Shangri Las (Jini Dellaccio photographed them in the mid 60s) are not featured in this exhibit, Borger say they were another example of authentic voices emerging. Note the teen girl angst in Remember. It was rare at the time for girls to be singing about love, given at the time the majority of songs were still written by men about what women felt.
Women songwriters/performers pushed further: Take Loretta Lynn’s The Pill. Recorded in 1972 but held back by the record label until 1975, the song put family planning and women’s issues front stage where it was least expected – in country music. Borger explains: “You had the sense of it being so square, earthy but it was very prosaic – and nothing about women’s issues other than oh my man he left me, but when Loretta Lynn started talking about don’t come home drinking with loving on your mind – alluding to alcoholism and abusive relationships that was different. The Pill is an explosion – no one was talking about that …”
In this fascinating treasure trove of women’s experiences in music, perhaps one of the most telling is embodied in the career of Ruth Brown. A talented rhythm and blues performer in the 1950s – but who knew an entire record label was built around her success? Borger describes Brown as “a pioneer and a phoenix in the industry”. Atlantic Records was even nicknamed ‘the house that Ruth built’ but Brown abandoned the music scene when she was on road so much her toddler did not recognize her. She became a housekeeper until the day came, when Brown said, she heard her record played on the radio and herself referred to by a DJ as “legendary”. At that moment she realized she needed some recognition. Brown reconnected with Red Fox, a huge TV star at the time that she knew from her old days on road and he invited her to stay in LA. Brown agreed and successfully rebuilt her career as a musician in the 1970s. Brown even started the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
We have indeed come a long way, but the fact that it took so long to get an exhibit off the ground speaks to me about how far we still need to go. The fact that we need to have an exhibit dedicated to women in rock is also very telling. 701 people have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of which only 61 are women, as of January 2013.
And daily I find myself reminded when the “girls” are doing it – such as Lady Gaga’s ‘meat’ dress at the 2010 MTV Awards (and preserved specially for this exhibit!), the focus is still on what we wear, how are hair is, do we look fat. While men can push the envelope, when women do it, it is often perceived as freakish. Borger and I agreed, sometimes there is not enough focus on the art of it…
Hopefully projects that focus squarely on women’s achievements can help change that and at the same time, bring out of the shadows women artists who deserve more main stream cred. And you can help my story on Jini Dellaccio get out into the world right now by “liking” the Facebook page and spreading the word!