While working as a fill-in disc jockey at a country music station in 1987, I was advised of one cardinal rule prior to my first air shift: never play two female vocalists in a row. As time moved on, I came to realize that this rule was common in mainstream radio beyond country music. Listening to the radio, I never heard female vocalists on consecutive tracks.
In fact, such chauvinism had long been an industry standard in the male-dominated music world. When women would come to recording sessions with their own creative ideas, they were often silenced by the men who ran the record industry. Likewise, women who went on tour with troupes of male musicians were generally frowned upon by outsiders. To these people, earning a living by hanging out in saloons, honky tonks, and juke joints was not an acceptable practice for women (it was barely acceptable for men).
Despite such obstacles, there was no silencing these women when the tape started rolling or the stage lights went on. Against strong odds, they went on to leave an indelible mark on music. And while we’d like to think that such attitudes have eased in the 21st century, there are examples to the contrary. Last May in Country Aircheck, radio consultant Keith Hill advised country stations not to play females at all, stating, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out.” This is despite the fact that women nowadays tend to make the most interesting country recordings.
To commemorate Women’s History Month, I’ve chosen 60 songs by women that have had a profound influence on the growth of music. Presented in six parts and in chronological order, these songs span a time period from 1920 through January 2016. They cut a wide path, encompassing such genres as blues, country, jazz, pop, gospel, rhythm & blues, rock ‘n’ roll, folk, soul, girl groups, punk, new wave, and disco. It’s an eclectic and, I think, sensible mix, with no noticeable drop in quality from beginning to end.
Here are the first 10 songs of the series, which will run in Atticus Review each Tuesday and Thursday for three straight weeks. Give these women a listen, as the music world wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without their efforts.
Crazy Blues – Mamie Smith (Okeh, 1920)
The first vocal blues recording by an African American singer almost didn’t happen. With Sophie Tucker too ill to attend a scheduled recording session on Valentine’s Day 1920, “Crazy Blues” composer Perry Bradford persuaded Fred Hagar of Okeh Records to use Smith instead. Hagar recorded Smith despite pressure from various pressure groups that threatened to boycott the company if he recorded a black singer. When the record (“That Thing Called Love” b/w “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down”) became a commercial success, Smith returned to the studio on August 10 to record a trio of songs that included “Crazy Blues.” The record sold 75,000 within its first month, paving the way not only for records made by other black singers but also for a black entertainment industry.
St. Louis Blues – Bessie Smith (Columbia, 1925)
Signed by Columbia Records in 1923, Smith had already amassed several hits and her “Empress of the Blues” nickname when she recorded the foremost blues song of the era, W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” Instilled with seemingly limitless heartache by Smith’s arresting vocals, the recording is an emotional tour de force that powerfully depicts Handy’s storyline about a woman who has lost her man to a lady with “diamond rings,” “powder” and “store-bought hair.” Adding to its magnificence is the cornet playing of a 24-year-old Louis Armstrong, whose instrumental embellishments punctuate the sorrow in Smith’s desperate singing. Additional shades of misery are added by the track’s lone other instrument, a harmonium played by Fred Longshaw. Raw to the bone, Smith’s vocal performance on the track would inspire countless blues, jazz, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll singers.
Wildwood Flower – The Carter Family (Victor, 1928)
Known as the first family of country music, the trio of Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin Maybelle shaped the sound of country music’s first decades with their harmonies and guitar playing. The Virginia-born trio was especially adept at putting their own Appalachian stamp on old folk and mountain songs. A prime example is “Wildwood Flower,” an adaptation of a song from 1860 titled “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets” that tells the story of a young woman who is abruptly deserted by her lover. Recorded on Maybelle’s 19th birthday in May 1928, the Carter Family version is considered the foremost example of the “Carter Scratch,” a method of acoustic guitar playing originated by Maybelle in which the musician plays both the melody and rhythm lines simultaneously. A song of lost innocence, it stands as one of the essential recordings in 20th century American music.
I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart – Patsy Montana (ARC, 1935)
That the first million-seller by a female country artist was recorded at all is a matter of happenstance. Adapted by Montana (real name: Ruby Blevins) from Stuart Hamblen’s Western standard “Texas Plains,” the song was recorded at the end of a 1935 recording session by Kentucky string band the Prairie Ramblers. The group’s soloist at the time, the Arkansas-born Montana had left the studio while the Ramblers recorded some off-color songs as the Sweet Violet Boys. Hurried back into the studio when producer Art Satherly needed one more song, Montana embellished her paean to the Wild West with yodeling inspired by her hero Jimmie Rodgers. The song has been recorded numerous times since, most notably by Rosalie Allen, Patti Page, Suzy Bogguss, the pre-Natalie Maines Dixie Chicks, Lynn Anderson, LeAnn Rimes, Nickel Creek, and even Phish.
Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday (Commodore, 1939)
Based on a poem about lynching written by Bronx schoolteacher Abel Meeropol, “Strange Fruit” was recorded by Holiday despite strong objections by her record label. She was introduced to the song by Barney Josephson, proprietor of integrated Greenwich Village nightclub Café Society. Holiday agreed to perform it at the club, despite her fear of retaliation. When her label, Columbia, refused to record it, Holiday turned to alternative jazz label Commodore. Issued as the B-side of “Fine and Mellow,” it became her biggest seller while remaining in her repertoire for the remaining 20 years of her life. Holiday said the song was a reminder of her father, musician Clarence Holiday, who died while touring in 1937 after a Texas hospital refused to treat him for an illness. Her mournful rendition of “Strange Fruit” remains as one of the greatest protest songs ever recorded.
Over the Rainbow – Judy Garland (Decca, 1939)
Often cited as the greatest movie song of all time, “Over the Rainbow” nearly missed the final cut of The Wizard of Oz as MGM producers felt it bogged down the opening sequence. The Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg-penned ballad was not only kept, but went on to win an Academy Award for Best Song. Though often thought to be about the pursuit of one’s dreams, the song as used in the movie suggests that one’s wildest dreams are fantasy and not steeped in reality (hence, the ending scene with Dorothy being back in Kansas). The recording is nevertheless transcendent, with Garland’s delicate vocals being capable of reducing grown men to tears. Considered inspirational during World War II, it was adopted by American troops in Europe as a symbol of the United States. The film version of the song (which is different from the single version Garland recorded for Decca Records) was not made available to the public until the 1956 release of the official soundtrack. Garland would continue to perform “Over the Rainbow” for 30 years until her death in 1969.
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy – The Andrews Sisters (Decca, 1941)
Having accumulated 23 Top 20 hits of their own while also backing Bing Crosby on numerous ballads and novelty songs, Minnesota siblings Patty, Maxene and Laverne Andrews were already well-known when “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” first hit the airwaves. Singing to a lively jump beat, the trio premiered the Don Raye/Hughie Prince composition in the Abbott and Costello film Buck Privates. With the Andrews Sisters being clad in U.S. Army outfits during their appearance, the song about a celebrated Chicago street musician who blew Reveille for the Army during peacetime would later strike a chord with patriotic Americans during World War II (the attack on Pearl Harbor was still 11 months away when the film debuted in January 1941). In addition to providing messages of solidarity and good cheer during the war, “Bugle Boy” is musically significant in that it foretold the onset of rhythm & blues along with the doo-wop and girl-group eras that were more than a decade away.
Move On Up a Little Higher – Mahalia Jackson (Apollo, 1948)
Recorded in 1947 and released as a two-part single the following year, Jackson’s rendition of this Rev. William Herbert Brewster composition is a veritable sermon, with the singer powerfully expressing Christian glory with simple backing by piano and organ. But while the million-selling record made Jackson the “Queen of Gospel,” there was more to the song’s message than religious devotion. In not-so-subtle fashion, the song also addresses the gradual rise of African Americans into a position of greater economic and social power, therefore making it a precursor to the oncoming Civil Rights Movement. Jackson’s role in that regard would be noted two decades later, when she sang the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral (the song was a particular favorite of King’s). When other prominent Gospel singers started crossing over into the secular music world, Jackson stuck with gospel despite lucrative offers. She still had work to do, something that began with this rousing recording.
Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air) – Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Decca, 1949)
The creator of one of American music’s most-conflicted recording catalogs, Tharpe spent years going back and forth between sacred and secular songs. Despite her “Sister” title, she has frequently been referred to as “the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll” due to the inventive and rollicking nature of her guitar playing. Performed with frequent singing partner Marie Knight, the infectious “Up Above My Head” is beloved by both Tharpe audiences; the secular one for the way it makes the body want to move, and the sacred side because it truly sounds like it’s coming from “up above.” Guaranteed to lift one’s spirits, it’s one of the most inspirational performances ever committed to tape. Give a listen and revel in its glory.
Honky Tonkin’ – The Maddox Brothers & Rose (4 Star, 1949)
With a vast repertoire of country standards, cowboy songs, Western swing, folk, church singing, jazz, boogie woogie, and early rock ‘n’ roll, the Maddox Brothers & Rose worked hard to earn their reputation as America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band. Though the four brothers in the band were all talented, the group’s secret ingredient was their young sister Rose, who began performing with them at age 11 despite the objections of their mother. Known for her colorful Western costumes, she once shocked a Grand Ole Opry audience by appearing on stage in a bare midriff that was in sharp contrast to her generally demure female contemporaries. High-kicking and shimmying across the stage, she pioneered the style of the early rock ‘n’ roll performers that would follow. When the band split up in 1956, Rose continued to perform and record until her death in 1998. This rendition of Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin’” is an example of why she and her brothers are so revered.