The jazz singer Jeanne Lee engaged in acts of reclamation of her identity, itself part of a greater project undertaken by creative black women.
Jazz standards with lyrics, written overwhelmingly by men, often reveal male constructions of female identity, even if sometimes seemingly from the narrative position of a woman. They therefore form a culturally important and influential way in which women have been defined by others, usually by men. Lee’s acts of redefinition—the ways in which she altered the ontologies of womanhood presented in standards—opened a possibility of subverting these externally imposed identities in subtle or overt ways.
This according to “This ain’t a hate thing: Jeanne Lee and the subversion of the jazz standard” by Eric Lewis (Jazz & culture I  pp. 49–76).
Today would have been Lee’s 80th birthday! Above, Lee in 1984; below, singing “All about Ronnie” in 1963.
In most genres of Caribbean music women tend to participate as dancers or vocalists, but in Dominican merengue típico they are more often instrumentalists and even bandleaders—something nearly unheard of in the macho Caribbean music scene.
In a complex nexus of class, race, and artistic tradition that unsettles the typical binary between the masculine and feminine, female musicians have developed a feminine counterpart to the classic male figure of the tíguere, a dandified but sexually aggressive and street-smart tiger: the tíguera, an assertive, sensual, and respected female figure who looks like a woman but often plays and even sings like a man. These musical figures illuminate the rich ambiguities in gender construction in the Dominican Republic and the long history of a unique form of Caribbean feminism.
This according to Tigers of a different stripe: Performing gender in Dominican music by Sydney Hutchinson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Above and below, Fefita la Grande, one of the tígueras discussed in the book.
Dil-Hayât Kalfa Tanbûrî (generally known as Dilhayat Kalfa, d.1737) was raised in the Ottoman royal palace, as indicated by the adjectival Kalfa, which also denotes important administrative tasks. She played the tanbur, and historical sources contain information on nearly 100 of her compositions.
Her surviving works are counted among the most important examples of the technique and aesthetic of the Ottoman classical school. The flow of her makams and her prosody are exemplary. Two works in the evcârâ makam, a peşrev and a saz semaî, exhibit a very individualistic style. She was exemplary in her setting of texts, showing great care in arranging the relationship between meaning and melody.
This according to “Dilhayat Kalfa” by Meral Akkent (İstanbul Kadın Müzesi, 2012). Above, a Romantic-era depiction of the composer (no contemporaneous portrait exists); below, the saz semaî discussed in the article.
The complexity and range of Meshell Ndegeocello’s hip-hop works extend largely from her willingness to push boundaries—but in pushing sexual and gender boundaries, Ndegeocello declines to traffic in singular dimensions. Danyel Smith has described her as “an African American, woman, lesbian, musician, and mother” who thrives on “pondering the riddles that accompany all her selves.”
In Berry farms Ndegeocello addresses a female lover: “Can you love me without shame?” Giving way to the bass groove, she aggressively concludes: “Yeah, you like to mess around!” She goes on to suggest that her girlfriend prohibits them from sharing honest, enduring love for fear of public scorn because they are lesbians and because she desires the material things her “boy” can give her.
“You know how we like material things,” she observes, reminding us of the dominant perception that most black women effortlessly and willingly sacrifice substantive self-fulfillment for social approval and material gratification. The discursive modes of many of the tracks on Cookie: The anthropological mixtape strike an unambiguously combative chord with this perception by elaborating the tensions of same-sex female desire, fulfillment, and repression.
This according to “‘You sell your soul like you sell a piece of ass’: Rhythms of black female sexuality and subjectvity in Meshell Ndegeocello’s Cookie: The anthropological mixtape” by Nghana Lewis (Black music research journal XXVI/1 [spring 2006] pp. 111–30).
Today is Ndegeocello’s 50th birthday! Below, the song in question.
Since it emerged as a distinct genre in the late 1960s and early 1970s funk has played an important role in American music and culture, in its foregrounding of polyrhythmic interplay, improvisation, and community formation, and in addressing issues of discrimination and marginalization.
Recent scholarship has examined funk from a feminist perspective, highlighting female musicians’ participation in the creation of black feminist thought and in rejecting externally defined roles and identities. An expansion on these feminist approaches focuses on the particular ways that sound organization helps to address the gendered nature of funk performance and discourse; the concept of Afro-sonic feminist funk demonstrates how female musicians use the sonic and performative tenets of funk to complicate the gendered politics and discourses surrounding funk music.
This according to “Janelle Monáe and Afro-sonic feminist funk” by Matthew Valnes (Journal of popular music studies XXIX/3 [September 2017]).
Today is International Women’s Day! Above, Janelle Monáe’s Q.U.E.E.N.; below, her Tightrope. Both songs provide case studies in the article.
The members of the Goree All-Girl String Band, all inmates in the Texas state prison system, used country music’s gender iconography in their struggle for greater autonomy and ultimately freedom in the 1930s and 1940s.
Their incarceration and past violations of the norms of feminine passivity and virtuousness placed them beyond the pale of country music’s prevailing image of valued femininity: the sentimental mother, who embodied home, domesticity, and a lost rural past. But through the alternative roles of dutiful daughter and cowboy’s sweetheart they performed their way to rehabilitation, both symbolically (as women who had returned to their proper place) and literally (as convicts who had served their time or gained clemency).
Though largely forgotten today, the Goree Girls’ popularity during their broadcasting years demonstrates that while country audiences may have venerated the sentimental mother, they also identified with and embraced women whose relationship to dominant gender ideals was fraught with complications.
This according to “As if they were going places: Class and gender portrayals through country music in the Texas State Prison, 1938–1944” by Caroline Gnagy, an essay included in Country boys and redneck women: New essays in gender and country music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, pp. 126–45).
Below, a selection from a musical based on the Goree Girls’ story; information on the 2017 production is here (scroll down). A film produced by Jennifer Aniston is reportedly in the planning stages; information on that topic is here.
Playing on male-gendered instruments, the members of the all-women Original Pinettes Brass Band contest the male domination of the New Orleans brass band scene, queering the normative relationship between instruments and musicians and carving out a space for female musicianship.
The group’s songs and performance decisions present agential and subjective sites of black feminist thought put into action to subvert the brass band patriarchy. The Pinettes force us to view the New Orleans brass band scene as an intersectional site where gender is a central element in the construction and consolidation of power relationships.
This according to “Street queens: New Orleans brass bands and the problem of intersectionality” by Kyle DeCoste (Ethnomusicology LXI/2 [summer 2017] pp. 181–206). Below, the Pinettes in 2016.
Amy Beach’s highly polished Gaelic symphony represents her triumph over 19th-century women’s socialization and her honest desire to present a feminine image worthy of imitation.
After the work’s 1896 premiere Beach was described by the critic Philip Hale as “an epoch maker who has broken through old boundaries and presented an enrichment and expansion of woman’s sphere in art.” Even the Boston Brahmin composer George Whitefield Chadwick wrote, in a letter to her, “I am pleased that an American and a woman can produce such strong and beautiful musical ideas . . . You are now one of the boys.”
This according to “Amy Beach: Muse, conscience, and society” by Susan Mardinly (Journal of singing LXX/5 [May–June 2014] pp. 527–40).
Today is Beach’s 150th birthday! Below, the work’s finale.
In 1946 the Hormel company created a unique organization to employ World War II veterans as musicians to market food products.
Over a seven-year period the Hormel Girls, a drum-and-bugle corps, conducted door-to-door sales, worked with local retailers in cities and towns across America, formed a professional orchestra and a choir to enhance their stage shows, and produced a weekly national radio broadcast.
This was possibly the most successful musical-marketing strategy in the history of partnerships between music and industry. The women received outstanding pay and benefits, the company doubled its profits during the group’s existence, and the performers were professional-level musicians on a par with members of other professional ensembles of the era.
This according to “The Hormel Girls” by Jill M. Sullivan and Danielle D. Keck (American music XXV/3 [fall 2007] pp. 282–311). Top, the group ca. 1947; center, in 1952. Below, Elisa Korenne’s Hormel Girls, illustrated with vintage photographs.
Helen May Butler’s career provides a welcome counternarrative to the men’s professional bands—such as John Philip Sousa’s—that were the rage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Butler had the professional and musical clout to attract the top female talent needed to form a first-rate professional ensemble. Her Ladies’ Military Band rose to prominence during a time when being a professional woman required sacrifice, in terms of both family life and customary female identity. Butler’s perseverance and tenacity in creating an accomplished ensemble of women in a male-dominated field is an important and inspirational addition to the history of both U.S. concert bands and the women’s movement of her time.
This according to “Helen May Butler and her Ladies’ Military Band: Being professional during the golden age of bands” by Brian D. Meyers, an essay included in Women’s bands in America: Performing music and gender (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, pp. 15–49).
Today is Butler’s 150th birthday! Below, an undated photograph of her Ladies’ Brass Band, which toured between 1901 and 1912 (click to enlarge).