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).
Although Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville was celebrated as one of 1993’s top records by Spin and the New York times, to some it was an abomination: a mockery of The Rolling Stones’s most revered album, Exile on Main Street, and a rare glimpse into the psyche of a shrewd, independent, strong young woman. For these crimes she was run out of her hometown of Chicago, enduring a flame war perpetrated by writers who accused her of being boring, inauthentic, and even a poor musician.
With Exile in Guyville, Phair spoke for all the young women who loved the world of indie rock but felt deeply unwelcome there. Like all great works of art, Exile was a harbinger of the shape of things to come: Phair may have undermined the male ego, but she also unleashed a new female one.
This according to Exile in Guyville by Gina Arnold (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).
Today is Liz Phair’s 50th birthday! Above, a screenshot from the official video for Never said, the album’s major airplay hit; below, the full video.
When Jane Evrard founded the Orchestre féminin de Paris in 1930 she became one of the first professional women conductors in France. The group was among the most active and well-received ensembles in the French capital from its inaugural concert until World War II.
At a time when female instrumentalists were seldom able to join professional orchestras, the all-woman ensemble provided an important performance platform for talented women string players. The group was distinguished both by the quality of its performance and by its eclectic and innovative repertoire, specializing both in reviving Baroque compositions and in promoting contemporary music.
Looking back on her career, Evrard recalled her bemusement over the mild furor caused by the appearance of a woman at the head of an orchestra: “The great critic Vuillermoz found curious and significant the conquest of feminism represented by the taking of possession of a conductor’s baton. And he compared my orchestra to a battalion composed exclusively of Amazons which I led into combat!”
This according to “On the conductor’s podium: Jane Evrard and the Orchestre Féminin de Paris” by Laura Hamer (The musical times CLII/1916 [autumn 2011] pp. 81–100). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Below, Evrard and the orchestra perform a pair of dance pieces by Lully.
In many societies musical roles are divided along gender lines: Women sing and men play. Men also sing and women sometimes play; yet, unlike men, women who play often do so in contexts of sexual and social marginality.
Contemporary anthropological theories regarding the interrelationship between social structure and gender stratification illuminate how women’s use of musical instruments is related to broader issues of social and gender structure; changes in the ideology of these structures often reflect changes that affect women as performers.
This according to “When women play: The relationship between musical instruments and gender style” by Ellen Koskoff (Canadian university music review/Revue de musique des universités canadiennes XVI/1  pp. 114–27; reprinted in A feminist ethnomusicology: Writings on music and gender [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014]).
Above and below, kulintang, a women’s instrumental genre discussed in the article.
The 1990s saw the emergence of a new kind of female artist, writing songs that focused on intimate topics of sexuality, gender, and the body in an explicit, direct way.
These women explored how everyday life is experienced through the body, and at the center of their songwriting was a specifically female experience, drawing on female agency and power, all experienced through an embodied self. These artists also embraced the confessional history of singer-songwriters, drawing in their audiences with closeness and intimacy through their bodily experiences.
This according to “The female singer-songwriter in the 1990s” by Sarah Boak, an essay included in The Cambridge companion to the singer-songwriter (New York Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp. 257–64).
Above, a photograph of PJ Harvey, Björk, and Tori Amos that was featured in the cover story of the May 1994 issue of Q; below, Harvey’s Dress. The Q article and Harvey’s song are both discussed in Boak’s essay.
In January 1964 Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi, along with other eminent women Karnatak vocalists, boldly gate-crashed the uñcavritti and pañca ratna groups at the annual Tyāgarāja ārādhana, in which women had not previously been permitted to perform, opening the floodgates for women’s full participation in the future.
The Madras newspaper Hindu, in its coverage of that year’s festival, printed a large photo showing the women participating in the uñcavritti procession with a caption saying simply, “Prominent musicians, including . . . M.S. Subbulakshmi, taking part in the uñcavritti bhajan procession”.
In an accompanying article, Hindu’s (male) correspondent wrote matter-of-factly that women musicians had joined the uñcavritti bhajana and had taken part in the singing of the pañcaratna kriti compositions, without commenting on the fact that this was the first time in history that they had done so.
This according to “The social organization of music and musicians: Southern area” by T. Sankaran and Matthew Allen (The Garland encyclopedia of world music V, pp. 383–396); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today would have been Subbulakshmi’s 100th birthday! Below, Bhaja Govindam, a song similar to those that Mahatma Gandhi requested from her.
Aristocratic women exerted unprecedented political and social influence in Florence throughout the late 16th and early 17th century; during this period convents flourished and female members of the powerful Medici family governed the city for the first and only time in its history.
These women also helped shape the city’s aristocratic life, commissioning works of music, art, and theater that were inscribed with their own concerns and aspirations. Through commissions, patrons sought to promote a vision of the world and their place in it. The unique social norms, laws, educational background, and life experiences of female patrons meant the expression of a worldview that differed significantly from that of their male counterparts.
This according to Echoes of women’s voices: Music, art, and female patronage in early modern Florence by Kelley Harness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Above, Cristina di Lorena, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, a patron of Marco da Gagliano; below, Gagliano’s Bel pastor.
Édith Piaf’s is probably the best-known voice that France has produced, yet there has been little insightful analysis of her either in terms of her identity as a star or her gendered identity. This lack may be attributed to the scant amount of work done on French stars in France from a star studies perspective, and the tendency of French feminism to focus on a psychoanalytic rather than a cultural studies approach.
A gender-and-society–based analysis fruitfully focuses on the lyrics and background to her songs, as well as on the myths that have grown around her life and the role of nostalgia in her reception, drawing in particular upon Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as a possible pre- or intertext for her star persona that is likewise rooted in an image of vulnerable womanhood.
This according to “Flaubert’s sparrow, or the Bovary of Belleville: Édith Piaf as cultural icon” by Keith Reader, an essay included in Popular music in France from chanson to techno: Culture, identity and society (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003, pp. 205–223).
Today would have been Piaf’s 100th birthday! Below, performing La foule, one of the songs discussed in the essay.
In Sweden the herding of livestock is women’s work. Herding music functions chiefly as a means of communication between the women and the animals; it is also used for communication between herders.
The song style known as kulning has an instrumental timbre, a sharp attack, and a piercing, almost vibrato-free sound, often very loud and at an unusually high pitch. A study of the physiological and acoustical characteristics of kulning, including phonation and articulation, shows an unconventional use of the voice that contradicts what is recommended in traditional Western voice training.
This according to “Voice physiology and ethnomusicology: Physiological and acoustical studies of the Swedish herding song” by Anna Johnson (Yearbook for traditional music XVI  pp. 42–66). Below, Maria Misgeld demonstrates.
Celia Cruz’s diverse musical repertoire served as a performative locus for the negotiations of both her Cubanness and her broader Latin American identity.
Likewise, her construction of blackness as an Afro-Cuban woman transformed and was transformed by her collaborations with African American musicians and singers, in styles ranging from jazz to hip hop.
Cruz also crossed racial and cultural boundaries by collaborating with Anglo musicians and by tropicalizing rock music. Her staged persona and her body aesthetics also reveal the fluidity with which she assumed diverse racial, national, and historical identities while simultaneously asserting her Cubanness through the use of Spanish onstage.
This according to “The blackness of sugar: Celia Cruz and the performance of (trans)nationalism” by Frances Aparicio (Cultural studies XIII/2 [April 1999] pp. 223–236).
Today is Celia Cruz’s 90th birthday! Below, Cruz performs with the Fania All-Stars in 1974.