Women in Bluegrass

Women in Bluegrass have not always been common and sometimes still receive a second look when performing within the genre today. According to an article by Robert Oermann and Mary Bufwack, “men responded to [women in bluegrass] by shouting derisively at female pickers, making sexual overtures backstage, or snickering behind their backs” (Goldsmith). Today in class, it was questioned whether women made the choice not to perform Bluegrass or if history and tradition kept them isolated from it. I believe that because women traditionally took care of the cooking, cleaning and childcare, this left them no time to even consider playing Bluegrass. In the same article by Oermann and Bufwack referenced above, Bluegrass musician Delia Bell states,

“Women haven’t had the opportunity men do. Men can just pick up and stay out a week, go to a festival, while women stay at home, take care of the kids, keep house, and all of that. They don’t have the opportunity to get out and learn” (Goldsmith).

There was also not enough money for women in Bluegrass according to Ginger Hammond Boatwright who states, “In country music, women can have a bus or fly; and the work is just on weekends or in the summer. In bluegrass you have to stay out on the road a good while. It’s really hard to leave your family and go on the road” (Goldsmith).

1950s-Woman-Cooking

In Thomas Adler’s “Is There a Link between Bluegrass Music and Sexuality?” he gives some early background of Anglo-American folksong. He explains that women were important vocally but were not valued so much instrumentally. “So even though women began to be seen playing bluegrass in the 1960s, it was a long time before there began to be enough really good women bluegrass musicians—women who were not only competent, but excellent—to begin to break down the male observation that women couldn’t pick” (Goldsmith). He also gives a few other reasons why women were not readily welcomed into Bluegrass including the difference in vocal ranges between men and women, the aggressive nature of Bluegrass and the thought that “an all-girl band may…be stereotyped as promiscuous” (Goldsmith).

pretty good for a girl

In opposition to this gender inequality, Connie Walker’s humorous article, “The Plight of the Bluegrass Widow,” encourages female readers to “forget about big boy and start thinking about [themselves],” ensuring that they could “have an enjoyable time doing what [their] hearts desire.” In traditional Bluegrass, the most common way for women to perform the music was through connections with a relative. They were often portrayed as the sister, wife or mother of a male performer and stayed in the background without singing. However, we see female artists throughout Bluegrass breaking this cycle and pursuing solo music as their career.

In an article by Richard Harrington, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard are described as “the first women-led group to infiltrate the boys’ club of bluegrass music, which made them role models to musicians and, later, inspirations to the women’s movement.” Dickens was raised in the small town of Montcalm, West Virginia and, as we heard on the documentary It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, never went to high school but instead began working to help support her family. Her father was a timber-hauler and preacher. Her tough childhood background influenced her powerful songs such as “Working Girl Blues” and “Black Lung.” As quoted in Harrington’s article, Lynn Morris states, “Hazel can write about loss, about love gone wrong, without the sense that the woman is this helpless, hopeless victim. She writes from the perspective of a strong woman with a lot of feeling.”

Other women mentioned in the readings this week were Dale Ann Bradley, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Emmylou Harris, Molly O’Day, Alison Krauss and several others that have “invaded a style that was almost exclusively male twenty years ago” (Goldsmith).

emmylou harris

dale ann bradley

 

Sources:

Various articles from Thomas Goldsmith’s The Bluegrass Reader

It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song documentary

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