WOMEN WHO ROCK: BESSIE TO BEYONCE, GIRL GROUPS TO RIOT GRRRL
Edited by Evelyn McDonnell
Black Dog/Leventhal Publishers
Whether you’re searching for the perfect gift to encourage an aspiring musician or want to fill in the gaps in your knowledge of popular culture, this hefty, elegantly designed tome is a godsend. Editor Evelyn McDonnell, whose own writing I have admired for the past two decades, has invited more than thirty scholars, rock critics, and working musicians to chronicle a “secret history” (to use a term that pops up a time or two here) of not just rock and roll but blues, country, hiphop, and a world of other thrilling sounds.
Three-page essays covering 103 artists are presented in roughly chronological order. The story begins in the first half of the twentieth century, with Bessie Smith (“Empress of the Blues”), guitar dynamo Sister Rosetta Tharpe, gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, and other obvious if largely unsung pioneers. You’ll find plenty of household names here—Carole King, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Cher, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Taylor Swift—but the real pleasure for many readers will come in discovering figures like bass player Carol Kaye, whose work with the once-anonymous session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew can be heard on literally hundreds of classic singles of the 1960s and ’70s; and Chicana punk dynamo Alice Bag, who in turn contributes an appreciation of June Millington of Fanny, the first all-female rock band to release an album on a major label.
While the focus is largely on music from the Anglo-American front, there are entries on folks like Angélique Kidjo of West Africa, Ana Tijoux (the French-born daughter of Chilean exiles), and the Russian collective Pussy Riot. The juxtapositions are delightful: Yoko Ono is nestled between Joni Mitchell and Patti LaBelle; Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj brush against the Dixie Chicks and Donna Summer.
Augmenting each essay is a full-page illustration of its subject by a visual artist (Grace Slick contributes her own self-portrait). One of the key members of that team is Denver-born, Brooklyn-based Anne Muntges, who will be familiar to many Buffalonians for the installation work she did here during and after her work on an MFA from UB. (Among the two dozen drawings she contributed to the book is one of our own Ani DiFranco.)
While McDonnell doesn’t make a big deal of it in her introduction, the book is notable for the fact that all the essayists and illustrators are women—a refreshing corrective to the way that similar encyclopedic projects in decades past routinely and unquestioningly featured only male authors and subjects, with perhaps a token shout-out to Janis Joplin. Those days are long gone—though Women Who Rock provides plenty of evidence (including helpful playlists) that hard-driving popular music has never belonged to a single gender.
This is a celebration, not a lament. Whether thumbing through the book at random or reading it cover to cover, it will be hard for anyone—girl, grrrl, woman, womyn, boy, man, or transperson—not to want to pick up an instrument, raise a voice, and add to the ongoing saga.