Pioneering Women in Music

Through their unique and often challenging life experiences, the women showcased in this roundup have shaped various musical genres during their time and generations to come. From performance, to music education and beyond, these women’s works present philosophy and calls for cultural change that surpass the notes on the page.

Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton

By Lydia R. Hamessley

Lydia R. Hamessley’s expert analysis and Dolly Parton’s characteristically straightforward input inform this comprehensive look at the process, influences, and themes that have shaped the superstar’s songwriting artistry. Parton’s compositions like “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” have become American standards with an impact far beyond country music. Check out our Dolly Parton playlist featuring the songs discussed in the book on Spotify!

October 2020

“Marian Anderson’s 1953 Concert Tour of Japan: A Transnational History”

By Katie A. Callam, Makiko Kimoto, Misako Ohta, and Carol J. Oja

On April 27, 1953, one year after Japan regained its sovereignty following the postwar Allied occupation, the famed African American singer Marian Anderson arrived in Tokyo for a concert tour. Exploring this moment of cultural exchange, this article contextualizes Anderson’s presence as an icon of civil rights and a symbol of westernization resulting from Japan’s Allied occupation.

Always The Queen: The Denise LaSalle Story

By Denise LaSalle with David Whiteis

Denise LaSalle’s journey took her from rural Mississippi to an unquestioned reign as the queen of soul-blues. As honest and no-nonsense as the artist herself, Always the Queen is LaSalle’s in-her-own-words story of a lifetime in music. She reinvented herself as a soul-blues artist as tastes changed and became a headliner on the revitalized southern soul circuit and at festivals nationwide and overseas. Check out a playlist of Denise LaSalle’s top songs curated by David Whiteis on Spotify.

“Mary Lou Williams as Apology: Jazz, History, and Institutional Sexism in the Twenty-First Century”

By Kimberly Hannon Teal

Mary Lou Williams was considered a key player in the history of women jazz musicians. Teal examines Williams not as a person and musician grounded in the realities of her own time, but as a “culture hero” in order to dissect the sexism that is still present in jazz culture today.

The Lady Swings: Memoirs of A Jazz Drummer

By Dottie Dodgion and Wayne Enstice

Undeterred by hardships, Dottie Dodgion defied the odds and earned a seat as a woman in the exclusive men’s club of jazz. Her dues-paying path as a musician took her from early work with Charles Mingus to being hired by Benny Goodman at Basin Street East on her first day in New York. Vivid and always entertaining, The Lady Swings tells Dottie Dodgion’s story with the same verve and straight-ahead honesty that powered her playing.

March 2021

“Indivisible: The Nation and Its Anthem in Black Musical Performance”

By Shana L. Redmond

Just before the 2008 Democratic National Convention, jazz artist René Marie was chosen to sing at the Denver, Colorado annual State of the City address. However, as she was singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” Marie borrowed lyrics from the Negro National Anthem
“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” This article explores the performance’s impact and its messages on race and patriotism at the dawning of a “postracial” America.

Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams

By Tammy L. Kernodle

The jazz musician-composer-arranger Mary Lou Williams spent her sixty-year career working in—and stretching beyond—a dizzying range of musical styles. Her integration of classical music into her works helped expand jazz’s compositional language. Tammy L. Kernodle details Williams’s life in music against the backdrop of controversies over women’s place in jazz and bitter arguments over the music’s evolution.

October 2020

“Elma Lewis, Her School of Fine Arts, and Her Vision of Arts Education as Cultural Emancipation”

By Sonya White Hope

Hope discusses music educator Elma Lewis’s philosophy through critical race theory, illuminating key relationships between effective arts education for Black students and contemporary music education practice.

The Heart of A Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price

By Rae Linda Brown and with a forward by Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.

The Heart of a Woman offers the first-ever biography of Florence B. Price, a composer whose career spanned both the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances, and the first African American woman to gain national recognition for her works. Through interviews and a wealth of material from public and private archives, Rae Linda Brown illuminates Price’s major works while exploring the considerable depth of her achievement.

“Breaking Silence, Breaching Censorship: ‘Ongoing Interculturality’ in Alice Shields’s Electronic Opera Apocalypse

By Danielle Sofer

Enraged by “bigoted puritanism,” Alice Shields wrote Apocalypse, an electronic opera that sought to criticize mainstream 1990’s conservatism. Sofer show how Apocalypse addresses sexual censorship through music, text, and choreography to envision a world for which sex is not stigmatized but instead exists as a productive and inseparable aspect of culture and music.

Hillbilly Maidens, Okies, and Cowgirls: Women’s Country Music 1930-1980

By Stephanie Vander Wel

Stephanie Vander Wel looks at the careers of artists like Patsy Montana, Rose Maddox, and Kitty Wells against the backdrop of country music’s golden age. While classic songs and heartfelt performances might ease anxieties, the subject matter underlined women’s ambivalent relationships to industrialism, middle-class security, and established notions of femininity. Check out a playlist of songs curated by the author on Spotify below!

“Street Queens: New Orleans Brass Bands and the Problem of Intersectionality”

By Kyle DeCoste

The members of the all-female Original Pinettes Brass Band contest the male domination of the New Orleans brass band scene. Playing music on male-gendered instruments, they queer the normative relationship between instruments and musicians and carve out a space for female musicianship. This essay deconstructs their songs and performance decisions as agential and subjective sites of black feminist thought put into action to subvert the brass band patriarchy.

Chen Yi

By Leta E. Miller and J. Michele Edwards

Chen Yi is the most prominent woman among the renowned group of new wave composers who came to the US from mainland China in the early 1980s. Chen is known for her creative output and a distinctive merging of Chinese and Western influences. Leta E. Miller and J. Michele Edwards highlight Chen’s compositional strategies, her artistic elaborations, and the voice that links her earliest and most recent music.

December 2020

“This Ain’t a Hate Thing: Jeanne Lee and the Subversion of the Jazz Standard”

By Eric Lewis

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. As a Black woman, Jeanne Lee sought to subvert these standards.

Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love and Politics

By Jean R. Freedman

Jean R. Freedman draws on a wealth of research and conversations with Peggy Seeger to tell the life story of one of music’s most charismatic performers and tireless advocates. Here is the story of Seeger’s multifaceted career, from her youth to her pivotal role in the American and British folk revivals, from her instrumental virtuosity to her tireless work on behalf of environmental and feminist causes, from wry reflections on the U.K. folk scene to decades as a songwriter.

“Reciting Parsifal: Opera as Spoken-Word Performance in America”

By Marian Wilson Kimber

Spoken-word performances brought previously inaccessible operas from the theater to the parlor rooms of the late 20th century. As a practice largely dominated by women, elocution served to educate audiences about operatic works and promoting opera in general. See also her book The Elocutionists.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks: Composer and Critic

By Suzanne Robinson

As both composer and critic, Peggy Glanville-Hicks contributed to the astonishing cultural ferment of the mid-twentieth century. She forged alliances with power brokers and artists that gained her entrance to core American cultural entities such as the League of Composers, New York Herald Tribune, and the Harkness Ballet. The seventy musical works she composed ranged from celebrated operas like Nausicaa to intimate, jewel-like compositions created for friends.

Libby Larsen: Composing an American Life

by Denise Von Glahn

Libby Larsen has composed award-winning music performed around the world. At the same time, she has advocated for living composers and new music since cofounding the American Composers Forum in 1973.In considering Larsen’s musical impact, Denise Von Glahn delves into how elements of the personal—a 1950s childhood, spiritual seeking, love of nature, and status as an “important woman artist”—inform her work.

Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler: The Life and Times of a Piano Virtuoso

by Beth Abelson Macleod

In this new biography, Beth Abelson Macleod reintroduces a figure long, and unjustly, overlooked by music history. Fannie Bloomfield- Zeisler’s powerful and sensitive performances, both in recital and with major orchestras, won her followers across the United States and Europe and often provided her American audiences with their first exposure to the pieces she played.

From Spirituals to Symphonies: African American Women Composers and Their Music

by Helen Walker-Hill

Helen Walker-Hill’s unique study provides a carefully researched examination of the history and scope of musical composition by eight African-American women composers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From Spirituals to Symphonies focuses on the effect of race, gender, and class, and notes the important role played by individual personalities and circumstances in shaping this under-appreciated category of American art.

Want to find more music titles? Browse our list here.

About Charrice Jones

Social Media Intern