Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, on view at NMWA through January 6, 2013, tracks the chronological development of rock and roll, focusing on the women who influenced each era. Beginning in the 1920s, pioneers are presented in a section entitled “Suffragettes to Juke-Joint Mamas: the Foremothers/Roots of Rock.” Trailblazers in the music industry and for civil rights, these women produced recordings of the blues and country music that would lay the foundation for rock music. The accompanying artifacts reflect these achievements, which took place as women of the era were only just acquiring the right to vote.
Ma Rainey, billed the “Mother of Blues,” signed to Paramount Records in 1923, becoming one of the first and only artists to be recorded in her day. Rainey’s self-composed split-78, “Lost Wandering Blues/Dream Blues,” is featured in the exhibition, emphasizing her use of original material, a rarity of the day. Rainey mentored Bessie Smith, known as the “Empress of the Blues,” who became one of the era’s highest paid black performers. Smith’s 1925 yellowing session card for the recording of “I Wish I Could Shimmy like My Sister Kate” is on display, a testament to the expectations of women at the time. It told the story of her rejection from Okeh Records, who found her “too rough.”
Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe coupled their gospel roots with vocals characteristic of the blues, creating a synthesis of the sacred and secular that laid the groundwork for generations of future musicians. Tharpe’s “Wedding Ceremony” album, featured in the exhibition, acts as a literal representation of this style—it recorded her wedding to her third husband followed by a live performance. Another notable musician included in the survey of foremothers is jazz singer and songwriter Billie Holiday. Holiday’s 1941 sheet music for “God Bless the Child,” a song inspired by her personal experiences, is on display. In 1976 this song received a Grammy Hall of Fame award, joining the list of acknowledgements the musician had received from the music industry, fellow artists, and fans. Her premature death at forty-four in no way stunted her legacy, which would endure to inspire singers and songwriters who strove to break boundaries.
—Brittany Beyer is the external relations intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.