Women in Music
Recently, while doing some research I was reminded that the history of ranking and rating recording artists really does give women the short shrift. My next post will be on May 6, it’s the third anniversary of writing my blog and a bit too close to Mother’s Day for this topic. So I’m getting ahead of that to celebrate Women (and many of them mothers) in music. A clue on Jeopardy also piqued my interest to dedicate a post. It was from April 7, 2021, “Last name of Fanny, seen here, (picture shown) some of her compositions were originally published under her brother Felix’s name” and a contestant got it right, I however had no answer. I will get to that a bit later.
I have pointed to this issue before, in several of my posts I discuss the lists of the greatest of this or that and in one post I was pointing out the systematic low ratio of airplay given to female Country singers. Last year women had 23% of the #1 songs, this is the highest in the Country genre since 1994. There is no feminist agenda, other than to say I am a husband, and we have two daughters, so I care deeply about their place in the world. Women are underrepresented in several professions, and the same can be said in the music industry. Oh, the talent is there, as demonstrated by several of my posts where I feature women recording artists and songwriters. I do this due to the quality and substance of their music, and in many instances, you can’t help but notice their absence of recognition. The exclusion of female artists on greatest of all time lists has changed a bit recently, but historically they are often overlooked. While progress is being made, there are still very few women behind the performers; songwriters, producers, technicians and audio professionals are very much male dominated positions.
We known women were always quite capable, they just didn’t and don’t get the same opportunity. There are of course exceptions, any way you want to categorize them, but certainly not the rule. Take for example lists of the greatest in Country music: CMT (Country Music Television) names just 16 out the top 50 songs containing a female lead/solo voice. Ranker.com lists 12 women in their top 50 artists and Rolling Stone Magazine has 10 women in the top 50 of their 100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time. A recent survey showed songs with a female lead account for only one fifth of radio airplay in the UK, male solo acts account for 50%. If we look to Blues music, Loudersound.com list 21 women on their top 100 list. On my google.com search for “greatest Blues artists” I scrolled through the top fifty names at the top of the page and there are only eight women listed in the top 50. Hopefully I am getting my point across but here is one more example, Rolling Stone Magazine lists the 100 Greatest Singers of all time, there are ten women in the top 50 names, albeit Aretha Franklin is at #1.
Without doing some serious number crunching and perusing several other so called ‘greatest lists’, (including some of my own from past posts) there are few women included in the highest positions. Anecdotally, from the ‘lists’ I’ve seen I would estimate that female (including non-binary individuals) takes up less than 25% of the top names. Maybe theses lists are a representation of reality, but I believe the numbers demonstrate an inherent bias. This prejudice has perpetuated the myth that most listeners of music (all genders and all genres) prefer male performers. Of course, any list that is compiled is certainly a subjective thing, but if you look across the spectrum of genres there is a consistent theme, female artists are overlooked. Don’t even get me started on Jazz musicians! There is, of course, some explanation as to why things are this way, at least I have an observation. If we consider the historical and cultural bias toward men having better and certainly more opportunity, it’s stands to reason more men would hold prominent placement as the ratio of men to women is highly skewed toward males.
Let’s look at gender in Blues music, I’ve mentioned many of the great female artists and discovered a lot of overlooked talent. However, including the overlooked and the unnamed the genre is historically very much male dominated. I think the biggest reason comes down to among other things, domestic responsibility. Inherent in the beginnings of the genre is the ability to be mobile and travel, quite often from place to place for noticeably short visits before moving on again. Now, I realize I generalize again here – but not too much, I’d imagine it is exceedingly difficult to pursue music if you are at home raising children, cooking, cleaning and often working a full or part-time job as well. Where is the time to hone your craft?
Meanwhile the men, such as Leadbelly, Elmore James, Robert Johnson and many dozens more just picked up their guitar case (whether they had children or not) and off they went. In most cases, to little fortune but for the names I mentioned, most definitely ever lasting fame. Muddy Waters was a bit of an exception, married in 1940 he brought his wife with him when he left Mississippi to find permanent residence in the Chicago area in 1943. However, he toured Europe and many American cities taking him away from home for extended periods of time.
A little bit about Folk music legend Woody Guthrie, while his peripatetic lifestyle was motivated by his search for work, he spent most of his time away from his first family. His first wife, Mary Esta Jennings was left alone to care for their three children-which led her to file for divorce. Yes, it’s a long story, he married again two more times and fathered a total of 8 children with four different women. I know he sent money ‘home’ when he could, but the fact is (with one brief exception) he wasn’t there for his families very much at all.
This situation for women in music parallels life in many cultures around the world. However, I do think that female musicians and recording artists faced some of the greatest difficulties. While it has been done, it’s hard to drag a kid(s) around while you sleep in a car or if you’re lucky, on a tour bus or hotel, playing 200 plus gigs a year. Many women in music have had children and the struggles they had are not well known in most cases. It was pretty much a secret for 20 plus years that Joni Mitchell had given her daughter up for adoption. Mitchell at a young age, with her career not fully developed and with the father refusing to marry her felt she had little choice. Aretha Franklin had her first of four sons from four fathers at age 12, and each time the responsibility of raising the child fell to her, fortunately she had family support and later the financial ability to help care for them.
I suppose an adequate female comparison to Guthrie (though her career peak would come several years after his), is Joan Baez. Like Guthrie, Baez was a Folk music icon and a prominent social activist. Joan’s family life wasn’t always easy. She did have one child, Gabriel Harris, whose father was in jail when he was born. David Harris is a notable activist known for refusing to be drafted during the Vietnam war and served time in prison for the privilege. Shortly after his release he and Joan split up and he soon left for New York while she remained in California. This left Joan a single mother, and like Aretha Franklin (yet unlike the majority) she was in a strong financial position and chose to send her son to the same private school she had attended. I suppose what I am trying to point out is that in almost all cases the responsibility for the fate of the children lies with the mother. If you are in the music business, it’s tough enough to make it as it is. In these examples the women persevered and made a successful career in music, and like many they also had their struggles.
Once again, I offer an observation, while some women managed to be able continue their music career there are many more who could not. In large part because of family responsibilities, they had to give up their public pursuit as a singer and/or musician. The same cannot be said for their male counterparts. Hey, I am not saying that men did not have struggles, nor am implying they did not work hard at their craft, but the numbers speak for themselves, there are fewer women artists for a reason. The women that make it face an industry that is inherently biased. Not to mention the challenges faced by women of colour, which are not as well documented, but the stories are there if you look for them. I have mentioned many of these talented women in past posts representing various genre. Some were all but forgotten like Elizabeth Cotten or Memphis Minnie and many were recognized too late for them to have some degree of financial success such as Big Mama Thornton. Nina Simone had a bit of a financial boost later in her career, but I would argue she was and still is under appreciated. And yes, the music industry is a fickle thing and styles and tastes come and go and with them the careers of many artists.
All this rambling aside, what drives the music business is money and that comes from sales. I don’t for one minute understand K-Pop, but I do understand that if you take the top selling group BTS, described as a “Boy Band” their sales are higher than the top ten “Girl Groups” combined. So if your a record company, while you can make money from a female group where are you investing your R&D dollars? This pattern is repeated in most every other genre of music. Morgan Wallen, the Country singer caught using a racial slur among other controversies is the top selling Country singer so far in 2021, and there are only two female Country artists in the top 20. According to HipHopDX the top 10 songs in that genre all come from male performers. Pop music see’s women fair much better with four out of the top ten, but Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift are still topped by The Weeknd and Justin Bieber. A cursory search leads me to believe the up and coming artists are predominantly not males, again sales will be the final arbiter for Pop music.
Notable Female Artists
First, the answer to the Jeopardy clue! Who was Mendelssohn. The famous German composer Felix Mendelssohn had an older sister. It appears Fanny was every bit as talented a composer and pianist. Not to take away from their talent, but it should be noted the Mendelssohn family was quite wealthy and the children were afforded the best education. In the early 1800’s it was not considered proper for a ‘lady’ to be employed, let alone as a musician, still she often played and wrote music, just not for money like her brother. She was not alone, Clara Schumann and Louise Farrenc also faced similar prejudices. Almost all of Fanny’s works were published under Felix’s name, however they have since been corrected.
Now I was only able to find two references to this, but it’s a great story. Beginning in 1829 Felix often visited England and had many meetings and an eventual friendship with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (who was a capable pianist). The Queen told him of her favorite piece (accounts vary on which song) of his and wanted to sing it for him (apparently, she had a lovely voice). Later, he had to confess the composition was by his sister Fanny. I should also mention the words to the Mendelssohn compositions were often written by a lyricist.
Being Canadian, I have talked about many of the more prominent of our artists, and I confess complete ignorance about some of the younger talent such as Alessia Cara, Grimes, Allie X or Backxwash! Particularly from genres that I don’t generally listen too, is pre-1985 a genre? Anyway, outside of my own country I have also talked about so many great artists, these next names I have only mentioned briefly (if at all) in past posts.
First I will go with one of the Canadian singers I have only mentioned by way of some of her cover songs such as Daydream Believer which hit #3 on the Country Charts and #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979. I was thinking of dedicating a whole blog to her but decided I will feature her here instead. This native of Springhill, Nova Scotia is the first Canadian female solo singer to reach #1 in the US with You Needed Me in 1978. The song would also give Canada its very first Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1979. It was only Canada’s third Grammy after Joni Mitchell had won in 1969 and 1974. Murray would hit #1 again on the Easy Listening charts (#8 on the Hot 100) with Snowbird in 1979. Written by Gene MacLellan, it became the first Gold Record in the US for a Canadian female artist. It’s been covered over 100 times.
Talk about groundbreaking: in 1984 she was the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards for A Little Good News, featuring the #1 Country chart hit Just Another Woman in Love and That’s Not the Way (It’s S’posed to Be). She has had 41 of her original songs covered, such as Put Your Hand in the Hand (also written by Canadian Gene MacLellan). It has been covered 114 times and was a #2 Billboard Hot 100 hit for the Canadian band Ocean in 1971.
Murray has won the most Juno Awards at 24, four Grammys, and in the Country music category, she has won three of each: CCMA, AMA and CMA awards. Billboard Magazine has ranked her as the 10th greatest Adult Contemporary Artist of all time. If, unlike myself, you are not prone to a tear-jerker song, you may enjoy Could I Have This Dance which first appeared on the soundtrack of the movie Urban Cowboy in 1980. I’d still advise you to get out the tissues, though.
It was written by the great Wayland Holyfield with Bob House and led to Murray’s Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance. I was given two tickets to see Anne Murray in Toronto by my dear departed father-in-law who could not make the show. Unfortunately, my wife and I could not make it either and gave the tickets to a friend (who loved the show). This was over 30 years ago and I still regret not seeing her. Once ranked as the best female Celebrity Golfer, this Canadian treasure is very much overlooked in the annals of music history. However, I am not alone in believing she is truly one of the finest voices in music, whether her heyday was pre-1985 or not.
This Icelandic born pop superstar has had a long and varied career. She is an actor, artist and can compose orchestral pieces and movie soundtracks. Her personal life includes being a childhood prodigy and recording artist at age 11, to having two children from different relationships, a letter bomb being sent to her by a suicidal obsessed fan and confrontations with paparazzi. Her top songs include Hyperballad (1995) and Jóga (1997).
I haven’t made much mention of the so dubbed Goddess of Pop and it’s hard to sum up this California born singer and actor in just a few sentences. From her start in Sonny and Cher in 1965 she was one of the top selling artists with I Got You Babe selling over 40 million copies. The TV show The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour had 30 million viewers a week. She has sold over 100 million records, she’s won an acting Oscar, four Billboard Awards, three Golden Globes, and dozens more yet surprisingly, only one Grammy Award, for Best Dance Recording in 2000. She’s had more musical comebacks that any singer I know of and the only one to have hit songs in five consecutive decades. Her personal life is too complicated to explain in even one book. Here is her cover of the hit song for Betty Everett (also a cover) from 1964, The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss). Not all of her albums were commercially successful and she took breaks from music to focus on acting. She is the model of perseverance. After a roller coaster ride of up and down albums, in 1989 she had worldwide smash hit with the nineteenth of her 26 studio albums, the single If I Could Turn Back Time was written for Cher by the great songwriter Diane Warren.
Unless you are a fan of the British Folk revival circa 1960’s and 70’s you have not likely heard of Anne Briggs. I really only ran across her by accident as her music happens to connect with so many of the more well known artists from this scene such as Sandy Denny, Bert Jansch, The Dubliners, Pentangle and Linda and Richard Thompson. Richard’s song Beeswing, and more recently his book was inspired by Anne Briggs. Not one for the spotlight but she was a gifted musician and singer. She had an affinity for the traditional songs of England, Ireland and Scotland. She dropped out of the music scene and moved to Scotland, another example of a women having to give up her career to raise a child, but there were other reasons as well. I mention Bert Jansch as I became a fan through my love of fingerstyle guitar. I ran across this story; apparently it was Anne Briggs that taught Bert the Traditional English Folk song Down by Blackwaterside. Origins of the song have been traced to the River Blackwater (also known as Ulster Blackwater) in Northern Ireland. He would write his own arrangement and recorded the song as Black Waterside in 1966. Jimmy Page would claim this arrangement and take full writing credit for the Led Zeppelin song Black Mountain Side released in 1969. I’m losing track of the number of times I have mentioned Led Zeppelin stealing songs, lines and arrangements but trust me when I say, they are more examples to come.
While I have just a few of her songs I previously cited her cover of Wishin’ and Hopin’, originally recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1963. Ani DiFranco recorded it for the film ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ in 1997. She’s dabled in Indie Folk, Folk Rock, Punk and alt Rock just to name a few genres. This native of Buffalo New York is nothing short of ambitious, busking Beatles songs at age 9 she was writing her own songs by age 14 and started a record company at age 19. Nominated several times she won a Grammy in 2004 for Best Recording Package for her album Evolve. Not one to mince words or profanity here is Untouchable Face (1996).
It’s a bit odd that I haven’t gotten around to more than just a passing mention of Williams, in my post of Classic Rock I cited her cover of Wild Horses that she did with Elvis Costello. One of the most talented artists in Americana Music, she also lands in the Atl-Country and Folk Rock categories. If you don’t know who she is then you may recognize the Grammy winning song she wrote and recorded in 1988 called Passionate Kisses, the odd thing is you likely know the cover version from Mary Chapin Carpenter which was a big hit in 1993. I enjoy many of her songs and find her to be as genuine and unique as they come. Her second of three Grammys came from the great 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road what a fantastic title track. Also from the same album Drunken Angel. This native of Lake Charles, Louisiana is now 68 and still making great music, Big Black Train from the 2020 album Good Souls, Better Angels. On my bucket list of live shows.
Speaking of Americana Music, Rosanne Cash can truly stand on her own merits. I have referred to her as the daughter of Johnny Cash or in relation to some of her amazing cover songs, but she has produced some great original work as well. Her first #1 Billboard Country hit was in 1981, Seven Year Ache, written by Cash it crossed over to hit #30 on the Hot 100. Since then she’s had ten more #1 songs and four Grammys. Oddly, though nominated may times she’s never won an Academy of Country Music Award (ACM) or a Country Music Association (CMA). Some of my favorites are The Killing Fields (2020), or this song she wrote with John Leventhal Etta’s Tune (2014). Her cover of her fathers Tennessee Flat Top Box and an inspired take on I’m Movin’ On (2009). This iconic Country song was originally written in the twelve bar blues format so it nicely suits this slowed down version by Cash. From the pen of Canadian Country Music legend Hank Snow, who like Anne Murray and Sarah McLachlan, Stan Rogers, Denny Doherty and Wilf Carter (Montana Slim) all hail from one of Canada’s smallest provinces, Nova Scotia.
I shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of these artists I mention have only come up in the context of their cover songs, given the subject matter of my blog but I feel I’ve overlooked so many great songs. Most will know Norah is the daughter of Ravi Shankar and music promoter Sue Jones. She is a real genre bender, finding comfort in everything from Folk and Country to Jazz and Blues. Jones wrote the title track Come Away with Me, this 2002 album won five Grammy Awards and since then she’s earned another four.
She wrote Sunrise (2004) with frequent collaborator Lee Alexander.
Born in Melbourne in 1946, both Reddy’s parents were actors and they started to groom their daughter to be a star from age four. I’d say anyone who can have David Letterman, Barry Manilow, and Joan Rivers for an opening act has likely reached stardom. In the early 1970s, she had eight #1’s on the Easy Listening/Adult Contemporary charts and three #1’s on Billboard’s Hot 100. She is best remembered for her million-seller I am Woman. The music was composed by Ray Burton, but for the lyrics, she deliberately set out to make a statement for women. In her many years in the entertainment industry, she had built up a justifiable resentment towards men for the way she and other women were treated. “I Am Woman” hit #1 in December of 1972 and had actually dropped off the Hot 100 after its initial release in June. It led to her Grammy Award for Best Female Performance.
Given the title and context of the song, not surprisingly it was eagerly embraced by the Feminist movement. Her other Hot 100 #1’s were Angie Baby written by Alan O’Day (Undercover Angel) and Delta Dawn written by Larry Collins and Alex Harvey. “Delta Dawn” first appeared on Harvey’s eponymous album in 1972. It was covered 11 times in 1972 alone, almost exclusively by Country singers such Tanya Tucker, Kitty Wells, and Loretta Lynn. Dottie West and Sonny James would cover it in 1973 before Helen Reddy put a new twist on it and made the song famous. She covered over 100 songs and this live version of Buffy Sainte Marie’s 1965 song Until it’s Time For You to Go (1973) shows her seemingly effortless but poignant vocal abilities.
Ok, I will admit to the exclusion of newer/younger artists (for the most part) but I when I saw Janelle’s performance from the 2020 Oscar’s I have to say I was blown away. After bursting onto the music scene in 2007 as a Rapper she has spread her musical wings beyond that genre. among her latest songs is Turntables and I know this next one is song-perfo-mercial (song performance commercial, yes I think I just made that one up) for Ralph Lauren but All or Nothing at All is an impressive performance!
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Edited by Richelle Dafoe
3 thoughts on “Women in Music”
[…] to honour Women History Month on her blog Tao Talk. Some of my past posts on this topic include; Women in Music, Women of Rock, Sexism in Song, Get the Message Songs, Nina Simone, Rebel Girls, Linda Ronstadt and […]
Thanks as always for your comment Shayne! If I can teach you something about music than it's a good day 😁
I agree with your comment about women not having as many opportunities as men. Wonder what the top 100 lists would look like if they did. I always learn something from your blog – today, who Norah Jones father was!