Thursday, January 10, 2013

Madonna, Cher and Billie H: Women Who Rock

On Capitol Hill last week, the media was reporting how a record number of women had been elected to the new Congress. A few miles down New York Avenue, there was an exhibit dedicated to the women who made records and it was a fascinating catalog of nine decades of music history.

"Women Who Rock" filled the second floor of the National Museum for Women in the Arts as part of its 25th anniversary celebration in a co-production with Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Part fashion show, part tribute and part history lesson it brought back a lot of memories of women who have sung the stories of young love, tangled webs and lost opportunities.

While the exhibit ended with the costumes and instruments of Brittany and Taylor, Madonna other top pop phenoms, it began more touchingly with a tribute to Mother Maybelle Carter with her story and her Gibson L5 guitar. She played it from 1927 until the early 50's when June and Johnny Cash decided it ought to be in a museum so they bought her this replacement. The only guitar that could match it for playing time was Odetta's, circa 1951.

As good keepers of the flame, the Cleveland curators devoted solo exhibits to the early blues and jazz greats. There was a fox fur stole worn by Billie Holiday as well as a poster for two shows in 1948 at Carnegie Hall. Prices started at $1.20 and topped out at $3.60. It was her first appearance after being released from prison and both sold out.

Next was Bessie Smith's case complete with 78 records and session cards for her 1925 hit, "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate." I learned that the first person to record "C.C. Rider" (See See Rider) was Ma Rainey in 1925.

From there, the exhibit paired women which proved interesting. Wanda Jackson and Ruth Brown, Lavern Baker and Brenda Lee (1964 telegram from Dusty Springfield: "I know you'll be a smash"), Bonnie Raitt and Loretta Lynn, the Ronettes and the Shirelles, Mavis Staples and Odetta.

Laura Nyro was with Joni Mitchell along with their lyrics in notebooks. Laura's "And When I Die" was neatly hand lettered with only two words crossed out. Joni's song ended with this dedication: "For Barry in memory of those bread and butter days. No Gravy, just bread and butter."

It was great to see song writers honored in addition to Carole King like Cynthia Weil ("Kicks," "On Broadway," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'") and Ellie Greenwich ("River Deep, Mountain High,""Leader of the Pack" "Do Wah Diddy," and "Be My Baby").

As with any compilation...someone has to get short shrift and to cram Heart, Donna Summer, Cher, Joan Jett, Stevie Nicks and Pat Benatar into the same display case seemed a little crazy. On the other side was Cyndi Lauper,Janet Jackson, Madonna, Sheena E, Gwen Stefani, Britany Spears and Shakira. Linda Ronstadt was an afterthought.

Despite those problems it was still fun to see Cher's Indian feather dress and Madonna's get up.

Then there was Queen Latifah's high school year book photo (1987) and a piano that Lady Gaga's grandparents bought her when she was a baby. Do you think they thought it would lead to a meat costume for the MTV awards? That was on display also but it was hard to tell if it had become beef jerky or red leatherette.

Recognition of the roles women play in rock history is long overdue and one hopes this exhibit will be traveling elsewhere. In the Rolling Stone anthology, "The 100 Greatest Artists," there are only six women and two female groups. Only Aretha, Madonna, Janis and Patti Smith cracked the top fifty and the others were Joni Mitchell, Tina Turner, the Shirelles and Diana Ross & The Supremes. Of course of the 55 "Voters", only two were women. Here in Washington, we're familiar with that kind of balloting.


  1. Outstanding post. Thanks for sharing the highlights and impressions of what sounds and looks like an extraordinary show. Makes me wonder how a curator could have used Eddie Clean Head Vinson and Etta James version of Only Women Bleed. It is a classic rendition by an extraordinary vocalist.