Remember the Ladies: American Women in Song

Mary Cassatt’s The Banjo Lesson, 1893 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Historical balladeer Linda Russell laughs a lot when talking about the music she plays. It’s a deep, throaty laugh that tells you this is someone who knows what she’s talking about – someone with an intimate understanding of the history out of which that music was born.

Singing the songs of bygone days and putting them in their historical context is something that Russell has been doing for most of her performing career. That career has taken her to the stages of Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall and the shores of Lake Wobegon at performances on A Prairie Home Companion. For the past 16 years, she has performed as balladeer for the National Park Service at the Federal Hall National Memorial in New York City. And on Saturday, August 5, at 1:30 p.m., she’ll be doing the same at Historic Huguenot Street.

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Relying on broadsides, laments, murder ballads, love songs, parlor melodies and suffrage anthems, Russell promises to take her audience on a musical stroll through the lives of women in an emerging America during the 18th and 19th centuries. Along the way, she’ll correct some enduring myths and provide new perspectives and little-known facts about what life was like for women on the frontier, as well as on the more populated coast.

How about the idea that female “camp followers” during wartime are prostitutes? Russell dismisses that myth with a hoot and a simple economic fact: “Soldiers didn’t have any money!” Most camp followers, she said, were “women who followed their husbands’ armies because they were terrified of being left alone on their farms.”

Some of these women joined their husbands and brothers, most famously Molly Pitcher, who brought pitchers of water to soldiers and who historians believe was a composite character of other women who served during the Revolutionary War. Other women, Russell said, pursued an even more active role by disguising themselves as men. Deborah Sampson of Massachusetts served 17 months in the Continental Army under the name “Robert Shirtliff” before being wounded, discovered and finally honorably discharged at West Point.

Life on the farm was a constant struggle that presented more than enough challenges for men and women. It was hard, depressing work. With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, women suddenly had the opportunity to quit conditions like those described in “The Housewife’s Lament”:

There are worms on the cherries and slugs on the roses
And ants in the sugar and mice in the pies
The rubbish of spiders no mortal supposes
And ravaging roaches and damaging flies.

Many a woman fled her homestead to light out for the cotton mills and factories of places like Lowell, Massachusetts. There they found newly built, well-advertised dormitories where they could collapse after working 17-hour shifts in the mills, inspiring songs like “Factory Girl.”

Pity me all day
Pity me I pray
Pity me my darling
And take me far away.

“They were equal on the land, they had respect; but when women went away to the factory and the office, the dynamic of economic and social devaluation began,” Russell said. It’s a dynamic that’s still very much alive, as women continue to demand equal pay for equal work.

Women didn’t get the vote nationallyuntil 1920, but out West, it was a different story, Russell said. Wild and wooly Wyoming was still a territory when it granted women the right to vote in 1869. Colorado had become a state when it granted women the right in 1893.

Russell said that she’ll be bookending her presentation with quotations not of songs, but of letters exchanged by John and Abigail Adams: letters that sing of a love that endured long periods of absence, political jockeying and the everyday rigors of life in the 18th century.

“Remember the Ladies: A History of American Women in Song,” Saturday, August 5, 1:30-2:30 p.m., $13.50/$15, Crispell Memorial French Church, 60 Huguenot Street, New Paltz; (845) 255-1660, www.huguenotstreet.org.

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