Women who bend, break, and create code tend to be dismissed as weirdos, freaks, divas, or bitches. This book honors them as heroes, leaders, geniuses, and, in Miami rapper Tina’s phrase, da baddest bitches — as women who rock.
— from Evelyn McDonnell’s introduction to Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl.
“It’s a fundamental feminist act to make women aware of other women’s achievements,” said Evelyn McDonnell, editor of Women Who Rock (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2018), which profiles 104 key female “game changers” in the world of rock and associated genres. Contributors to the book include local music writers Holly George-Warren and Jana Martin, who will both read, along with McDonnell and former Flying Lizards member Vivien Goldman, at the Golden Notebook Bookstore in Woodstock on Saturday, October 20, at 3 p.m.
The biggest challenge McDonnell faced as an editor was narrowing down the list of talented women to fit what turned out to be a 400-page book. “That’s what I’m getting the most grief about, why isn’t this or that artist in? To do a comprehensive job, it would have to be a series of encyclopedias, and this had to be a book people would pick up and read.” Although McDonnell was the primary curator, she surveyed a dozen highly respected music writers on which artists to include. Of 32 authors recruited to write the profiles, all are also female or transgender, as are the illustrators who created portraits of the musicians, in lieu of photographs.
McDonnell, now a journalism professor at Loyola Marymount University, was formerly a pop music critic for the Miami Herald and music editor for the Village Voice. In 1999, she co-edited Rock She Wrote, a compilation of music criticism by women, which differed from the current volume by featuring only previously published pieces, some of them about men. Two years earlier, George-Warren had been running the book division of Rolling Stone magazine when she oversaw the production of The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock: Trouble Girls, the first ever overview of women in rock-n-roll.
Since the late 90s, a whole new generation of female musicians and writers have come along, and many of them have been included in the new book, which McDonnell called an update to Trouble Girls. Unlike that book, which had essays covering a whole band or a few artists, each chapter of Women Who Rock is on a specific artist, with some observations about context.
The profiles are arranged in chronological order, lending a sense of narrative to the flow of musicians, beginning in the 1950s. Although the first few artists, including Bessie Smith, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Mahalia Jackson, are gospel singers, they had a powerful influence on rock-n-roll, as did country music queen Patsy Cline, the subject of George-Warren’s essay. “People might not think of Patsy as someone who rocks, but they know her famous heartbreak ballads, and she did some cool proto-rockabilly stuff,” said George-Warren, who chose Cline from a list she was offered. “I wanted to write about someone I could listen to 24/7 while working on the chapter.” To focus on Patsy, the writer took a break from the biography of Janis Joplin she’s been working on for three and a half years, now completed and due out next fall. “There was a connection because both Janis and Patsy had a lot trauma and died young. They were incredible stylists. They could interpret a song in a way that made you feel they were singing directly to you, expressing pain women have suffered but not had a voice to express.”
Local journalist and fiction writer Jana Martin wrote four of the book’s essays, covering a widely divergent assortment of musicians — Mahalia Jackson, Joni Mitchell, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and provocative punk singer Peaches. (The essay on Sinéad O’Connor was written by Peaches.) Like several other contributors, Martin has a performing past, having played with punk bands The Rings, Bad Behavior, Campfire Girls, and Flavor Cage. In the East Village of the 1980s, George-Warren sang and played guitar with the all-girl punk-polka band Das Fürlines. Vivien Goldman, who wrote the book’s profile of West African composer and singer Angélique Kidjo, was a member of the English New Wave band the Flying Lizards, known for their 1979 cover of the Motown hit “Money.” Goldman is the author of several books and works as adjunct professor of punk and reggae at New York University. The Woodstock reading will be a reunion of the writing group Goldman, Martin, and McDonnell have had since the 90s, when they all lived in New York City.
“If I’d realized how big the book was going to be in terms of size, and having only one year to edit, it might’ve been more daunting,” said McDonnell, “but I was on sabbatical, and it was really a pleasure.”
The context of the book changed, however, in the two years of production. The first concept had emerged in the fall of 2016, before the election of President Trump. “We were still naïvely optimistic about the dawn of a new kind of era for women’s history,” said McDonnell. “The tone quickly changed from a celebratory moment to an even more necessary mandate to reclaim woman’s voices. That need that just seems to grow every day.”
A launch reading for Women Who Rock will be held on Saturday, October 20, at 3 p.m. at the Golden Notebook, 29 Tinker Street, Woodstock. See http://goldennotebook.com.