I had the absorbing experience last Thursday of connecting a book with a community, namely Women Make Noise: Girl bands from Motown to the modern and an audience at Blackwell's Charing Cross Road who were deeply involved with the issues around how women had contributed to, and been marginalised in, popular music. A discussion on the subjects raised by the book was initiated by a panel of three contributors and taken up eagerly by the sizeable and highly engaged audience. Julie Downes (Editor), Victoria Yeulet (Female Pioneers in Old-Time and Country Music) and Bryony Beynon (Feminism in DIY Hardcore) each talked about their own perspectives and experiences before questions were invited from the floor. I am working on this and other books from the publisher on a freelance basis at the moment, and it was a powerful experience to see the themes I'd been reading about come alive in the shape of some of the writers and the audience.
Julia began by airing three 'myths' or 'antagonisms' that particularly irked her, namely that 'there had been no good girl bands', that 'girls don't get along with each other' in such bands and that women musicians and singers were too often presented as sex objects or novelties with no musical value. Julia cited a key book which helped begin to redress the bias in the reporting and recognition of women in music: Sophie Drinker's Music and Women, and went on to make some observations around the threads of how music is created, who is encouraged to make it, what its content is and how is it packaged, marketed and measured.
Bryony Beynon borrowed a phrase from John Peel to discuss the 'atom-splitting moment' the Punk movement provided, namely the realisation for many women that they could be autonomous participants in all aspects of the music industry, not least as performers. Bryony linked this to women and girls discovering a hidden legacy of female groups, comparing this process to Virginia Woolf's concept of 'thinking back through our mothers'. Bryony also acknowledged that alongside the empowerment and enfranchisement of Punk, there persisted a culture of sexism that was at odds with the genre's liberating effects.
Victoria Yeulet fervently championed the significance of women's music, especially that of neglected but fundamental figures such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Barbara Dane, both of whom shaped popular music in ways which allowed male artists (not least Bob Dylan) to occupy their much more conspicuous positions in the musical pantheon. Victoria's research into and knowledge of old-time and roots/country music, especially in America, inform the fascinating first chapter of this book.
A wide-ranging discussion followed, prompted by a series of questions from an audience in an atmosphere of affirmation and inspiration which will have many who were there rushing to Youtube, Google and their ilk to discover the above-named and other performers that official music history has obscured.