Where Have All The Women Gone?
If you’ve been reading my other articles in the Rockabilly Roadtrip series you may have been asking yourself a very serious question, namely “where are all the women in all of this?” and I would have to say (perhaps shamefully) that it is true that so far I have not talked about many women in the rockabilly scene. This is not because there were no women performing rockabilly (quite the contrary in fact) but rather because the multitude of female performers seems to have been either written out of or marginalized in most of the histories out there. Perhaps this stems from the fact that the music industry at the time, and even still today, is so heavily male dominated, but that is not really my concern here. What is my concern is to provide a brief sketch of some of the most influential women in one of the most influential styles of music.
To do this I will start with a woman who has often been called the ‘Queen of Rockabilly’ and perhaps this is with good reason. The illustrious Wanda Jackson has probably done more in terms of recording and attitude than any of her contemporary female performers in bringing women into the rockabilly world. She was one of the first women to ever take up the mantle and really get real gone with the new form of music. Truly she was a pioneer.
She started off her career as a country singer just after leaving high-school, but, like many other rockabilly performers, she changed her style after coming into contact with Elvis Presley on tour. Here is a little clip of Jackson performing one of her early rockabilly numbers, it is interesting to note how she uses her original country influences throughout the track.
I Gotta Know – Wanda Jackson
Some say that Wanda Jackson was also responsible for adding the elements of glamour and sex appeal to rockabilly music, with her sassy stage presence and showy dresses. I can’t really be sure if this was the case or if this is merely another example of a woman being sexualized simply because she is a woman, but either way her stage presence was certainly something enviable and she did look stunning up playing her guitar. It is also true that many of her songs were feisty attacks on the men who dominated her chosen industry, and that she often performed covers of songs that had been made famous by men previously, but with an added element of raucousness and real gone spirit which showed her to be just as tough as any Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis Presley. For example here are two of Jackson’s cover versions:
Hard Headed Woman – Wanda Jackson (Elvis Presley Cover)
Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On – Wanda Jackson (Jerry Lee Lewis Cover)
And just for good measure here is Wanda Jackson performing another one of her hard rocking feisty tracks.
Mean Mean Man – Wanda Jackson
Wanda Jackson, however important and influential she may have been, was not the only woman involved with the rockabilly scene, however. Far from it! There was Alis Lesley who swept her hair back and dressed like all the other greasers while performing her pop styled rockabilly tunes, there was Sparkle Moore was every bit as real gone as Eddie Cochran, and Janis Martin who was perhaps even more swinging than any of the male rockabilly performers, and the list goes on and on.
Here is just a little sample of some of the brilliant material that was put out by female rockabilly performers mentioned above.
So Afraid – Alis Lesley
Skull And Crossbones – Sparkle Moore
Bang Bang – Janis Martin
But, for some reason so many of these women still seemed to be left out of the rockabilly cannon when people are writing their histories, and I began to ask myself ‘why is this?’ I mean, there were so many wonderful female artists performing at the time, but why does everybody seem to forget about them?
Perhaps one reason is that many women were forced to perform slower ballads and doo-wop numbers if they wanted to achieve any kind of success. Take, for instance, Brenda Lee’s I’m Sorry which is a brilliant track in itself, but one which could be easily forgotten amongst the other romantic pap that flooded the commercial rock and roll market at the time. Or take Barbara Pittman’s I Need A Man which is a great track with good rhythm and a solid swinging beat, but the lyrics fall back on a problematic theme of a woman who needs a man in order to be validated. Let’s have a listen to these two tracks just to get an idea of what I’m talking about here:
I’m Sorry – Brenda Lee
I Need A Man – Barbara Pittman
Another reason that women may have been forgotten in so many rockabilly histories is the fact that many women were not only relegated to the realm of the meek and mild, but also to the even darker realm of novelty. Take, for example, another Brenda Lee track Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree. This might sound sweet and innocuous, and in many ways it is, but in another way it is very dangerous to the cause of women in rockabilly. This is because it becomes very hard for an artist or a band to be taken at all seriously after they have had success with a novelty song, and for Brenda Lee this is precisely what happened. I mean, the track was the best selling single of her career and has become a holiday standard all around the world, how is anyone to expect her to be known by most people as anything more than ‘that Christmas song woman’?
Another example of this legitimate performer turned novelty act would be the once incredibly popular Jo Ann Campbell who was also sometimes known as the ‘female Elvis’ (a term which carries many issues in itself). Campbell had some minor success in her early career with rockabilly numbers like I’m Coming Home Late Tonight and Come On Baby, but her real fame only came with the cutesy novelty tracks Kookie Little Paradise and I’m The Girl From Wolverton Mountain which was a response to an earlier track written by a man.
Here are a couple of examples of the novelty tracks I’m talking about:
Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree – Brenda Lee
Kookie Little Paradise – Jo Ann Campbell
And here is the original Wolverton Mountain by Claude King and Jo Ann Campbell’s response song which went on to become her biggest selling single of all time.
Wolverton Mountain – Claude King
I’m The Girl From Wolverton Mountain – Jo Ann Campbell
Luckily, however, there were a whole lot of women who didn’t let these wonderful women of rockabilly become completely lost in the mists of history. These women, mainly in the psychobilly scene and rockabilly revival have done a lot of work in the past years in terms of bringing women back to the fore in terms of this music.
Here are a few examples of some modern female rockabilly and psychobilly singers who have managed to keep the torch of strong rockabilly women alive.
Rebel Yell – HorrorPops
Sexy – Devil Doll
Don’t Get Me Wrong – Kitty In A Casket
It is also a great testimony to the power of the women in rockabilly that the original Queen of The Scene, Wanda Jackson, has returned in recent years to record even more music and keep on rockin’. Here she is performing one her latest songs on Letterman with special guest Jack White.
Shakin’ All Over – Wanda Jackson with Jack White
And that’s all I really have to say about the awesome place of women in the history of rockabilly, but I shall return again next week with another stop along the line of The Rockabilly Roadtrip with the article Rockabilly Gets Real Gone featuring the music of Hasil Adkins, Tarantula Ghoul, Charlie Feathers and many others, so stay tuned!
And I will leave you all today with this wonderful clip I found of Wanda Jackson performing a little number to let everyone know that there ain’t no man can keep her down.
My Big Iron Skillet – Wanda Jackson
- Stop Three On The Rockabilly Roadtrip (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- First Stop On The Rockabilly Roadtrip (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- Your Ticket To The Rockabilly Roadtrip (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- Lucero playing their annual Family Picnic w/ Wanda Jackson & more, added to The Fest (dates & updated lineup) (brooklynvegan.com)
- The Rockabilly Roadtrip: Stop Two (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- Lee Rocker; A Stray Cat Through and Through … (keenemusic.wordpress.com)
- Songs The Lord Taught Us – The Cramps (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- Really Rosie: Rockabilly’s hidden treasure, Rosie Flores (dangerousminds.net)