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Ahead of her time: the bold music of 20 'wild women' pioneers

Andrea Warner

It’s relatively easy to name some of the earliest 20th century music pioneers, but observe any go-to list of the top five and it’s usually a total sausage fest. Again and again, recorded history would have us believe that it’s only men who laid our cultural foundations. Though there were a tremendous number of talented, amazing males making great music, it’s an outright lie that they were alone at the forefront of creation.

There are a number of women whose contributions have been largely overlooked or obscured for too long. If you love music, you need to scroll down and get to know these 20 artists who not only shaped modern music but also helped change society — and never got the credit they deserved.

Geeshie Wiley

Who was she? A black blues singer and guitarist about whom Don Kent wrote in the liner notes to Mississippi Masters: Early American Blues Classics 1927-35, “her scope and creativity dwarfs most blues artists." But little is known about the remarkable woman who made just three records in the early 1930s. There are no photos of her and nobody knows her legal name or what happened to her after she stopped recording music.

Key song: “Last Kind Words”

Clara Rockmore

Who was she? A child violin prodigy, Rockmore was forced to give up her instrument in her teenage years due to bone problems from malnutrition, but, according to FlavorWire, this didn’t prevent her from making a remarkable contribution to music. When Léon Theremin brought his new instrument from Russia in the 1920s, Rockmore took to it immediately and worked with Theremin himself to craft one perfectly suited to her specifications, and she became the first — and arguably sole — Theremin virtuoso.

Key song: Concerto for Theremin by Anis Fuleihan

Lucille Bogan (also recorded as Bessie Jackson)

Who was she? A Birmingham-based blues singer-songwriter whose bio, both personal and professional, reads like a total badass decades ahead of her time. Bogan  wrote and recorded more than 100 albums with her collaborator, pianist Walter Roland, between 1923 and 1935. She began writing slyly funny songs about drinking, sex and prostitution in the '30s, including the one below that even eight decades later is one of the dirtiest tunes I’ve ever heard.

Key song: “Shave 'Em Dry” [Warning: NSFW]

Juanita Hall

Who was she? Hall was a Juilliard-trained vocalist who, according to Black Past, spent the better part of her earliest career involved in choral direction and singing. She made her Broadway debut in 1943 and went on to become the first African-American to win a Tony Award for her work in South Pacific. In the 1950s she turned her attention to blues and jazz, taking up residency in a series of Greenwich Village nightclubs and released Juanita Hall Sings the Blues in 1957.

Key song: “I Don’t Want It Second Hand”

Lulu Jackson

Who was she? Blues-folk singer-songwriter/guitarist who primarily recorded in the '20s, but there’s almost no information available about her online. It’s easy to find her music online and it’s been collected and anthologized plenty, but there are no photos or interviews or anything. In part, there’s something poetic and lovely that our only way to know Jackson is through her music. But it also speaks to the fact that as a black woman in the '20s, her personhood was of little consequence to the cultural curators at the time.

Key song: “Careless Love Blues”

Mildred Bailey

Who was she? American swing and jazz vocalist in the '30s who was a stylish, talented, plus-size woman decades before any size-positive movement existed. She also had great taste in music. According to Gary Giddins’s book Bing Crosby: A pocketful of Dreams — The Early Years, 1903-1940, Bailey introduced Crosby to African-American jazz greats like Louis Armstrong via her own record collection.

Key song: “Please Be Kind”

(Aunt) Samantha Bumgarner (pictured) and Eva Davis

Who was she? Early Appalachian fiddlers and vocalists who, in 1924, according to Women in Early Country Music, became the first women ever to sing on a country music recording. Bumgarner went on to become the more famous of the two, playing, touring and recording well into her late 70s.

Key song: “Cindy in the Meadow”

Rosa Lee Carson, a.k.a. Moonshine Kate

Who was she? The banjo-playing daughter of famed “Fiddlin’” John Carson, Rosa Lee made her country recording debut in 1925 at age 15, accompanying her father. They formed a musical comedy act and toured internationally, before she branched out as a solo artist under the stage name Moonshine Kate.

Key song: “The Drunkard’s Child”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Who was she? A gospel singer/guitarist who’s often credited with basically inventing rock 'n' roll, so you know, no big deal — except it totally was, since Tharpe rose to prominence in the '30s and '40s and continued performing a fusion of gospel, blues, jazz and big band music throughout the late '60s.   

Key song: “Didn’t It Rain”

La Bolduc (a.k.a. Mary Travers Bolduc)

Who was she? The French-Canadian singer is considered Quebec’s first singer-songwriter and grew up mastering the fiddle, accordion, harmonica and other instruments at home that were required to play traditional folk tunes of the region. With her husband chronically unemployed, she made her first recording in 1928 and began to perform throughout the province, despite the fact that women were rarely touring musicians, never mind successful ones. She became the primary breadwinner and folded her husband and children into her touring troupe

Key song: “Ça va venir découragez-vous pas”

Gladys Bentley

Who was she? According to the Queer Cultural Centre, Bentley moved to New York when she was 16 and became a key part of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, finding a fellow community of gay black artists. Bentley was pretty open about being a lesbian and often both dressed and performed in a tux and other “male” garments, which didn’t diminish her escalating fame as she made a name for herself on the nightclub circuit. Later in life, under threat from the McCarthy-era witch hunt, she claimed to have been “cured” of her homosexuality and married numerous men, but historians believe this was to avoid persecution.    

Key song: “Wild Geese Blues”

Dame Ethel Smyth

Who was she? An inspiration to women everywhere, Smyth was fighting for women’s rights as early as 1877 when, according to Oxford Music Online, she defied her father and enrolled in the Leipzig Conservatory to study music and composition. She refused to be confined by traditional limitations: she published under E.M. Smyth so her orchestral debut got fair reviews (and confounded the press when it was revealed Smyth was a woman); she openly engaged in same-sex affairs (including, allegedly, Virginia Woolf); and she began writing operas in 1892. A tireless, early champion of feminism and equality, Smyth gave the suffrage movement its own anthem in 1910 with The March of the Women, served two months in prison for her activism and crafted the feminist opera The Boatswain’s Mate a few years later.

Key song: The March of the Women

Miriam Makeba

Who was she? The South African musician and civil rights activist helped popularize African music around the world. Exiled from her homeland in 1960 after campaigning against apartheid, Makeba found success in America, winning a Grammy with Harry Belafonte for best folk recording in 1966 and scoring a hit in 1967 with her song “Pata Pata.” But when she married known Black Panther member Stokely Carmichael in 1968, Americans turned on her and it remained that way until she joined Paul Simon on his Graceland tour in 1985.

Key song: “Pata Pata”

Mamie Smith

Who was she? Smith was the ultimate blues trailblazer: in 1920 she became the first African-American to make a vocal blues recording, which, according to Gunther Schuller’s 1986 book Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, went on to sell a million copies within the year and clued music industry execs into the power of the black community.

Key song: “Crazy Blues”

Lovie Austin

Who was she? She got her early start in vaudeville, but Austin became most famous in the 1920s for skills as a jazz blues pianist and for her relatively unprecedented role as the bandleader of her Blues Serenaders. She was an in-demand collaborator as well, accompanying other famous blues women such as Ma Rainey, Ida Cox and Alberta Hunter.

Key song: “Charleston Mad”

Ida Cox

Who was she? Cox proved a daring and boundary-pushing songwriter and performer. She flexed the early muscles of feminism with her song “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” started her own vaudeville troupe and made numerous recordings throughout the '20s.

Key song: “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues”

Bessie Smith

Who was she? Smith, the Empress of the Blues, was arguably the most famous blues and jazz vocalist in the '20s. According to PBS, she was also the most successful black recording artist of her time thanks to her cover of “Downhearted Blues,” which was co-written by Lovie Austin and Alberta Hunter.

Key song: “Downhearted Blues”

Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey

Who was she? Revered as the Mother of the Blues, Rainey was among the earliest African-American women to record music in the '20s and distinguished herself thanks to her “moaning,” soulful singing. According to the Georgia Encyclopedia, from 1923-28, Rainey made more than 100 recordings of her own compositions.

Key song: “Deep Moaning Blues”

Kathleen Parlow

Who was she? The Fort Calgary-born violin prodigy left Canada at age four and became an international sensation. A North American tour in 1910 and subsequent tours of Europe, the Far East and Japan cemented her status as the “world’s greatest woman violinist.” After decades as a soloist, Parlow began teaching and performing in ensembles and chamber quartets. Upon returning to Canada during the Second World War, Parlow took over Toronto in the best way possible, teaching at the Royal Conservatory, playing with the TSO and forming new ensembles, including the Canadian Trio.

Key selection: Arensky: Serenade for Violin and Piano

Portia White

Who was she? Hailing from Halifax, White was an African-Canadian contralto classical and gospel singer who made her national debut in Toronto in 1941 and went on to international acclaim despite difficulties obtaining bookings because of racism.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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