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Recent Integration Efforts from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Guess who’s among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s nominees this year? Joan Jett and Heart! It’s about time, too. Too few awesome female artists have been inducted.

The Hall is also drawing attention for its recently established “Women Who Rock” exhibit. While I do appreciate the Hall’s attempt to recognize artists that it previously ignored, I can’t help but feel the attempt is somewhat misguided. After all, the female artists it spotlights haven’t actually been inducted. When the exhibit ends in February 2012, the non-inducted artists (who compose the majority of the exhibit) will presumably vanish from the Hall once more. Forgetting pioneers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe again would be simply criminal. (Something that annoys me: how could they leave out Fanny?  They paved the way for most of the artists in that exhibit, but they didn’t even get mentioned on its website.)

Of course, the exhibit is not without its benefits. Carla DeSantis Black makes the point that, despite the exhibit’s problems, seeing successful female musicians can inspire girls to play music. Also, the usage of the term “Women Who Rock” annoys some feminists less than the label “Women In Rock.” The latter term grates on readers’ nerves due to its association with “Women In Rock” issues created by music magazines, especially Rolling Stone, that merely acknowledge the presence of women in music and then proceed to ignore their contributions in subsequent issues. Additionally, Gayle Wald argues that the “Women Who Rock” label is an improvement because “[it] envisions rock as a dynamic practice, not an ossified tradition…[and] represents women in terms of cultural agency, not their static presence—their doing, not their being”. However, both Carla DeSantis Black and I wonder why we still need a separate exhibit for female musicians. How come in the 21st century, we still can’t properly integrate excellent female artists with male ones? Why can’t the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame put female pioneers next to and among their male counterparts, so they look like they belong in the standard rock canon and not like their gender makes them less important?

The Hall has a chance to start fixing this if Joan Jett and Heart get inducted. You can (and should) vote for the nominees online; I voted for The Cure, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Heart, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Guns ‘N Roses. So far, Heart and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts are in the top five, with 8.96% and 8.03% of the votes respectively. Let’s cross our fingers, everybody. I’ll be really annoyed if two of my favorite artists are ignored again.

What do you think about these recent developments in the Hall? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer: Big Mama Thornton

While she’s probably best known for singing the original version of “Hound Dog,” Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton played harmonica and drums and sang in many rhythm and blues bands throughout her career, starting in the 1940s (Gaar 1). She was completely self taught; in her own words, “My singing comes with experience. I never had no one to teach me nothing. I taught myself to sing and to blow the harmonica and even to play drums, by watching other people” (Gaar 2). Her legacy inspired Janis Joplin, who covered Thornton’s song “Ball and Chain.” She must have inspired other legends too; the part at the 4:10 mark of “Ball and Chain” reminds me of Robert Plant’s singing at the 6:10 mark in Led Zeppelin’s “You Shook Me.”

Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” hit number 1 on the 1953 R&B charts, but Elvis Presley’s cover definitely overtook it in popularity. It’s tragic that Thornton never achieved the fame or money she deserved for her hard work; royalties from “Hound Dog” went to songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, not her (O’Neil 1). “Ball and Chain,” which Thornton composed herself, was copyrighted to her record company, so no royalties from that song went to her either (O’Dair 16). She died in 1984 of heart and liver failure, most likely due to extensive alcohol abuse that reduced her from a hefty 350 pounds to a tiny 95 pounds (Gaar 1). For whatever reason, she has yet to be inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame, an egregious oversight. The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame recognized her achievements as far back as 1984, though. The Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, based in New York, is named after her.

After listening to Big Mama’s version of this song, Elvis’ doesn’t sound quite as awesome, does it?

There’s some really beautiful guitar in this one.

Watch Big Mama play harmonica.

Sources used for this article:

Gaar, Gillian. She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. 2nd ed.New York: Seal Press, 2002. Print.

O’Dair, Barbara, ed. Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1997. Print.

O’Neil, Jim. “Big Mama Thornton.” The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. Web. 27 September 2011.

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