As a young girl, I sang with my mother. We listened to the radio in the car, played vinyl records at home, or even better, my mom would pick up her guitar and we’d sing a folk song. I remember when I first heard Phoebe Snow sing “Poetry Man” from the backseat of our car and my mother told me of the heartbreak of this soul singer songbird. Phoebe Snow took her stage name from a fictional character from old Lackawanna Railroad advertisements. Her name was emblazoned on the side of train boxcars.
In the poems written about this lady who rode the rails, they mention Anthracite, a particular type of coal found in northwestern Pennsylvania that claims to burn hotter and cleaner, with less soot, than ordinary coal. My mind naturally wandered down the line and thought of my grandfather, who my mother learned to sing and play guitar from; a man who mined coal in Pennsylvania and lost his father and oldest brother in a mining accident so that people could heat their homes and power trains for transporting goods and the traveling masses.
Fictional Phoebe was a regular train rider who frequently wore white gowns and she traveled in style, on the “Road of Anthracite” to avoid getting dirty from the soot of a regular coal-burning locomotive. She was created to underscore this point and there were various poetic rhymes about Phoebe and her coveted, lily-white travel life.
This was not the life of the real Phoebe Snow. Her warbly vibrato and bluesy growl always sounded like a woman quavering on the edge of tears. She was a vocal acrobat, sweeping over four octave ranges. Snow had a brief marriage and gave birth to a severely brain-injured daughter, Valerie Rose but was resolved to care for her herself and not institutionalize her, singing commercial jingles for AT&T and others in order to support herself and her daughter. Interestingly enough, Snow’s backup vocal can be heard on Paul Simon’s 1975 hit song “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” Phoebe kept her daughter at home until she succumbed to her disabilities at the age of 31.
My mother is a nurse who at the time was working both labor and delivery and the psychiatric unit. While riding along the highway, my father driving, my mother explained from the passenger seat how difficult it would be to raise and to lose a child so profoundly ill, to never have time for love relationships of any other type. I considered this as I sat seatbelted in, listening to Phoebe ache about foreshortened intimate time with a married man, “Talk to me some more, you know that you don’t have to go. You’re the poetry man, you make things alright.” I turned to look at my father driving, the typical scowl on his face, glaring straightforward at the road and wondered if my mother wanted an escape too—a poetry man of her own. At least her children were healthy.
My mother and I also listened to Joan Baez, who had a thing for Bob Dylan and bemoaned on “Diamonds And Rust” how his “eyes were bluer than robin’s eggs, my poetry was lousy, you said.” We let Carole King’s Tapestry move the earth under our feet and felt empowered and sweetened by the idea that someone could inspire a woman to write, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Tapestry featured several written and co-written songs by Carole that other artists had covered and rendered into big hits, including male folk singers such as James Taylor, The Shirelles, a Motown girl band, and the great female soul singer, Aretha Franklin. But here was King herself, presenting them in her own voice for the first time.
I grew to worship the brazen gypsy witch that was Stevie Nicks, singing her heartbreak, trading jabs and insults and squandered desire with Lindsey Buckingham, right there in the songs on Rumours and on stage together. I wanted to be a “Gold Dust Woman,” when she sang lines like:
“Rock on, ancient queen
Follow those who pale in your shadow
Rulers make bad lovers
You better put your kingdom up for sale”
Stevie explains the song’s meaning in her own words. It’s one of the best albums of all time, fueled by drugs and emotional turmoil, an accurate and eccentric recording of the brilliant implosion of a band coming apart with its own incestuous energy.
On the heels of Stevie Nicks, we also listened to Linda Ronstadt who asked “When Will I Be Loved?” and also claimed “It’s So Easy.” Her album Simple Dreams was the recording that finally knocked Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours out of the #1 slot after 29 record-breaking weeks while also dethroning the King, Elvis Presley out of #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums.
Along my journey discovering female vocalists and musicians, I moved my way through folk, country, disco, traditional pop, rock, punk—anywhere women were breaking ground and creating something new. Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Eydie Gormé, Etta James, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Donna Summer, Bonnie Raitt, Patsy Cline, The Go-Gos, Tina Turner, Bikini Kill, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sinead O’Connor, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Debbie Harry as Blondie, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, Sam Phillips, Madonna, Kate Bush, Cyndi Lauper, Pat Benetar, Annie Lennox, Joan Jett, Gillian Welch, Lauryn Hill, Björk, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, Fiona Apple, Feist, Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, and St. Vincent . . . to name barely a few and not even approaching order of magnitude, chronological, or comprehensive list.
In my elementary school days and teens, the radio waves were dominated by disco and pop divas, and I was not one to keep up with the Jones, but the women making music that interested me ranged everywhere from Rickie Lee Jones to Grace Jones. My sister began working for a record store (a curious oddity now in the age of digital streaming to every device imaginable) and we went to dozens of concerts. We became so spoiled there were nights we simply passed on free entrance at the door.
Sure, in my teens and beyond into the 90s, I had my Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill to swallow, and I was enamored with Sarah McLachlan’s first offering, Touch, and bands like Belly, The Breeders, Mazzy Star, Indigo Girls, Veruca Salt, L7, Elastica, Cibo Matto, Everything But The Girl, The Innocence Mission, Garbage, Concrete Blonde, 10,000 Maniacs, The Cranberries, Cocteau Twins, Cowboy Junkies, and Portishead all composed of or female-fronted populated my playlists.
These days, as a frequent concert goer and freelance writer for Oregon Music News, it has been my extreme pleasure and privilege to have access to and speak with some of the women I admire in music.
I interviewed Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, classically trained as an opera singer and a most prolific collaborator. In this case, it was for a performance of a song cycle called Penelope. Penelope is composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, with lyrics by playwright Ellen McLaughlin, featuring vocalist Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond. In essence, it was inspired by Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey, a modern day feminine meditation on memory, identity, and what it means to come home. And all of this is very much a woman-powered affair as a series of songs that are told mostly from a woman’s perspective, composed, written, and sung by three women. It tells about she who is left behind to pick up the pieces of a shattered man, the people in the wake of war and misery, and how they put their lives back together.
I also spoke with Nona Marie Invie of Dark Dark Dark who wrote an album following a break up with her band mate and partner, Marshall LaCount. Impossibly, they went on to heal that rift, to put the pain off for a spell and to tour with the new music. Knowing this back story made for an interesting study of the interactions, the glances, the pained expressions sometimes from opposite sides of the stage, the little heartbreaks that one must have to endure in order to go on recalling the unraveling of a relationship night after night, onstage, in words, to strangers in hundreds of cities.
I think this is what psychology and therapy does for some—it offers the time to tell your story to strangers, to move through it piece by piece, every insult, injury, immeasurable joy, all the confusion, front to back until you know it so well, it becomes easily repeated and reproducible—a familiar shadow brought to light. Maybe it loses its power over you. Maybe you heal. The talking cure is perhaps the writing and the singing cure in this case.
I was able to talk to Laura Marling, phoning all the way from the UK about the weight of religious guilt, her female writer and singer inspirations, and the powerful images contained in myths such as Sophia and Undine as featured in her music.
Jesca Hoop talked with me about the albums following her first release Kismet. On Hunting My Dress, she sings about the loss of her mother and on The House That Jack Built, she addresses the loss of her father as well as several other topics including dreams, faerie tales, and growing up Mormon.
Alaina Moore of Tennis abandoned the idea of law school and set sail (literally) with her bandmate and husband, Patrick Riley, writing the album Cape Dory about their adventures. She explained how they achieve balance in both their musicianship and marriage as working partners.
Such inspirational women in folk, pop, and rock and everything in between, have been for me, a deeper reflection for understanding the writing process and how one can fashion a life out of the creative source. Women on the road, with and without partners. Women unafraid of getting dirty from the soot of traveling the world to share their voices and their message.