Tomorrow is My Turn: A Look at Women of Color in Folk Music, Past and Present

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Joan Baez and Bob Dylan

2017 has already been a big year for women in folk music, particularly women of color. The legendary Joan Baez was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month. Baez is one of only three women that ever have been inducted, after Linda Ronstadt and Joan Jett.

When asked about her induction Baez said,

“I never considered myself to be a rock ’n’ roll artist. But as part of the folk music boom, which contributed to and influenced the rock revolution of the ’60s, I am proud that some of the songs I sang made their way into the rock lexicon.”

Baez was the past muse and lover of Bob Dylan, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature this year. She was instrumental in his skyrocket to fame and sang many of his songs along with her own while protesting the Vietnam War and other social injustices at the time.

Elizabeth Cotten

When looking back on women of color in folk music like Joan Baez, Elizabeth Cotten, Mimi Farina, and Joan Armatrading, it is clear their influence has shaped folk music today, especially for female folk artists in 2016.

Angel Olsen

Angel Olsen is a young folk hopeful whose powerfully honest 2016 album “My Woman,” is influenced by Joan Baez’s openness and Tracy Chapman’s power. 21 year old Lucy Dacus’ debut album “No Burden,” was recorded in one day for a friend’s college project and has the lyrical prowess of Odetta’s work plus the warmth of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s voice.

Lisa Hannigan

Irish singer Lisa Hannigan released the serenely smooth album this year, “At Swim,” which got rave reviews on NPR. The gentle sounds and soothing melodies embody the spirits of female folk singers in the past. Other notable albums this year that were influenced by women of folk in the past’s openness and vulnerability are Aoife O’Donovan’s beautifully melancholic work “In the Magic Hour,” and Courtney Marie Andrew’s enchanting piece, “Honest Life.”

Julie Byrne

Newcomer Julie Byrne released her critically acclaimed album, “Not Even Happiness” while Ani DiFranco will be releasing her highly anticipated 20th album, Binary, in May 2017.

This year women of folk this have taken past inspirations to new heights by adding even more vulnerability and a refreshing look at womanhood as a theme in their work. Current women of color folk artists like Mariee Sioux and Rhiannon Giddens stand on the shoulders of the giants that made the genre what it was and what it has come to be.

I will be focusing on a few influential women of color in folk music, past and present. These women aren’t just taking folk music by storm: they are the storm.

JT Nero and Allison Russell

“The darkness is coming, and we can’t do anything about that, but what we can do is be good to each other and be good to the ones that we love. And it starts with the people who are right in front of you — your anchors,” is a statement that black female folk artist Allison Russell recently told NPR was the thesis of the 2016 album “Real Midnight,” made in collaboration with her husband and other half of the folk-duo, Birds of Chicago. This statement is the perfect thesis to introduce the iconic music of Odetta, whose life was dedicated to fighting the darkness of the Civil Rights era and singing of love everywhere she went.

Odetta

There is not enough positive things in the world that one can say about Odetta, who Martin Luther King cited as the “Queen of American Folk Music,” and who Janis Joplin named as the first person she imitated when she started singing.

Odetta was dubbed the voice of the Civil Rights Movement and was a key figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950’s and 1960’s. It is easy to see that without the influence of this passionate, classically trained folk and blues singer the folk genre would not be where it is today. Odetta is truly the queen Mother of this movement, the light shining forth for others to follow.

Lianne La Havas

Black female folk artists of today are influenced by Odetta’s embrace of her black womanhood, like the beautifully energetic Lianne La Havas, whose feel-good 2015 album. “Blood” recently earned her a Grammy nomination.

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Another woman of color who helped shape folk music for future generations is the Native folk singer, visual artist and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie. If you’ve never heard her name before, there is a reason for that. Sainte-Marie detailed in a 2008 interview with the National Museum of the American Indian that her and other Native American artists and those in the Red Power Movement had been blacklisted by American radio stations and put out of business for being “too controversial.”

That controversy stemmed from Sainte-Marie’s politically charged songs, such as her famous protest song,“Universal Soldier,” about her witnessing wounded soldiers returning from the Vietnam War and “My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” which highlighted the mistreatment of Native Americans in the United States.

Alyssa Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff

Protest artists of today include Indo-Fijan/Malaysian folk singer Tanita Tikaram in her 2016 album, “Closer to the People,” and Puerto Rican artists Alynda Segarra of the band, “Hurray for the Riff Raff,” (who are releasing an album in this year called The Navigator) are contributing to protest music and tributes to their roots just like Buffy Sainte-Marie has done her whole life.

Sainte-Marie is a phenomenally vulnerable artist who many could relate to, especially when it comes to addiction. In her early 20’s while recovering from a sore throat infection Sainte-Marie got addicted to codeine. While in recovery she wrote the song “Cod’ine,” which was covered by numerous artists, including Donovan, Janis Joplin, the Charlatans, Jimmy Gilmer and Courtney Love.

Sainte-Marie is a revolutionary folk artist who is not afraid to push boundaries and fight for her rights. Along with being a visual representation of modern-day Native Americans, (she had a stint on Sesame Street for five years to show young viewers that “Indians still exist) at 75 years old she is still going strong.

Mariee Sioux

One could say that California singer-songwriter Mariee Sioux has taken the protest song reigns from Buffy Sainte-Marie for a younger audience. The half Polish, half Indigenous Mexican artist released her studio album, “Faces in the Rocks” a decade ago when she was just 22 years old. Her soft, dream-like voice accompanied with her delicate acoustic sound drew comparisons to the likes of Joanna Newsom and Joni Mitchell. The album could be seen as an homage to Sainte-Marie’s work, by getting to her Native roots through a mandolin sound procured by her father Gary Sobonya, flutes, references to nature and an honest look at the lives of Native American people.

This type of work is so important because that the Native experience is not just one monolith thing, that Native people are still alive, still have their struggles but also have their successes. Sioux recently released a song this year called Black Snake in honor of the water protectors of the Dakota Pipeline. She was able to use her musical talents to show her admiration and solidarity with the Sioux tribe that is the reason for her namesake. Voices like hers are of the utmost importance in today’s times in protest music.

Rhiannon Giddens

In terms of modern day women getting in touch with their roots Rhiannon Giddens is a perfect example. The biracial beauty pays homage to her African-American roots as the lead singer of the Grammy award winning old string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their tongue-in-cheek album “Genuine Negro Jig” is an eclectic, amusing, authentic tribute to traditional folk, old blues, string bands, and bluegrass. Giddens and banjo playing, tambourine smacking, rhythmic quartet have shown that folk music has no color, and has roots in many facets of our history.

Giddens’ confident voice and distinct creativity skyrocketed her and her band to critical acclaim. Now doing solo work, Giddens is leaving a mark of her very own. The 39 year old’s 2015 debut solo album, “Tomorrow is My Turn,” was Grammy nominated for Best Folk Album. The feminist work has songs only written by or made famous by women, something I can appreciate as an intersectional feminist myself. Ranging from Odetta, Jean Ritchie, Peggy Seeger and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, and Nina Simone, Giddens beautifully explores the history and impact of women in folk and rock music seamlessly. She ties together the stories of women of different classes, ethnic backgrounds, religious affiliations and place in history to teach us a thing or two about women in folk music.

Nina Simone

Legendary folk and jazz singer Nina Simone once said, “There’s no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are and were.”

Cold Specks

The future of folk music lies in the artists of today, and the women of color today are taking it further than it ever has. They are using it as a creative outlet for their political and activist passion, their expression as women of color, and their drive to change the face of what this genre was and could be.

Thao Nguyen of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down

Women like the neo-soul folk artist Cold Specks and alternative. folk artist Thao Nguyen of Thao and the Get Down have brought their own history, their own story, their own unique touch to this genre in ways never seen before. From the queens of American folk music to the women of color today adding their own touches to the genre, there is nowhere to go but up.

Originally published on Festival Peak.