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Featured Column: Gender Roles and Jamgrass

Attending Jam Cruise was a tradition of mine last decade. One thread that came up every now and then is that people wanted more women on the boat. While a few people – Jennifer Hartswick, Grace Potter, Sharon Jones – quickly came to mind, it felt like it was a bit of a challenge coming up with too many options. The jam world was most definitely a male dominated universe. Times have changed though. There’s a new gender equality that comes from perhaps the most surprising source.

When people think of bluegrass, the scene that comes to mind is a group of old men with beards playing songs that are largely credited to “traditional.” That image is outdated. Most of the newer bands in the scene contain both genders. Sometimes it’s a setup like Dead Winter Carpenters or Fruition or even Yonder Mountain String Band 2.0 where there’s a female singer who also is talented on an instrument. Others like Elephant Revival, Shook Twins, and Rabbit Wilde are coequal in number. When attending an event like Northwest String Summit, the change is readily apparent.

During a time when there is debate over diversity in culture and if it should be a priority or not, one might ask, “Who cares?” So there are a lot of women in string bands; what does it matter? There are reasons why it’s important. The most obvious – and the one that usually gets brought out in situations like this – is that it provides role models for others. Rather than create a world where men are musicians and women watch, the reality presented is that everyone has the potential to be a talented player. After all, what we all want is for there to be as many incredible musicians and songwriters as possible. You increase the pool in the immediate term and that will inspire others down the road.

It’s not just about increasing the pool of potential performers; it’s also about having different perspectives. Sure, everyone loves songs about trains and mountains, but one of the joys of lyrical songs is the ability to show the perspective of others. From The Velvet Underground singing about heroin addiction to gangster rap, creating characters and singing from their perspective has always been a part of music. In a male dominated genre, songs can stand out just by who is creating them and the assumptions they bring to the table. It can be subtle sometimes, like in Shook Twins’s romantic “But Alive,” “And I caught a stare with you/In the rear view mirror/It was so good that the road disappeared.” Taking a subtle moment and inflating it into a pivotal event can be somewhat alien from a male perspective.

For a more blatant example, one that really shows why expanding outside the old population can create new interesting works, look at the Blackberry Bushes Stringband’s “Salt Creek.” At first listen it sounds like a song about returning to an old home, but then one line unlocks it. “I learned to dance with a dagger in my pocket,/playing on the corner with my open case.” Why is she dancing with a knife? It’s not machismo or being a criminal, but rather a reminder that things that men take for granted – being able to busk without having to worry about safety – aren’t always true for everyone. The song is an ode to women who were intimidated away from performing, and those who did so otherwise and paid a price.

While I don’t know anyone who was killed for leaving a traditional gender role, some of these issues are still relevant. Women do have to experience issues that men don’t. When I was in college, I was talking with a member of the pop punk band Scrawl. She was explaining that when she went on tour, she had to wear a wedding ring even though she wasn’t married, just to stop the men constantly hitting on her. Shook Twins, Natalie Cressman, Grace Potter, I’ve overheard degrading comments about all of them, and those are intended as compliments. The women who are not considered attractive get even worse. It is probably inevitable that people are going to notice the appearance of those who are on stage and overweight male performers aren’t immune to insults, but the crudity is so much more extreme towards women that it is embarrassing to overhear.

Fortunately this problem is likely to have its own solution. As more and more women performers enter the scene, it will become more normalized. People will notice their fashion choices, but it will become more akin to talking about Jerry Garcia’s inevitable black t-shirt or Mike Gordon’s scarves than a way of judging their worthiness. For now though perhaps it’s best to take a cue from “Salt Creek” and just sing Hallelujah for all of the ladies who are opening the door.

Note: right after I wrote this, I went to go see Fruition on Halloween. They went dressed as 50s characters with the male members wearing leather jackets and Mimi Naja in a poodle skirt. This was noteworthy as – unlike many of the women mentioned here – Mimi never wears skirts or dresses on stage. She played the role well throughout the set, acting coquettishly towards the audience. They took their break and when they came out again, it was Mimi in the leather jacket (and a Pompadour wig) and the rest of the band in the poodle skirts. She dove in just as deeply, throwing out perfect Elvis sneers. While this was probably just intended as a lark for those of us who have noticed Mimi’s style preferences, and then the old Switcheroo to confuse us, it really brought home just how artificial these gender expectations are. I look forward to the opening of the Fruition School of Gender Studies. The homework will be incredibly fun!

*****

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He now tweets and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

His book This Has All Been Wonderful is available on Amazon, the Kindle Store, and his Create Space store.

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