- The Rock and Roll BluesGender, Race, and Genre in the Songwriting Career of Rose Marie McCoy
Rose Marie McCoy (1922–2015) was one of a small number of black female professional songwriters and one of the more consistently recorded songwriters of the 1950s and 1960s. Known for catchy tunes and down-home wit, McCoy estimated that roughly eight hundred of her songs have been published, and bmi lists just over seven hundred titles published under her name.1 They range across musical genres, from rhythm and blues, country, and vocal jazz to pop, gospel, and rock and roll. Her songs, many of them cowritten with Charlie Singleton, were recorded by both black and white artists, including Eddie Arnold, LaVern Baker, Hank Ballard, Big Maybelle, James Brown, Ruth Brown, Shirley Caesar, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Etta James, Louis Jordan, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Elvis Presley, Little Jimmy Scott, Big Joe Turner, Ike and Tina Turner, and Dinah Washington. An African American woman pioneer in a white male–dominated field, McCoy is little known in the twenty-first century. She has been the subject of a radio documentary, magazine articles, and a recent biography, but mentions of McCoy in trade press and academic histories of popular music are few.2
One purpose of this article is to draw attention to McCoy’s remarkable career; another is to contribute to the kind of engaged feminist music scholarship that Suzanne Cusick has championed. Defining her terrain, Cusick explains, “Feminist musicologies are openly and avowedly political enquiries about music and musical practice motivated by one of two rescue plots.” One plot seeks “to rescue from obscurity the women and the women’s musical work [End Page 62] (compositional or otherwise) that have been marginalized in musicology’s narratives”; the other seeks to rescue “music’s expressive, sensual, and erotic power,” particularly “the kinds of musical power traditionally linked to women’s erotic power.”3 Cusick’s emphasis on the ways women’s “stories and artistic work [are] inevitably rooted in and shaped by historically and culturally specific, gendered, and classed experiences of the material and discursive world” and her commitment to revealing the uniqueness of the individual at the center of her biography of Francesca Caccini offer valuable models for my project.4
Working from an interview that I conducted with Ms. McCoy, secondary sources, and her music, I provide an overview of her professional trajectory while taking into account “rock’s cultural topography as one in which race, gender, and genre have served as regions with unequal cultural and economic capital.”5 McCoy’s gender and racial identities and the fluidity of 1950s genre labels make it difficult to slot her into a genre category. McCoy was well aware of the situation. “We thought it was the blues, and they called it rock ’n’ roll,” she told an interviewer in 2009. “I still don’t know the difference. I was writing rock ’n’ roll, and I thought I was writing the blues.”6 McCoy was working in an established form that was being marketed to a new audience, and that new audience changed the meaning of the form.
McCoy’s story departs from dominant narratives of African American women’s participation in professional music making. She was a songwriter, not a vocalist. While she suffered some economic exploitation, she had a measure of security provided by royalties. Furthermore, her professional success makes it difficult to cast her as a victim of recording industry racism, another standard trope of popular music history. As a result, McCoy’s is one of the “black female voices buried at the bottom of the rock and roll archive” lamented by Daphne Brooks.7 This article is part of a growing body of scholarship that excavates such lives and careers.8 [End Page 63]
Born in Oneida, Arkansas, on April 19, 1922, McCoy started her musical training early, learning to sing in school and in church and taking piano and guitar lessons; she also began writing poems and songs at a young age.9 McCoy’s move to New York in 1942 coincided with the entry of the United States...