- Women Drummers: A History from Rock and Jazz to Blues and Country by Angela Smith
In the late 1990s, Lilith Fair was a traveling festival celebrating women and featuring solely female solo artists and bands fronted by women. At that time there were highly-accomplished musicians who declined to participate simply because they did not want to be on a bill just for being female. Such artists had no desire to be known as “girl musicians” or “pretty good for a girl.” They wanted to be known simply as musicians, judged on the merits of their work. It is just this kind of woman–rebel–pioneer whose story is told in Women Drummers.
The introduction presents the dilemma: the scarcity of women drummers and the biases against them in the music business and the culture. This sets the stage for the purpose of the book: to recognize the women who were, and are, pioneers in a field that is still primarily male. As jazz drummer Viola Smith said (in Down Beat Magazine) in 1942, “ ‘Hep girls’ could sit in any jam session and hold their own” (p. xviii).
The sheer variety of drummers covered deserves special note. The reader will learn about women drummers in jazz whose names they may not know, but whose work was admired by the likes of Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and Louie Bellson. Readers will likely learn things they didn’t know about mainstream rock drummers such as Karen Carpenter, Sheila E, and Debbi Peterson (the Bangles). One will also discover unsung heroes of indie rock in accomplished, critically acclaimed drummers ranging from Maureen “Moe” Tucker (the Velvet Underground) to Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks) to Carla Azar (Autolux, Jack White) and beyond. Before the roughly decade-by-decade coverage begins, the author takes the reader through a brief overview of the history of women as drummers, reminding us that female drummers were common in some cultures in both ancient and more recent history. Her examples of women as primary percussionists range from biblical references in the Old Testament to the Sumerians, and from the Tang and Sung dynasties to pagan rituals. Among other sources, she cites the book When the Drummers Were Women by Layne Redmond (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997).
In addition to the stories of the women drummers covered in each chapter, the author gives the reader a taste of the cultural, political, and social battles, shifts, and upheavals in which these women struggled. The focus of the book is women who play the drum kit in popular music idioms, but the chapter “Drummers of a Different Beat” treats women percussionists who do less easy-to-categorize work, most notably Dame Evelyn Glennie and Ikue Mori. The chronological approach suits her purpose well, as the early decades of the twentieth century are, of course, characterized by [End Page 515] more homogeneous styles of music. In the latter part of the century, there were more women playing more diverse styles. Smith accommodates this with multiple chapters in the decades after the 1970s and in late chapters specifically devoted to country, blues, and jazz.
Smith’s chapter on the 1970s is exemplary for her weaving of culture, music, and the stories of the drummers together. It includes Alice de Buhr (Fanny), Sandy West (The Runaways), and Palmolive (The Slits). Rock music enthusiasts know Joan Jett, and even that her first band was called The Runaways. The rock connoisseur will learn about Sandy West, the drummer who started the Runaways with Jett. Smith tells their story against the backdrop of the tumult of Watergate, Vietnam, women’s liberation, drugs, and free love, as women navigated new territories in the workplace, politics, and in family life. The author reminds us that misogyny was all too real. Creem Magazine said, “These bitches suck . . . ” and the Village Voice referred to them as “bimbos” (p. 84). The inclusion of Fanny and...