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Shout, Sister, Shout: The Great American Songbook’s Feminist Anthems

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[MUSIC CLIP, OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”]

MARK CHILLA: Welcome to Afterglow, I’m your host, Mark Chilla.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the Great American Songbook is full of mostly love songs. But being a product of the early 20th century, these love songs often have antiquated views on love and marriage. The women are “lost lambs” looking for a “big and strong” man that she loves. However, on this show, I’m flipping the script, asking “what songs in the Great American Songbook have women who are empowered? Lost lambs need not apply! Coming up, we’ll hear some female-centered songs like “A Woman’s Prerogative,” “100 Easy Ways,” and many more.

It’s “Shout, Sister, Shout: The Great American Songbook’s Feminist Anthems,” coming up next on Afterglow.

[MUSIC – NINA SIMONE, “FOUR WOMEN”]

Nina Simone with her original song “Four Women.” That comes from the 1966 album Wild Is The Wind. Although each of the four women outlined in Simone’s dramatic song is fictionalized, they represent the real-life struggles that African-American women faced in the shadow of slavery, generation after generation. Simone’s music frequently prioritized the perspective of the black woman, on songs like “Four Women,” “See Line Woman,” or even “I Loves You, Porgy.”

[MUSIC CLIP – OSCAR PETERSON, “SOPHISTICATED LADY”]

Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, I’m exploring female-centric and female-empowered songs from the Great American Songbook.

First, let me state for the record that I love the music of the Great American Songbook. I think that comes as no surprise—I host a show all about it. But I also realize that these songs, while objectively lovely, are also a product of their time. For instance, take a standard like Gershwin’s “Someone To Watch Over Me”...

[MUSIC CLIP – ELLA FITZGERALD, “SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME”]

[ELLA FITZGERALD: “I’d like to add his initial to my monogram. Tell me, where is the shepherd for this lost lamb… there’s a somebody I’m longing to see, I hope that he turns out to be, someone to watch over me…”]

MARK CHILLA: ...or take a different Gershwin standard, “The Man I Love,” similarly themed….

[MUSIC CLIP – PEGGY LEE, “THE MAN I LOVE”]

[PEGGY LEE: “someday he’ll come along, the Man I Love, and he’ll be big and strong, the Man I Love…”]

MARK CHILLA: In both of these songs, the woman has no agency. She’s just a lost lamb, sitting back waiting for this big and strong man to whisk her away. Even songs that you think might be a little more progressive, like Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady”...

[MUSIC CLIP – NANCY WILSON, “SOPHISTICATED LADY”

[NANCY WILSON: “Is that all you really want? No, sophisticated lady. I know, you miss the love you lost long ago. And when nobody is nigh you cry.”]

MARK CHILLA: … is really about a woman who just misses her man, and sits alone and cries.

So, while I love this music for their melodies and harmonies, and the sophisticated and urbane craft that it takes to marry this music with the words, I—like any fan of the Great American Songbook—must acknowledge that these songs are not really indicative of modern love in the 21st century.

But the songbook, and other pop music from the early 20th century, is not a monolith. Songwriters both female and male have often flipped the script, giving their female protagonists some power, some agency. Sure, sometimes it’s played for laughs, as we’ll hear, but these “feminist anthems,” if you will, do exist. 

First off, I want to thank some friends of mine, namely Sylvia McNair and Rachel Caswell, for helping me brainstorm. They are two singers who perform this repertoire often and have to deal first hand with reconciling the sexism that can show up within the lyrics.

And I’ll start with a song suggestion from Sylvia McNair—it’s a song that I know is part of her personal repertoire. It comes from the Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green 1953 musical Wonderful Town, and star Rosalind Russell earned a Tony Award for her deadpan performance of this pro-female anthem.

Here’s Rosalind Russell now with a lesson in independence, the song “100 Easy Ways,” on Afterglow.

[MUSIC – ROSALIND RUSSELL, “100 EASY WAYS”]

[MUSIC – PEGGY LEE, “I’M A WOMAN”]

Two songs that celebrate the myriad capabilities of women, from laundry, to loving, to car repair. Just now, we heard Peggy Lee in 1963 with Leiber and Stoller song “I’m A Woman.” Before that, we heard Rosalind Russell from 1953 with “100 Easy Ways (To Lose A Man),” a song from the Bernstein, Comden, and Green musical Wonderful Town.

Musicals were often, not always, a source of strong female characters with female-centric songs. I’ll play two songs now, both from musicals, about a woman proudly getting rid of a man, or men, in different ways.

First, here’s Peggy Lee again, this time in 1949. This is the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the musical South Pacific, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” on Afterglow.

[MUSIC – PEGGY LEE, “I’M GONNA WASH THAT MAN RIGHT OUTTA MY HAIR”]

[MUSIC – ANITA O’DAY, “TO KEEP MY LOVE ALIVE”]

A funny little number by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart all about the creative ways to leave a man, or men. That was Anita O’Day in 1960 with “To Keep My Love Alive.” Before that, we heard the Rodgers and Hammerstein song “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” sung by Peggy Lee in 1949.

Not all songs about women standing up and leaving their man were as tongue-in-cheek as “To Keep My Love Alive.” Some take on a more serious, somber tone. After all, taking back power and freeing yourself from an abusive relationship is a serious matter.

Here’s a classic Billie Holiday song from 1944 all about that subject. This is Holiday with the Toots Camarata and Bob Russell song “No More,” on Afterglow.

[MUSIC – BILLIE HOLIDAY, “NO MORE”]

Billie Holiday in 1944 with the song “No More,” a classic song all about standing up and leaving an abusive relationship.

When it comes to songs all about women leaving a no-good man, Billie Holiday was one of the rare singers in the early 20th century who took on this somber tone. Most songs of this nature were a little more... fun. That’s certainly the case when these songs were sung by blues divas like Bessie Smith or Alberta Hunter. 

Blues divas were known for singing screeds against no-good, two-timing men—usually named Sam. Here is one such song, originally performed by Bessie Smith back in 1923, but performed here by jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant in 2016 from her live album Dreams and Daggers.

Here’s Salvant live with the old blues diva standard “Sam Jones Blues,” on Afterglow.

[MUSIC – CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT, “SAM JONES BLUES”]

Cecile McLorin Salvant live at the Village Vanguard with the old Bessie Smith tune “Sam Jones Blues.” That comes from her 2017 album Dreams and Daggers.

[MUSIC CLIP – CY COLEMAN, “I’M GONNA WASH THAT MAN RIGHT OUTTA MY HAIR”]

Coming up after a short break, we’ll have more songs all about female empowerment. Stay with us.

I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to “Shout Sister Shout: The Great American Songbook’s Feminist Anthems” on Afterglow.

[MUSIC CLIP – KENNY BURRELL, “NO MORE”]

[MUSIC CLIP – JIMMY ROWLES, “OH LADY BE GOOD”]

Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring songs from the Great American Songbook all about female empowerment this hour. [Since most of this music was written before the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, songs with a positive or empowered view of women were sadly a little hard to find. I should say though that even the first wave feminists, the suffragettes from over 100 years ago, had empowered songs for their cause, like the 1916 song “She’s Good Enough To Be Your Baby’s Mother.”]

Where we left off, we were looking at songs all about women standing up to two-timing men, and dumping them. It seems like it’d be a common topic in popular music, but you’d be surprised how little it shows up in the Great American Songbook. More often than not, you get a song where the woman wants the man to return (like “The Man That Got Away”), or still loves the man despite his faults (like “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”). 

But every once in a while, a song is about a woman kicking a man to the curb. And in this next song, she seems to be literally putting him out on the curb.

Here is Ella Fitzgerald in 1949 with the song “I’m Waiting For The Junkman,” on Afterglow.

[MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, “I’M WAITING FOR THE JUNKMAN”]

Ella Fitzgerald in 1949 with the song “I’m Waiting For The Junkman.”

While Ella Fitzgerald is known for her scat singing and her quintessential interpretations of standards, she’s not really known for singing songs with strong feminist themes. These female-empowered songs usually get attached to certain personalities: Peggy Lee, Anita O’Day, or this next singer Pearl Bailey. 

Bailey was tall and powerful. She commanded a room with wit and charm, and she had an unusual bluntness in both her on- and off-stage persona. As a result, songs about strong, blunt women often showed up in her repertoire, and it was a breath of fresh air in an age where many female singers were overly demure, coy or innocent.

Here’s Pearl Bailey in 1960 performing an unrepentant song from Cole Porter's musical “Kiss Me Kate.” This is “I Hate Men,” on Afterglow.

[MUSIC - PEARL BAILEY, “I HATE MEN”]

[MUSIC - PEARL BAILEY, “A WOMAN’S PREROGATIVE “]

Pearl Bailey in 1946 with her original version of the song “A Woman’s Prerogative,” written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Before that, we heard her in 1960 with the Cole Porter tune “I Hate Men.”

Typically, when we think of songs of female empowerment or feminist anthems, our minds probably point towards the songs of the second-wave feminists of the 1960s, like the groundbreaking song “You Don’t Own Me,” sung by Lesley Gore.

[MUSIC CLIP – LESLEY GORE, “YOU DON’T OWN ME”]

This song was a milestone in popular music in the 1960s, a rejection of some of the more conservative views on relationships from the 1950s. But songs about a woman proudly standing up to powerful forces were not new in 1963 when “You Don’t Own Me” was recorded. You can find similar themes in songs that date back to the 1920s. 

One singer from the 20s who often sang of having it her way was “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” Sophie Tucker. Sophie Tucker was born in Ukraine, and perhaps being not American let her get away with pushing the envelope with her risqué songs that featured progressive views on the role of women. Plus her big personality coupled with her deadpan delivery gave her music a bluntness that was similar in style to Pearl Bailey. Both singers, after all, came from vaudeville.

Here is Sophie Tucker in 1928 with the Billy Rose and Ted Shapiro song “I Ain’t Taking Order from No One,” on Afterglow

[MUSIC – “Sophie Tucker, “I Ain’t Takin’ Orders from No One”]

[MUSIC – “Ether Waters, “No Man’s Mama”]

[MUSIC – “Kay Starr, “You’ve Got To See Mama Ev’ry Night”]

A few female-empowered songs that date back to the 1920s. Just now, we heard Kay Starr in 1948 with the Billy Rose and Con Conrad tune “You’ve Got To See Mama Ev’ry Night,” a song that dates back to 1923. Before that, we heard Ethel Waters in 1926 with Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack tune “No Man’s Mama.” And before that, the “Last of The Red Hot Mamas” herself Sophie Tucker in 1928 with the Billy Rose and Ted Shapiro song “I Ain’t Taking Orders from No One.”

One thing to note: you may have noticed that these songs, and pretty much all of the female-centric songs we’ve heard this hour, were written by men. Female songwriters did exist—Dorothy Fields, Peggy Lee, Betty Comden were important lyricists, who all wrote female-centric songs. But it’s a sad fact of the popular music business of the early 20th century that because so much of the songwriting was dominated by men, even songs that are about and seemingly for women were written largely by men. 

That’s even the case for this final feminist anthem I’ll play this hour.

So, I’ve called this show “The Great American Songbook’s Feminist Anthems.” And so far, we’ve heard songs that are female-centered, female-empowered, and sometimes even anti-male. But few have been truly anthemic. And that’s why I want to end on the gospel-inspired number “Shout, Sister Shout.” 

The title “Shout Sister Shout” has been used for a couple different songs over the years. Clarence Williams wrote a song called “Shout Sister Shout” in 1930, warning about the dangers of the devil. That was the version sung by the Boswell Sisters in 1931. But the version I’m going to play for you now comes from another sister, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an early rock and roll pioneer. 

Her version, written by bandleader Lucky Millender and William Doggett, has all the trappings of a gospel song with a much more secular and feminist message, namely “the day you quit me brother is the day you lose your life.” 

Here is Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Lucky Millinder’s Orchestra in 1941 singing “Shout Sister Shout,” on Afterglow.

[MUSIC – Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Shout Sister Shout”]

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, with her unique blend of gospel, jazz, and jump blues, performing the anthem “Shout Sister Shout” in 1941.

And thanks for tuning in to this look at feminist anthems from the Great American Songbook, on Afterglow.

[MUSIC CLIP – OSCAR PETERSON, “OH LADY BE GOOD”]

Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.

Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.

I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow.

RosieTheRiveter

"A Woman's Prerogative," "One Hundred Easy Ways," "No More," and more female-empowered songs on this episode. (Wikimedia Commons)

For Women's History Month, on this program, I'm exploring the female-centric, the female-empowered, and even the "anti-male" songs from the Great American Songbook.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the Great American Songbook is full of mostly love songs. But being a product of the early 20th century, these love songs often have antiquated views on love and marriage.

For instance, take a standard like Gershwin’s "Someone To Watch Over Me." The opening verse has the line "I’d like to add his initial to my monogram... tell me, where is the shepherd for this lost lamb," and the song continues with the seemingly helpless female looking for someone to protect her.

Or take another Gershwin standard, "The Man I Love." In this song, the protagonist says a similar thing: "Someday he'll come along, the man I love... And he'll be big and strong, the man I love."

In both of these songs, the woman seems to have no agency. She’s just a lost lamb, sitting back waiting for this big and strong man to whisk her away.

Even in songs that you think might be a little more progressive, like Duke Ellington’s "Sophisticated Lady," you learn at the end of the song that the so-called "sophisticated lady" really just misses her man, so she sits alone and cries.

So, while these songs delight with their melodies, harmonies, and wordcraft, their gender politics are clearly dated.

However, the songbook is not a monolith. Songwriters both female and male have often flipped the script, giving their female protagonists some power, some agency. Sure, sometimes it’s played for laughs, as we’ll see, but these “feminist anthems,” if you will, do exist. 

For instance, the character Ruth Sherwood (played by Rosalind Russell) in the 1953 Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green musical Wonderful Town is clearly no lost lamb. In her song "One Hundred Easy Ways," she proudly states her independence, acknowledging the fact that he empowered stance can turn off the opposite sex. Russell even earned a Tony Award for her deadpan performance of this pro-female anthem.

Strong female characters from musicals, especially from the post-war era, often have these empowering anthems. You can find women standing up to men in songs like Rodgers and Hammerstein's "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" (from South Pacific), Cole Porter's "I Hate Men" (from Kiss Me Kate), or Rodgers and Hart's "To Keep My Love Alive," where the character Queen Morgan Le Fay has a unique and funny way of leaving her lovers.

Not all songs about women standing up and leaving their men were as tongue-in-cheek as these songs from musicals, though. Some take on a more serious, somber tone. After all, taking back power and freeing yourself from an abusive relationship is a serious matter.

The 1944 Toots Camarata and Bob Russell song "No More" addresses this subject, and in the hands of singer Billie Holiday, her weariness shines though.

Typically, when we think of songs of female empowerment or feminist anthems, our minds probably point towards the songs of the second-wave feminists of the 1960s, like the groundbreaking song "You Don’t Own Me," sung by Lesley GoreThis song was a milestone in popular music in the 1960s, a rejection of some of the more conservative views on relationships from the 1950s.

But songs about a woman proudly standing up to powerful forces were not new in 1963 when “You Don’t Own Me” was recorded. You can find similar themes in songs that date back to the 1920s. 

Blues divas like Bessie SmithAlberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters were known for singing screeds against no-good, two-timing men—more often than not named "Sam." A classic example is the 1923 Bessie Smith song "Sam Jones' Blues," where Mrs. Jones proudly leaves her deadbeat husband, becoming "Mrs. Wilson" instead. But you can also hear it in the 1926 song "No Man's Mama" by Ethel Waters.

One singer from the 20s who often sang of having it her way was “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” Sophie Tucker. Sophie Tucker was born in Ukraine, and perhaps being not American let her get away with pushing the envelope with her risqué songs that featured progressive views on the role of women. Plus her big personality coupled with her deadpan delivery gave her music a bluntness that was unprecedented at the time. You can hear this in empowered stance in songs like "I Ain’t Taking Order from No One" or "You've Got To See Mama Ev'ry Night."

The spiritual successor to Sophie Tucker was fellow vaudeville veteran Pearl BaileyBailey was tall and powerful. She commanded a room with wit and charm, and like Tucker, she had an unusual bluntness in both her on- and off-stage persona. As a result, songs about strong, blunt women often showed up in her repertoire, and it was a breath of fresh air in an age where many female singers were overly demure, coy or innocent. In 1946, she introduced the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer song "A Woman's Prerogative," a song that encourages consent.

One thing to note: you may have noticed that these songs, and pretty much all of the female-centric songs I featured on this program, were written by men. Female songwriters did exist—Dorothy Fields, Peggy Lee, Betty Comden were important lyricists, who all wrote female-centric songs. But it’s a sad fact of the popular music business of the early 20th century that because so much of the songwriting was dominated by men, even songs that are about and seemingly for women were written largely by men. 

That’s even the case for this final feminist anthem I want to feature, the inspiration for this show's title.

While many of these “Great American Songbook’s Feminist Anthems” have been female-centered, female-empowered, and sometimes even anti-male, few have been truly anthemic. But the gospel-inspired number “Shout, Sister Shout” can be considered anthemic. 

The title “Shout Sister Shout” has been used for a couple of different songs over the years. Clarence Williams wrote a song called “Shout Sister Shout” in 1930, warning about the dangers of the devil. That was the version sung by the Boswell Sisters in 1931. But the feminist anthemic version comes from another sister, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an early rock and roll pioneer. 

Her version, written by bandleader Lucky Millender and William Doggett, has all the trappings of a gospel song with a much more secular and feminist message, namely “the day you quit me brother is the day you lose your life.” 


I'd like to thank some friends of mine, Sylvia McNair and Rachel Caswell, for helping me brainstorm for this program. They are two singers who perform this repertoire often and have to deal first hand with reconciling the sexism that can show up within the lyrics.

Did I miss any favorite female-centric songs of yours? Please let me know!

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