The Women Who Paved the Way

By Michelle Haft & Niki Savage

 

When bluegrass fan think of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, what comes to mind immediately is a long procession of wildly talented musicians that passed through that band: Bill Monroe himself, Early Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman, Bill Keith, Peter Rowan, even Carter Stanley for a short period of time. But one Blue Grass Boy who rarely gets mention is in fact not a boy at all, but rather, a woman by the name of Sally Ann Forrester, who played accordion and sang with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys from 1943 to 1946. She is considered to be "the first woman in bluegrass.” 

This month marks Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate the overwhelming contribution of many-a-great women in history, and Bluegrass history is not to be excluded. We thought it fitting to take a moment to celebrate a few of our own incredible, musical women who boldly challenged the cultural norms of their time to pursue their love of Bluegrass and country music. Their struggles and triumphs helped paved the way for women like us today, inspiring us to pursue our own passions for this wonderful music. 

 
 

 

Sally Ann Forrester

(source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sally_Ann_Forrester)

Source: http://jeffjetton.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/sallyann.jpg

Source: http://jeffjetton.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/sallyann.jpg

The first woman in bluegrass, Sally Ann Forrester was born Goldie Sue Wilene Russell in Raton, New Mexico. Her grandfather, a fiddler, introduced her to music and performing. By the sixth grade, she was playing piano, classical violin, and guitar, and at the age of fifteen she adopted the name "Billie". In 1939, at the age of seventeen, she won a spot on a radio show in Tulsa, OK, playing guitar and singing. There, she met, began dating, and soon married a seventeen year-old Texan fiddler Howard "Howdy" Forrester. In the winter of 1942, after moving to Nashville, the Forresters began performing with Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. In spring 1943, Howdy left for the Navy, and "Sally Ann", as Billie was now called by Monroe, continued singing and playing the accordion, as well as keeping the books, for the Blue Grass Boys. She was a band member, along with Lester Flatt, when banjo player Earl Scruggs joined in late 1945, marking a turning point in Bluegrass and establishing the signature sound of the genre. The Forresters stayed with Monroe through the end of March, 1946, when they moved back to Howdy's home in Texas.

 
 

 

Hazel Dickens

(source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hazel_Dickens)

Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a8/Hazel_Dickens.jpg/220px-Hazel_Dickens.jpg

Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a8/Hazel_Dickens.jpg/220px-Hazel_Dickens.jpg

There’s no denying the voice of Hazel Dickens when you hear it: raw, powerful, and piercing. Dickens is an American bluegrass singer, songwriter, double bassist and guitarist, and an icon of Bluegrass history. Her music was characterized not only by her high, lonesome singing style, but also by her provocative pro-union, feminist songs. Cultural blogger John Pietaro wrote that "Dickens didn’t just sing the anthems of labor, she lived them and her place on many a picket line, staring down gunfire and goon squads, embedded her into the cause." The New York Times extolled her as "a clarion-voiced advocate for coal miners and working people and a pioneer among women in bluegrass music." With Alice Gerrard, Dickens was one of the first women to record a bluegrass album. 

 
 

 

Sara and Maybelle Carter

(source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carter_Family)

Source: http://www.onecountry.com/sara-and-maybelle-carter-country-musics-most-influential-women-1648011021.html

Source: http://www.onecountry.com/sara-and-maybelle-carter-country-musics-most-influential-women-1648011021.html

As part of the legendary traditional American folk music group, The Carter Family, Sara and Maybelle’s contributions to music had a profound impact on bluegrass, country, Southern Gospel, pop and rock musicians as well as on the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s. They were the first vocal group to become country music stars. The original group consisted of Alvin Pleasant "A.P." Delaney Carter (1891–1960), his wife Sara Dougherty Carter (1898–1979), and his sister-in-law Maybelle Addington Carter (1909–1978). Maybelle was married to A.P.'s brother Ezra Carter, and was also Sara's first cousin. All three were born and raised in southwestern Virginia, where they were immersed in the tight harmonies of mountain gospel music and shape note singing. Throughout the group's career, Sara Carter sang lead vocals; Maybelle sang harmony and accompanied the group instrumentally; "Mother" Maybelle's distinctive guitar playing style, known as the "Carter scratch,” became a hallmark of the group, and was widely emulated by other musicians in her time. 

 
 

 

Alice Gerrard

(source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Gerrard)

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_0bMYj7okM

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_0bMYj7okM

Alice Gerrard (born July 8, 1934) is an American bluegrass singer, banjoist, and guitar player. She performed in a duo with Hazel Dickens and as part of The Back Creek Buddies with Matokie Slaughter. Her albums with Hazel are considered among the most influential recordings in folk music history. Gerrard was born Seattle, Washington and attended Antioch College in Ohio, where she was first exposed to folk music. After college, she moved to Washington, D.C. and became part of the thriving bluegrass scene there. Gerrard had four children with her (late) first husband and she was later married to Mike Seeger and recorded two albums with him. Gerard was a ecclectic song writer, and know for her strong, authentic vocals. Her work as a multi-instrumentalist was remarkable, playing instruments including banjo, guitar and fiddle. A number of honors have been dedicated to this amazing folk singer. She was also a editor-in-chief of The Old Time Herald from 1987 to 2000.

 
 

 

There are so many more women deserving of mention but we simply can’t cover them all in a single blog post. If you want to learn more about influential women in the genre of Bluegrass music, we recommended a great book titled “Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass (Music in American Life)” by Murphy Hicks Henry, which documents the lives of more than seventy women whose vibrant contributions to the development of bluegrass have been, for the most part, overlooked.

Also, In continuing the celebration of Women's History Month, we are incredibly excited to be presenting our first ever Handsome Ladies showcase featuring two incredibly talented Bay Area-based bands: The Hossetts and Paper Wings. While the Handsome Ladies is mostly associated with hosting jams, we have been busy having conversations about how we can promote and support women in traditional music beyond just jamming. This showcase is part of a cultural shift we're hoping to create, where women performing in bands aren't simply a novelty, but the norm.

We are incredibly fortunate to feel the love and support from our local community, and are grateful to be traveling a path laid by local greats like Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis, and the many women throughout Bluegrass history mentioned above. We're very excited to be presenting this show, and hope to see you there!