March is Women’s History Month and last Sunday was International Women’s Day. This week, a short trip through the female musicians who have inspired me and countless others with their skill as performers, singers and individuals, both on stage and off. This is, by admission, a woefully incomplete list, and I’d welcome any suggested additions in the comments. If I wanted to double the length of this list, I’d include Heart, Bonnie Raitt, Sleater-Kinney, Carole King, Joss Stone, Ruth Brown and a handful of others, but even then I’d only be hitting the smallest tip of the iceberg.
“Get It While You Can,” Janis Joplin
A great old track about living in the moment, not thinking too much about the future because nothing is guaranteed. Sadly, it’s a prophetic song for Janis — this performance was recorded on the Dick Cavett Show in June 1970 and by October of that year, she had died. But she lived big and bold and held nothing back. Probably the most well-known thing attributed to her outside her songs, Janis famously said “Never compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.” She didn’t. Her performances at Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival are legendary, as is her propensity for whisky and badassery.
“Tell Mama,” by Etta James
There was no stopping Etta James unless she wanted to be stopped. The epitome of a tough woman who knew what she wanted and went for it, her torch songs are among her best known works. The world went nuts when Beyonce covered “At Last” for the movie Cadillac Records a few years back, but Miss Etta wasn’t having it, famously promising Queen Bey that she was “going to get her ass whupped” after the latter performed “At Last” during President Obama’s first inaugural ball in 2009. This song, however, is a little cheekier, a little more sassy, a little less sad and more determined.
“Rhiannon,” Fleetwood Mac
It’s so good that Christine McVie is back touring with Fleetwood Mac. An incredibly skilled keyboardist and a great singer with a sweet, gentle voice, she’s an excellent counterpart to the fireball that is Stevie Nicks. The split-screen view of the two of these incredible women at 1:45 in the video (which has been making the rounds lately but I think is worth another plug) is a great moment here, to say nothing of the storied glances between Stevie and Lindsey Buckingham. I grew up listening to a lot of Fleetwood Mac thanks to my mom, who admitted at one point she’d considered naming me Stevie or Rhiannon. Full confession? I’m a tad disappointed she didn’t. Regardless, these women more than held their own with the three men in the group, largely steering their direction over the course of their ’70s heyday and into the ’80s.
“Helter Skelter,” by Dana Fuchs
I was trying to avoid any covers here, but this was my introduction to Dana Fuchs, a Florida-born soul and blues singer, so it’s a good place to start. If she looks familiar, it could be from her role as Sadie in Across the Universe, the movie musical filled with Beatles songs from 2007. In addition to this, Dana covers some Etta James and, unsurprisingly, knocks any Janis Joplin cover right out of the park, but her own work is inspired, emotion-drenched and full-on rock. (Yes, I realize this is cheating, embedding links into a list of links and videos. Oh well.)
“Not a Pretty Girl,” by Ani DiFranco
“I ain’t no damsel in distress and I don’t need to be rescued,” sings the Buffalo born-and-raised Ani DiFranco, who made a name for herself in the ’90s by refusing to sign with a major lable when many came to court the immensely talented folk-rock singer. Instead, she created her own label, the epic Righteous Babe Records, still headquartered in her hometown while she now lives full-time in New Orleans. She’s been a hero of mine for a long time because she would not give up her autonomy for anything and she made it work for her. She wouldn’t take the easy road toward a wider audience and potentially more money because it might have meant doing things by someone else’s rules. While her tone has changed in recent years to slightly softer and less outright angry, there remain punk undertones in her lyrics, fiercely defending the little guys and gals and railing against government practices she finds unfair or inequitable.