Saturday, July 16, 2011

Music Reviews-Eight Women Guitarists

Etta Baker as a young woman
Whether it is cross-cultural socialization or biological coincidence, most guitarists are men. However if there's one thing I firmly believe it's that one's skills are not determined by birth. Anyone can succeed at virtually any endeavor if he or she is willing to put in the time and work needed to do so. With that in mind here are eight women guitarists whose work you might be interested in. They are not listed in any particular order. I am not saying these are the ONLY women guitarists who ever did anything of note. They are just some of the better ones I've heard. YMMV of course. I've left out a few for space concerns.

1) Etta Baker (1913-2006)
2) Elizabeth Cotten (1895-1987)
Elizabeth Cotten
Both Cotten and Baker were from North Carolina. Each worked in what is often referred to as the "Piedmont" style of blues, which is quite different from the Mississippi Delta, Chicago, Texas and other forms of blues. The Piedmont style had a lot more ragtime and other piano based influences. It's not as "harsh" sounding. There is usually an alternating bass line combined with separate melody and rhythm. Some skilled musicians can thus make a guitar sound just like a piano or even a full band. The fingerpicking skills required were also used in slightly modified form in early bluegrass and what later became country music. If you listen to early music by people like Chet Akins, Merle Travis, or Jerry Reed you can hear Euro-American versions of this Piedmont style.   
Cotten was left-handed and played everything upside down and backwards compared to a right handed player. Baker was not only an excellent fingerstyle player but could hold her own on the slide. Each woman also played banjo. Both started playing at quite early ages; Baker started at 3. Unfortunately for music fans, because of family requirements/expectations as well as spending most of their lives under segregation, neither one was able to pursue a music career as vigorously as they could have.  
Etta Baker in about 2002
Cotten was partially responsible for kicking off the sixties folk revival. She was working as a domestic in the Seeger home when she was "discovered". Cotten did not release her first album until 1958 when she was 61 years old. Etta Baker did not travel as a performer but there is a 1956 recording, Mrs. Etta Baker Family and Friends, in which Etta Baker performs live with her father and in-laws that is worth obtaining. Taj Mahal also made a 2004 recording with her , Etta Baker with Taj Mahal.
Because of her stunning beauty, Etta's husband refused to let her travel and perform away from home; nevertheless, she never stopped playing her music. This gracious grandmother was the source of a great deal of joy and surprise when I found that she still played guitar after I had heard her early recordings from the 60s. One of the signature chords of my guitar vocabulary comes from her version of "Railroad Bill". This was the first guitar picking style that I ever learned."–Taj Mahal

Baker and Cotten each matured musically before music had become ossified into numerous categories. Each guitarist could flow seamlessly through what we would consider wildly different styles. (folk, blues, Irish jigs, pre-blues African American music, English murder ballads, ragtime, jazz, country, etc) 
Carolina Breakdown  Railroad Bill     John Henry
Take me Back to Baltimore   Freight Train (She wrote this at 10 years old)  Georgie Buck

3) Bonnie Raitt
She's been called the best slide player alive by BB King. She was mentored by such blues notables as Sippie Wallace, John Lee Hooker and Mississippi Fred McDowell (who was probably her primary influence). Although she spent most of the eighties and nineties pursuing a light rock/pop sound she to me has always sounded best when playing blues. She's not just a blues player though. She has performed collaborations with a wide variety of songwriters and musicians worldwide. Like McDowell, Raitt usually plays with the slide on her ring finger. With everyone and their mama playing slide today Raitt still maintains a style and sound that is her own. 
I'm in the Mood(with John Lee Hooker)    Texas Flood (with Stevie Ray Vaughn)
Something to talk about

4) Nancy Wilson
Nancy Wilson is the co-writer and primary guitarist for the band Heart which she joined shortly after her older sister Ann. She is an multi-instrumentalist and equally adept on acoustic or electric guitar. She's another guitarist who is fond of alternate tunings.
Years ago when I first heard Heart I wasn't a huge fan. I saw them as a Led Zeppelin knockoff. Also rhythmically Heart wasn't what I was looking for. But I now like a few of their songs made before their crappy synth-pop eighties period. Mistral Wind is impressive. Barracuda was written to protest record company execs and music journalists who were pushing fake stories the Wilson sisters were sleeping together. Heart was quite popular in the seventies and eighties. Nancy Wilson is kind of a godmother for some of the bands that came out of Seattle in the nineties, especially Alice in Chains. Much like Keith Richards for The Rolling Stones, Wilson probably won't take every solo in every song. She may spend much of the concert on acoustic guitar. But her tone is pretty identifiable. And she's the engine for the band. 
Crazy on You     Barracuda     Alone  Mistral Wind

5) Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973)
Tharpe was one of the first performers to combine gospel and secular music (blues). She was also one of the first guitarists to seek out a distorted tone and increased volume. Her guitar playing was just as important to her music as her singing, which was unusual at the time (forties/early fifties) for a gospel performer. Although she didn't get all the attention she deserved she was still popular during her life. Tharpe was an unsung founding mother of rock-n-roll. She was playing rock-n-roll before it was called that. 
Tharpe was an intensely physical player. Tharpe was an influence on people like Elvis Presely, Isaac Hayes, Johnny Cash, Little Richard and Bonnie Raitt among others. She gave shows that were noted for their energy and spectacle. Tharpe was also a headcutter and delighted in holding her own against other guitarists. Sam Cooke used to tease his guitarist Bobby Womack about being outplayed by a woman.
Up Above My Head  Down By The Riverside  No Room in the Church for Liars

6) Ellen McIlwaine
McIlwaine was the lesser known Caucasian redheaded female blues guitarist trying to make a name for herself in the late sixties and early seventies-Raitt being the better known. But the two guitarists have totally different styles. McIlwaine's slide tone is nastier and thicker. She also has a slightly stronger rhythmic sense imo. Her dream was to play guitar in James Brown's band. Her vocals complement her guitar playing though honestly I am not a fan of her scat-singing.

Indian and other "world" music has often fascinated many Western musicians and McIlwaine was one such musician. Her 1973 We the People, (recorded live when she was opening for Mandrill ) was an early post-Coltrane example of American musicians attempting to combine blues or jazz with Indian ragas. This mix and match motif would remain an ongoing career theme of McIlwaine's, one that she would most gloriously explore in Egyptian Blues , a melange of blues and rock riffs, faux-quawalli singing, and Middle Eastern tones.
We the People   Egyptian Blues     Can't find my way home   Down So Low

7) Beverly Watkins
Watkins is another unheralded guitar heroine who late in life is finally getting some attention. Her first noticeable gig was with Piano Red aka Dr. Feelgood and the Interns. She was the third guitar in that band. It's unclear as to who exactly was taking each different solo as the other two guitarists Curtis Smith and Roy Lee Johnson (composer of Mr. Moonlight) had similar tones. But if you want to hear early versions of a guitar army you might want to hunt these recordings down. She was recently "rediscovered" and has taken up where she left off, playing a mix of rock-n-roll, R&B, soul, gospel and blues. 
Piano Red Tribute  Do the Breakdown  Live in Paris(Back in Business)

8) Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell could probably have her own post. She is arguably the best woman post-war guitarist. Mitchell started out in folk music but has moved thru jazz, blues, Afro-Brazilian, pop, world music, synth-dance, funk, rock and anything else that piqued her interest. Her unique sense of rhythm and harmony and odd tunings were influences on some of the other guitarists listed above as well as too many other musicians to mention, including such people as Jimmy Page, Prince, Madonna, Jeff Buckley and Tori Amos, just to name a few. Led Zeppelin's Going to California or Prince's Ballad of Dorothy Parker probably wouldn't exist without Joni Mitchell. 
Mitchell is one of those rare individuals who is equally distinctively talented in her guitar skills, her vocals and her songwriting. Because she's had such a diverse career there's probably something she's done over the years that may speak to you. Mitchell is a such an inventive guitarist that you can go back and listen to things she did years ago and still find new pleasure in hearing things you hadn't heard before. She's also a talented pianist.
In the mid seventies Mitchell started listening more to jazz and this led to interesting collaborations with such people as Jaco Pastorious, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and most interestingly Charles Mingus. Mingus (who will get his own review soon) was an irascible genius who did not suffer fools easily but evidently he was impressed with Mitchell. I haven't listened to the Mitchell-Mingus album but I will get around to it one of these days.  
Prince attended one of my concerts in Minnesota. I remember seeing him sitting in the front row when he was very young. He must have been about 15. He was in an aisle seat and he had unusually big eyes. He watched the whole show with his collar up, looking side to side. You couldn’t miss him—he was a little Prince-ling. [Laughs.] Prince used to write me fan mail with all of the U’s and hearts that way that he writes. And the office took it as mail from the lunatic fringe and just tossed it! [Laughs.]
Herbie Hancock did a 2007 tribute album to Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters, which was well received and won Grammies. You can read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's review of it here.

Black Crow  All I want   River   Big Yellow Taxi
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