The intimate, rapt audience leaned in to hear the wispy-haired woman with the sterling silver voice sing about how she faced a life-threatening disease. They appreciated her bravery and her music. The crowd at state representative Jay Kaufman’s “Open House” last night was peppered with about a dozen of Jay’s fellow Summer Acoustic Music Week campers who came to hear SAMW teacher Penny Nichols perform with Mark Dann and Glen Roethel. As Penny spoke and sang about her battle with breast cancer, I reflected on what that might mean in the context of International Women’s Month. Fighting and winning against a disease that attacks such a distinguishing feature of a woman’s body puts into relief the underpinnings of International Women’s Month... because one day is hardly sufficient to honor the contributions of half the population of the world. The fact that Penny’s music speaks for all of us made me realize how the music of so many women has done just that over history – relating to every aspect of human experience.
Let’s start with the reason for International Women’s Day (March 8, 2012) in the first place. It began in 1909 as an effort to draw attention to women’s rights in the workplace. The 1912 women workers’ strike in Lawrence, Mass., sparked an entire American movement that continues to the tune of the “Bread and Roses” poem set to music by the late Mimi Farina. Activism in song on behalf of women pursuing “men’s work” carried forward. C’mon everyone, can I hear a chorus of Peggy Seeger’s “I Want to Be An Engineer?”
Women, we know, are about much more than work. During International Women’s Month, it behooves us to look back, for example, to the unalloyed courage of the much storied-in-song Sojourner Truth whose speech “Ain’t I a Woman,” has been sung and sung and sung in many versions, most notably in the Rory Block song. Think about all the songs you know that sing of the strength and power of women. One of the oldest I know is the 16th century ballad of “The Death of Queen Jane” in which she pleads for the life of her unborn child. We have sung of strong women in every era and every endeavor: Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Isabella Gunn, Frida Kahlo... too many too list, of course. And the recording artists themselves have made history and sung the songs of women’s rights and accomplishments: Odetta, Ronnie Gilbert, Bernice Reagon Johnson, Holly Near, Ani DiFranco... just to scratch the surface.
All these thoughts ran through my head last night, listening to Penny Nichols sing about “The Sands of Time.” International Women’s Month lasts, officially, 31 days. Listeners to WUMB know that songs of indefatigable women are sung every single day.
- Marilyn Rea Beyer