"Popular music, and especially blues- influenced music, has been a really important venue for women to express their wilder side," says Boulder-based author Buzzy Jackson. "Unfortunately, they do pay a price for it. It's not an easy road to go down."
Evidence of this contention can be found on practically every page of A Bad Woman Feeling Good: Blues and the Women Who Sing Them, Jackson's new book. In it, she tells the musical stories of seminal female vocalists ranging from Ma Rainey, the so-called Godmother of the Blues, to Courtney Love, whose personal style corresponds with Jackson's themes even when her music strays from the form's musicological definition. "I think what Courtney Love demonstrates, and is an inheritance from the earlier singers in the book, is a devil-may-care approach to the attitudes of the general public about her behavior, about her singing, about her appearance, about her public or personal life," says Jackson. "She likes to provoke, obviously, but she's also willing to stand up and be criticized for being a little too extreme, or too annoying, or whatever. I admire her for that."
Jackson knows a little something about being on the other side of the microphone. In addition to singing in a variety of bands in years past, she served as a disc jockey at the University of California at Los Angeles's student-run campus station and, briefly, at an adult-album-alternative outlet in Bozeman, Montana. She subsequently decided to pursue her doctorate in history at UC-Berkeley, and when it came time to settle on a subject for her dissertation, she says, "I wanted to pick something that I knew would be interesting to me for the duration of the research and writing. And I was really inspired by Greil Marcus's Mystery Train and some of the things Peter Guralnick has written -- books that weren't only about music, but were also about American culture."
At the same time, Jackson (who will read from her book this month in Denver and Boulder) was careful not to use "scholarly jargon that only 25 people would understand or want to read. I'm not interested in that kind of writing. I wanted to keep a broader readership in mind -- and you don't want to sort of sterilize the music by dissecting it too much." To that end, she says, "I tried to focus on the lives of these particular women and to remember that I was writing about popular artists working in popular genres. They weren't writing theses. They were singing songs."
Understanding that the finest crooners infuse every lyric with autobiography whether the words are about them or not, Jackson digs into the backgrounds of her subjects, noting how Billie Holiday, for example, used the tunes at her disposal to express the pain inflicted upon her by rough relationships and substance abuse. She also examines figures such as R&B expert Etta James -- a criminally undervalued performer, in her opinion -- and soul queen Aretha Franklin, whose rendition of Otis Redding's "Respect," like Bessie Smith's "I Ain't Goin' to Play No Second Fiddle," reminded female listeners that they were more valuable than society tended to acknowledge.
The experience of immersing herself in music while penning Feeling Good was exhilarating for Jackson, but she can't help lamenting the fact that her subjects have always been far outnumbered by their masculine counterparts. "It seems that every three years or so, something like the Lilith Fair will come along, and people will say, 'This is a great year for women in music,'" she notes. "But I wanted to show that women have been a part of the recording business and popular music since the very beginning of the industry. There's a real continuity there, and even though a lot of them have had a hard time, they've kept at it -- and that's a really important legacy for music, and for our culture."
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