John Bass

John Bass is the director of the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes College. He researches and teaches about Memphis music, and performs as a guitarist.

Why is being a 'girl drummer' still a noteworthy thing?

By Published: June 09, 2019 5:17 PM CT

When I was asked to write an opinion piece about gender equity in music, I was both flattered and hesitant. As you see my photo and byline, you may be asking why a white, male college professor is writing this in the first place, and what he could possibly say about the subject. I ask the same question.

It’s one of many questions I have.

Rather than feign wisdom on the subject — although I will give some history I’ve learned along the way — I hope to serve as a messenger and share what others have taught me.

<strong>John Bass</strong>

John Bass

It should come as no great surprise that women have largely been excluded from or written out of the history of Memphis music. When we talk of the greats from the city, the list usually begins (and sometimes ends) with names such as B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Al Green, Otis Redding, George Coleman, Alex Chilton, Three 6 Mafia and Justin Timberlake. Even when scholars and experts take deeper intentional dives, the results still wane. Take Chris Herrington’s and Jared Boyd's tremendous three-part “Memphis Music Road Map.” By my count, of the 110 recordings listed, 16 are by named women artists or bands with women members, and only six feature women in roles other than vocalists.

That’s why when I teach my students about Memphis jazz, the two people I start with are Memphis Minnie and Lillian “Lil” Hardin Armstrong. Lizzie Douglas, whose stage name was Memphis Minnie, was among the first wave of blues artists who recorded during the 1920s and 1930s. Her compositions became blues standards — Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” for example, was a remake of her song, with Kansas Joe McCoy, about the 1929 flood of the Mississippi Delta — but the main reason I love teaching about her is because her performances often flipped gender stereotypes. She was first and foremost a guitarist, and men sang with her.

Lil Hardin was born and raised in Memphis and studied at Fisk University. Most people know her as Louis Armstrong’s second wife, if they know her at all, but her contributions run much deeper than that.

Hardin played an essential role in guiding Armstrong’s career in the late 1920s in Chicago, where he made his first recordings and became an international star, altering the course of popular music around the world. But she was also the pianist for the group and composer of many of the pieces that would become hits and standard repertoire of jazz for years to come. I don’t think it is an understatement to say that the arc of popular culture in the last century would not have been the same without the driving artistic force of a woman from Memphis.

Chris Herrington: A Memphis Music Road Map: The Early Years

Chris Herrington, Jared Boyd: A Memphis Music Road Map: The Golden Age

Chris Herrington, Jared Boyd: A Memphis Music Road Map: The Modern Era

Even when highlighting women’s stories, though, I have to question whether I am helping or adding to the problem. It makes me feel good, sure, but is it doing good?

Things are changing and there is progress in terms of awareness, but as Jared Boyd detailed in his article about the very cool GRRL festival last month, there is still work to be done and questions to ask. Why is being a “girl drummer” still a noteworthy thing? Why do we need GRRL to create positive spaces for musicians to feel comfortable with their music and their identity?

Jared Boyd: GRRLs just want to play music

Why am I writing this? It is because of the conversations I have had over the years about how things that have been easy for me have been difficult for others. My heart aches to hear stories from Joyce Cobb, who had to overcome racial and gender-based discrimination I will never know, or those of Dawn Hopkins, who despite being one of the top sound engineers in Memphis (she mixes the concerts we enjoy at the Levitt Shell), has had to fight the very idea that a woman can do what she does… and so many more colleagues, musicians and professionals in the city.

They all have stories. I am ashamed to be complicit in the system that leads to these stories and am driven to do something so that my daughter has fewer of them when she grows up.

Mostly, though, I am writing this because of my students. As the director of the Mike Curb Institute at Rhodes College, a large part of my job is to create experiential learning opportunities. Not surprisingly, women have been at the forefront of student leadership in the program and are the main reason for its success. In the community, women have also been the first to step up to partner with us and to establish lasting relationships. I was hoping to have space here to shout out many of them, celebrate their work, and express my gratitude, but that will have to be another (much longer) story for another time.

Instead, I want to share a recent conversation I had and how it hit me like a sledgehammer. Harlan Hutton, a rising senior at Rhodes, is a gifted songwriter and performer (check out her first single, “Anyways”) and will be working with me this summer in the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies, an intensive research program that begins this week.

As her topic about gender equity in music began to take shape, she shared with me something I had never thought about and will never forget. She said that as a woman, she feels constant pressure to be near-perfect, even in rehearsals and songwriting sessions. This was the first time in my 42 years that I realized inequity not only exists in terms of professional opportunities or pay, but it also exists in the very situations where creativity is born — the system is rigged to its core.

When I enter those same situations, I am laughably far from perfect and come to them with openness and vulnerability. In fact, I'm not sure I could even be creative if I didn’t. But openness and vulnerability are not nearly as dangerous for me as they are for others who do not look like me.

I also realized that I am part of the problem. As someone whose job is to foster creative situations, I have been building exclusive spaces based upon how I feel creative. Looking back on my teaching, that’s why white men always step up to improvise first, for example, and why they are quicker to put themselves out there and take risks — the stakes are not as high. So that’s the big thing I have learned and what I am going to work on. I still have more questions, but I will keep asking them and will make sure I listen to the answers I get.


Mike Curb Institute at Rhodes College Memphis Minnie Lil Hardin Armstrong GRRL Fest

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