Sophie Tucker. Ma Rainey. Bessie Smith. Ethel Merman. Judy Garland. Anita O’Day. Joan Baez. Bette Midler. Madonna. Lucinda Williams.
What do these names have in common? According to Roxane Orgill’s book Shout, Sister, Shout: Ten Girl Singers Who Shaped a Century, the ten women listed above helped to shape popular music in the twentieth century, just like the title of the book declares.
Like me, you probably would not recognize most of the names listed, with perhaps the exception of Judy Garland and Madonna.
I never even knew that some of these women existed, yet the power of their talent influenced the culture of music in America.
I am known for haunting the library on a regular basis, and a few months ago I decided to use its online database to search for books on teaching children music. I came across Orgill’s book and although her target audience was YA (young adult), the book still fed my curious literary appetite. As she described their careers and their rise to stardom, I was intrigued. She included details about the costumes they wore on stage (even the shoes!) and the way they handled their money. She wrote about their fears of performing, their love of crowds, their hopes and dreams.
I realized how little I knew about the individuals who influenced our country through their music. Some of these women lived decent lives; some did not. Some, like Judy Garland, had their musical careers commandeered for them and struggled to find their place in the world. All of them worked hard and invested untold hours in their craft. I do not know the motivation behind their determination to succeed, but I was challenged.
These women shaped a century with their musical talent, but I wondered how much I had helped to shape the past century with my music. As a woman, I could empathize a little with the struggles these women had faced. As a musician, I could appreciate their hard work and determination. On a much smaller scale, I understood the pressure to perform (to minister, in my case), to always have a song prepared, to smile when I did not feel like it. I remember long practice times with my siblings, tiring recording sessions, quiet little classrooms where I worked on a piece, empty auditoriums where I practiced scales on the piano. I wish now that I had worked even harder on my music, that I had been more determined.
I think of other musicians who work faithfully on their craft. I am certain many are hidden from larger musical circles, practicing in secret, ignoring the calluses on their fingers, disregarding the hours of hard work, paying for voice lessons, not caring that no one notices the intricacies of their offertories. Many women and men have produced music that glorifies God, and they have worked hard in secret where only God sees.
If these women helped to shape a century with their music, how much more we need godly musicians and singers to keep producing music.
We need musicians and singers who may never know the effect of their music in this century, but who continue practicing and ministering and putting out their songs. America needs that music, the kind of music that can shape a century and change our country and our world.