YOKO ONO: AVANT SAVANT

Yokoono2

One of the most controversial figures in rock history, Yoko Ono was an acquired taste for those willing to go with her past the edge of musical experimentalism. Unfairly maligned as the woman who broke up the Beatles, she is a classically trained musician and was one of New York’s most cutting edge artists before the Fab Four even cut a record. Born in Tokyo in 1933, she moved to New York in 1953 and attended Sarah Lawrence, but even then had trouble finding a form to fit into; her poetry was criticized for being too long, her short stories too short. Then she was befriended by avant-garde composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage.

Soon, Yoko was making a splash with her originality in post-Beatnik Greenwich Village, going places even Andy Warhol hadn’t dared with her films of 365 nude derrieres, her performance art (inviting people to cut her clothes off her), and her bizarre collages and constructions. Calledthe “High Priestess of the Happening,” she enthralled visitors to her loft with such art installations as tossing dried peas at the audience while whirling her long hair. Yoko Ono had an ability to shock, endless imagination, and a way of attracting publicity that P.T. Barnum himself would’ve envied!

 

When John Lennon climbed the ladder on that fateful day to peer at the artful affirmation Yoko created in her piece “Yes,” rock history was made. Their collaborations—The Plastic Ono Band, Bed-Ins, Love-Ins, Peace-Ins, and son Sean Lennon—have created a legacy that continues to fascinate a world that has finally grudgingly accepted and respected this bona fide original. Yoko’s singing style— howling and shrieking in a dissonant barrage—has been a major influence on the B52s and a generation of riot grrl bands.

Now Yoko Ono and her talented son, Sean, tour together and work on behalf of causes they are committed to—the environment, peace, and Tibet. Ono, whose sweet speaking voice belies the steely strength underneath that has enabled her to endure for so long, explains her sheroic journey in the preface she contributed to Gillian G. Gaar’s excellent book on women in music, She’s a Rebel. In it, she relates her pain at her father’s discouragement of her dream of becoming a composer, doubting her “aptitude” because of her gender. “‘Women may not be good creators of music, but they’re good at interpreting music’ was what he said.” Happy that times have changed, she points to the valiant efforts made by “women artists who kept making music despite overwhelming odds till finally the music industry had to realize that women were there to stay.”

In retrospect, Yoko Ono was breaking real musical ground when others were cranking out bubble gum pop and imitating—who else—The Beatles. Yoko’s feminism gets lost in the shuffle of the attention to her as an iconoclast. She was an enormous influence on awakening John’s interest in the women’s movement, and together they attended the international feminist conference in June of 1973 and together wrote songs inspired by the women’s movement, including “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” Much of Yoko’s musical output in the seventies was on the theme of feminism; her song “Sisters O Sisters” is one of her finest works, a reggae-rhythm number. Yoko’s sheroism lies in her intense idealism and her commitment to making this a better world.

 

“I’m a Witch. I’m a Bitch. I don’t care what you say.”

— Yoko Ono in 1973

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

JOAN BAEZ: NOT JUST BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND

440px-Joan_Baez_1963-original

Folk shero and guitarist Joan Baez was one of the women musicians who benefited from Peggy Jones’ career. Joan tapped her muse young —as a college student at Boston University. In 1960, at age nineteen, she became a household name overnight with her album Joan Baez. Fiercely political, her recordings such as “We Shall Overcome” point to her alignment with civil rights, and she was one of the best known Vietnam War protestors and worked for the No Nukes campaign as well. Oddly enough, one of the causes Joan never aligned herself with was feminism. “I don’t relate with feminism. I see the whole human race as being broken and terribly in need, not just women.” With her inspirational voice and her long dark hair, she gave a generation of women a model of activism, personal freedom, and self- determination. Baez lives by her own light—and in so doing, encourages us all to follow our consciences.

 

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

PEGGY JONES: LADY BO

Screenshot_2020-01-12 1

A woman who followed her own star and in so doing shattered several music stereotypes, Peggy Jones had music in her soul from the beginning; a dancer in her toddler years, she had performed in Carnegie Hall by the age of nine. As a youngster, the New Yorker was intrigued by the ukelele and moved onto the guitar. It never occurred to her that it would seem unusual for a woman to play guitar in the forties. “Little did I know that a female playing any instrument was like a new thing. I was breaking a lot of barriers.”

By the age of seventeen, she was producing and cutting singles such as “Honey Bunny Baby/Why Do I Love You?” and “Everybody’s Talking/I’m Gonna Love My Way.” In the late fifties, she and her friends and future husband Bobby Bakersfield formed The Jewels, a band made up of men and women, which was very unusual for the time; even more unique, the band included both black and white members. The Jewels got a lot of flack for their disregard for gender and racial boundaries, but they persisted in performing to enthusiastic audiences. Jones recalls fighting past the objections, “I just hung in there because this is what I wanted to do, and I had a real strong constitution as to the way I thought I should go about it.”

Peggy’s singular instrumentation is one of the components of Bo Diddley’s successful albums and national tours throughout the fifties and sixties. Diddley, famous for his signature rhythm, saw Jones walking down the street with her guitar one day, and, ever the savvy showman, recognized that having a pretty girl playing guitar in his band would be a very good thing for ticket and record sales. Peggy was ushered into the world of professional musicianship full-time with Diddley’s touring band. She learned a great deal, perfecting her guitar playing to the point where Diddley himself was abit threatened by her hot licks. She also saw the hardships of the road and experienced firsthand the color line that existed even for music stars. When they hit the South in the hearses they toured in, the band often had to stay in nonwhite hotels and had to use separate bathrooms for “coloreds.” They even figured out a way to cook in the car when they couldn’t find a restaurant that would serve black people.

However, Jones wasn’t content with just backup and liner note credits and took a hiatus from the nonstop Bo Diddley road show. She again wrote her own material and performed with The Jewels again. In the late sixties, she formed her own band and went out on the road. Peggy Jones was a true pioneer for women in music. Because
of her, the idea of a woman playing guitar—or any instrument in a band—became much more acceptable.

“I don’t think I went in with any attitude that ‘Oh, oh, I’m a girl, they’re not going to like my playing.’ So probably that might have been my savior, because I just went in as a musician and expected to be accepted as a musician.”

— Peggy Jones

 

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

BIG MAMA THORNTON: “STRONGER THAN DIRT”

Thornton_Big_Mama_01

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton checked out for good when the New Wave washed onto the music scene, dying of heart and liver failure in 1984. After fifty-seven years of hard living and a good deal of hard drinking, she was a mere shadow of herself in her last year, weighing only ninety-seven pounds. At the height of her careers, Thornton held center stage singing, drumming, and blowing harmonica with rhythm n’ blues luminaries Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Eddie Vinson, and Janis Joplin.

Her most remembered contribution to music history will always be the song “Hound Dog,” a number one hit in 1953 written especially for her by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It was as much her appearance as her blues style that influenced the writing of “Hound Dog.” “We wanted her to growl it,” Stoller later told Rolling Stone. Three years later, Elvis Presley covered Big Mama’s tune and took her signature song for his own. Like so many other black blues stars, she wasn’t mainstream enough; by 1957, her star had fallen so low she was dropped by her record label. And, like many other blues stars of the day, she was inadequately compensated for her work; although her incredible, soul-ripping rendition of “Hound Dog” sold two million copies, Big Mama received only one royalty check for $500.

Unstoppable, however, she hit the road, jamming with fellow blues masters, amazing audiences across America. Big Mama’s success came from her powerful presence on stage. She had begun performing publicly in the forties as an Atlanta teen where she danced in variety shows and in Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Review. Thornton’s own musical heroes were Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, whom she always held as great inspirations for her decision to pursue music as a career. Thornton was a completely self-taught musician who learned through watching, “I never had no one teach me nothing. I taught myself to sing and to blow the harmonica and even to play drums, by watching other people.”

 

James Brown, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, and Janis Joplin helped create a resurgence of interest in the blues in the sixties. Janis covered “Ball and Chain,” making that a huge hit to millions of fans who never knew Thornton’s version. In a sad repetition of history, the royalties to Big Mama’s “Ball and Chain” were contracted to her record company, meaning she didn’t get a dime from the sales of Joplin’s cover of the tune. However, because of the popularization, artists like Big Mama began to enjoy a crossover audience, and the spotlight they had previously been denied by a record-buying public producers believed preferred black music sanitized by singers such as Presley. With a new interest in the real thing, Big Mama started performing at blues festivals around the world, resulting in classic recordings such as “Big Mama in Europe,” and “Stronger than Dirt,” where she was backed by Muddy Waters, James Cotton, and Otis Spann. “Stronger than Dirt” featured Thornton’s interpretations of Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway” and Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” Big Mama’s final albums were “Sassy Mama!” and “Jail,” a live album recorded in prisons. In 1980, Thornton, Sippie Wallace, and Koko Taylor headlined at the unforgettable “Blues Is a Woman” show at the Newport Jazz Festival. Although Big Mama barely made enough money to live on through her music, her contribution to blues was enormous. She died penniless and alone in
a Los Angeles boardinghouse, decimated by drink and disappointed by her ill-treatment from the music industry. But she received tremendous respect from her peers and influences dozens of musicians, even to this day.

“At what point did rhythm n’ blues start becoming rock and roll? When the white kids started to dance to it.”

— Ruth Brown

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

TEN NOBEL WOMEN: SHEROES OF PEACE

440px-Remise_du_Prix_Sakharov_à_Aung_San_Suu_Kyi_Strasbourg_22_octobre_2013-18

The Nobel Peace Prize is one of the highest honors a human being can receive; I like to think of it as the designation for the truly evolved! The lore behind the prize is that Alfred Nobel was always interested in the cause of peace, but he was moved to do something about it by his friend, baroness Bertha von Suttner. She became involved in the international movement against war founded in the 1890s and inspired Nobel to back it financially. By January 1893, Alfred wrote the good baroness a letter of his intentions to establish a prize for “him or her who would have brought about the greatest step toward advancing toward the pacification of Europe.” Clearly this prestigious endowment has spread to include the whole world and includes women and men from many different ethnicities and backgrounds. Since 1901, over 100 Peace Prizes have been awarded. So far, women recipients have received the laurel for a 10 percent average, but as of the last decade, women are catching up. Here are ten priestesses of pacifism:

 

Baroness Bertha von Suttner was sheroic from the start when she went against her family’s aristocratic ways and worked as a governess and nanny (Does that remind you of any other titled nanny turned peace activist?!), going on to write an antiwar novel Die Waffen Nieder (Lay Down Your Arms) and receiving the prize on the designated day of December 10, 1905.

Jane Addams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 when she was near death. She had been a strong opponent of World War I and was a controversial choice for that reason; in fact, in an extremely strange pairing, her corecipient Nicholas Murray Butler had been her greatest critic. Her commitment to activism was so great she requested that the organizations she founded, Hull House and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), be listed on her gravestone!

One of Jane Addams’ partners in pacifism was Emily Greene Balch, who worked with her in WILPF and took over leadership of the league upon Addams’ death in 1935. In 1946, Balch received the illustrious honor wherein she was acknowledged for her practical, solution- oriented approach to peace in her special work with Slav immigrants, her staunchness in the face of being fired from Wellesley for her war protests, and her key role in obtaining the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Haiti in 1926 after a decade-long occupation.

After a gap of thirty years in which no women won, two sheroes took the prize for peace in 1976—Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan. Williams, a Belfast housewife, and Corrigan, who had lost two children in her family to the war between the Irish Republican Army and the British soldiers, were leaders in the movement to stop the senseless violence in Northern Ireland. They were cited as having demonstrated “what ordinary people can do to promote peace.”

 

In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the highest honor for her incredible contribution to social justice. By the age of twelve, the devout Catholic girl from Albania knew she wanted to devote her life to the poor and went to India soon after, teaching and working in the Calcutta slums. She founded a new order, The Missionaries of Charity, and continued the work that crossed all boundaries of race and religion. Her image came to symbolize kindness and spirit in action. Her tragic death one week after Princess Diana’s in September of 1997 saw the loss of two great advocates for the poor, the sick, and the disenfranchised.

The 1982 Nobel Peace Prize went to Alva Myrdal of Mexico, who shared it with her countryman Alfonso Garcia Robles, both of whose work in the disarmament movement has gone far to lessen the threat of global destruction. Myrdal has worked with peace and social justice since the thirties, and she has written one of the most important books on the subject. She had been passed over (along with many other peaceful sheroes) by the Nobel Committee for mostly male choices until such a hue and cry arose that the prize pickers listened! Alva described her Nobel moment as her “peak” but said the “Norwegian People’s Prize” was “dear to her heart.”

Aside from Mother Teresa, the Nobel shero receiving the most publicity has to be Burmese Buddhist and political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, who won in 1991. Deeply inspired by the work of Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San based her life and actions on what she calls “a profound simplicity,” delineated beautifully in her book Freedom From Fear. Her dedication to freeing the people of Burma from their government under a brutally oppressive dictatorship has gained the respect of the world. Aung San was jailed after winning an election that opposed the military government of Myanmar (Burma). She is not only the national shero of her country but of the world, for her unswerving courage in the face of a cruel and corrupt power.

 

Rigoberta Menchu Tum was a controversial choice the Nobel committee made in 1992. A Mayan Indian and Guatemalan native, Tum was criticized by many conservative pundits for her involvement in the guerilla rebel group of her country; they saw it as being in conflict with the Nobel ethics of commitment to nonviolence. The truth is, however, that even though her father and many friends and fellow campesinos were burned alive
in a peaceful protest at the Mexican embassy, she never participated in violence and has always worked toward peace and justice for her country within the social political arenas, explaining, “we understood revolutionary in the real meaning of the word ‘transformation.’ If I had chosen the armed struggle, I would be in the mountains now.”

Jody Williams received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) on October 10, 1997, the day after her forty- seventh birthday. Jody, a frank, down-to-earth New Englander has pulled off the impossible—getting governments around the world to agree to help in the cleanup of landmine fields across the globe. Unlike many other eco-political issues, this one has a very human face to it—hundreds of people, many children, are maimed and crippled for life with limbs simply blown off when they step on a landmine. The crisis has received international publicity that helped catapult it to resolution. Jody received some very important assistance in drawing the problem to the world’s attention from another shero, Princess Diana, whose disastrous death in Paris three months before the Nobel award prevented her from seeing the fruition of her landmine work in Jody’s triumph.

 

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: A FORCE FOR GOOD IN THE WORLD

Shinzō_Abe_and_Malala_Yousafzai_(1)_Cropped

Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani activist for female education and the rights of girls, as well as the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel prize. She was born in Mingora, Pakistan in the country’s Swat Valley in 1997. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, believed that she would one day become a politician, and would let her stay up late at night to discuss politics. She spoke about education rights for the first time at age 11, when her father took her to the local press club in Peshawar, on the topic, “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” At this time, the Taliban were frequently blowing up girls’ schools. When she heard that BBC Urdu news was looking for a schoolgirl to anonymously blog about her life and that the girl who had been about to do it had changed her mind due to her family’s fear of the Taliban, Malala, who was only in the seventh grade at the time, took on the task. BBC staff insisted she use a pseudonym: she was called “Gul Makai”, or “cornflower” in Urdu.

 

Malala hand-wrote notes which were then passed to a reporter to be scanned and sent to BBC Urdu by email. On January 3, 2009, her first post went up. Her descriptions continued to be published as military operations began, including the First Battle of Swat; eventually Malala’s school was shut down. By January 15th, the Taliban had issued an edict in Mingora that no girl was allowed to go to school – and by this point, they had already destroyed over one hundred girls’ schools. After the ban went into effect, they continued to destroy more schools. A few weeks later, girls were allowed to attend school, but only at coed schools; girls’ schools were still banned, and very few girls went back to school in the atmosphere of impending violence that hung over the area. On February 18th, local Taliban leader Maulana Fazlulla announced he would lift the ban on education of females, and girls would be able to attend school until March 17th, when exams were scheduled, but they would have to wear burqas.

 

After Malala finished her series of blog posts for the BBC on March 12th, 2009, a New York Times reporter asked her and her father if she could appear in a documentary. At this point, military actions and regional unrest forced the evacuation of Mingora, and Malala was sent to stay with country relatives. In late July, her family was reunited and allowed to return home, and after the documentary, Malala began to do some major media interviews. By the end of 2009, her identity as the BBC blogger had been revealed by journalists. She started receiving international recognition and was awarded a National Youth Peace Prize – a first-time award in Pakistan – by her country’s government. As things developed, she began to plan the Malala Education Foundation in 2012, whose purpose would be to help economically disadvantaged girls to be able to attend school. But in summer of that year, a group of Taliban leaders agreed to kill her – unanimously. As she rode the bus home in October, a masked gunman shot her; the bullet passed through her head, neck, and shoulder, and wounded two other girls.

 

Malala barely survived, but was airlifted to a Peshawar hospital, where doctors removed the bullet from her head in five hours. She then received specialized treatment in Europe with the Pakistani government bearing the cost. Since her recovery, she has continued to speak out both for education for girls and for the rights of women in general. At age 17, she was the co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of children and young people, sharing the prize with Kailash Satyarthi,a children’s rights activist from India. Malala is the youngest Nobel laureate ever. That year she also received an honorary doctorate from University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. On her 18th birthday, she opened a school in Lebanon not far from the Syrian border for Syrian refugees, specifically teenage girls, funded by the nonprofit Malala Fund. She is continuing her schooling as well as her activism. Learn more about her work at https://www.malala.org/

 

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

LIZZIE VELASQUEZ: BRAVE HEART

440px-Lizzie_Velasquez_2017

Lizzie Velasquez was born prematurely, weighing in at less than three pounds, in 1989 in Austin, Texas, and was diagnosed with a genetic disorder that leaves her unable to gain weight. To this day she has never weighed in at more 64 pounds, despite frequent and carefully timed intake of food. She is also blind in her right eye and vision-impaired in her left eye. In 2006, when she was 17, Lizzie was named the “World’s Ugliest Woman”; ever since then, she has been a spokesperson against bullying. In January 2014 she gave a TED talk titled, “How Do YOU Define Yourself”. Her YouTube channel has garnered 54 million views. Lizzie has also self-published a book with her mother called Lizzie Beautiful: The Lizzie Velasquez Story, and has also written two other books that offer personal stories and advice to teenagers. A documentary film about her life called A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story premiered at SXSW in 2015 and later aired on Lifetime. Lizzie continues to be a motivational speaker and author.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.