How was your May? Mine was full of BLUES. Not the feeling, but the music.
Woman In All The Blues
During May in the Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1 project over on Teachable, we launched Muriel’s striking and innovative scarf design: Woman In All The Blues. As its name suggests, this design uses all the blues in the Yarnadelic range by John Arbon Textiles for its gradient effect, while the title is a play on the name of the song that inspired the shapes used as a motif: Woman Blue.
Muriel’s design takes its distinctive giant lacy holes motif from the guitar riff in Judy Roderick’s version of the song, recorded in the 1960s. Muriel created a version of the song on her 30 note componium and used the shape of this part as the basis for the big lace holes.
The scarf is a meditative knit. An intuitive mix of slipped stitches and garter stitch create a grid which suggests the grid on a componium punch-card and which is also fully reversible. Giant lacy holes – created using Lucy Neatby’s Big Lace Holes (Ravelry link) technique – are placed over this grid, suggesting the picked shapes of the repeated guitar riff (picked out in blue on the componium punch-card illustration below).
The difficult origins of the song
Judy Roderick did not write this song herself. The first recorded source is an unknown young Black girl in prison for murder from whom folklorists and music collectors John and Alan Lomax originally took the song – the original Woman Blue. The Lomaxes then added verses to her words, and published it in their book American Ballads and Folk Songs where Judy presumably found it, made further changes, and then recorded it. These days it is euphemistically described as “a folk standard” and it has been recorded by many white artists under the revised name, I Know You Rider. There are many layers of erasure and appropriation to this story, and it is sadly not a rare one. There are countless similar instances in the history of popular music. There is much to consider and unpack here regarding the enormous debt and acknowledgement owed to Black musicians – and particularly Black women – whose talent, inventiveness and resilience have defined and shaped popular music.
As we began exploring these bigger themes, using Woman Blue as a kind of microcosm, I found myself deeply bothered by the memory of a single secondary school music lesson in which we briefly discussed the origins of Rock & Roll. Our teacher explained matter of factly that all Rock & Roll has its roots in Blues music that, in turn, has its origins in music from the African continent… and that this music was brought to America on slave ships. I remember it very clearly as it was a confusing lesson that left me with many questions, and seemed to gloss over some important areas that deserved more time and space for learning. That was the single mention I can remember of the influence of Black musicians on popular music in an education that included six years in secondary school; an AS level exam in music performance; 8 Grades on the Flute and 7 on the Piano; a Sonic Art & Composition MA; and a PhD in The Domestic Soundscape.
The only mention.
In efforts to correct the gaps in my sonic education, the last few years have found Muriel and I digging through the archives in search of the original Woman Blue. We also commissioned a new artwork by artist Lorna Hamilton-Brown RCA, MBE that celebrates and tends her memory: Woman Blue – Elevate. This incredibly moving piece features machine knitted panels – one in Yarnadelic yarn and one in sparkly lurex – to uplift and acknowledge the overlooked woman who is the first source of the song. As Lorna says of this work, “you have to look at the girl’s words and what she said. She is going to have her day of fame”.
Read more about Woman Blue – Elevate on Lorna’s website here.
During May, I assembled a sonic essay for Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1 that speaks in sound to the many layers of this story and our search. You can hear it here and do not have to be enrolled on Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1 to listen.
The sonic essay walks through the different worlds that we explored while trying to find any reference or mention of the original Woman Blue. It includes the early American Blues guitar music that was clearly Judy Roderick’s biggest influence, and snippets from the precious and problematic archive created by the Lomaxes. We hear the fantastic women who worked with the Lomaxes to ensure that some of the Black music held in that archive was properly contextualised – Zora Neale Hurston; Vera Hall and Bessie Jones – and archival recordings made at Parchman Penitentiary with Black women prisoners in the 1930s (the closest we will ever get to hearing the original context for the song Woman Blue). The Sonic Essay closes with the contemporary Black musicians and artists who are repurposing the archive and the historic legacies of Black music to speak to contemporary social contexts, and to the conditions and injustices that continue to impact Black lives in America today: Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa); Rhiannon Giddens and Leyla McCalla; and artists and labels who are striving to ensure that the music of the ancestors is kept alive and properly contextualised – artists like the Gee’s Bend Quilters and Toshi Reagon.
As well as the sonic essay and detailed playlist notes, this chapter in Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1 contains the pattern for Muriel’s scarf; a video explaining how she arrived at her final design; and a film with artist Lorna Hamilton-Brown RCA, MBE describing the process behind Woman Blue – Elevate (which you can also see on Lorna’s own website here).
For much of the last century, pop music writers and the latter-day institutions that support and promote their claims have been anything but kind to Black women musicians. Plenty of people would argue otherwise – citing, for instance, the long-running tendency of pop music writers to think in hagiographic terms about the “mothers” and “empresses,” “the queens” (so many queens!) and “high priestesses” who have dazzled and destroyed audiences from one generation to the next… And they’d be right to call our attention to the ways that these sisters, so beloved the world over, are worthy of monarchical metaphors. They built kingdoms of sound… Yet these sonically electrifying worlds are ones that were and still remain largely controlled and engineered by a marketplace that they’ve never run. It’s an operation that made their sounds available to the masses and gave wide, technological access to others to mimic and enjoy them.
– Daphne A. Brooks, Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound
Our guiding star for this project has been the landmark tome by Daphne A. Brooks, Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound. This book is absolutely amazing and my favourite book of all time ever. It has opened my eyes to the depths of the omissions in my musical education so far, yet it’s also gone a long way towards filling in those gaps. Not only does this book contain a mountain of research; it also models ingeniously loving and intersectional feminist approaches for interpreting, cherishing, and understanding Black women’s music and its central role in shaping of the recorded music industry.
Liner Notes for the Revolution contains three incredibly excellent things:
- Brilliant and inspiring ideas.
- Painstaking reparative intellectual labour that lovingly cares for the work of Black women musicians (routinely overlooked in the overwhelmingly white and male centred mythologies and histories of popular music).
- A vital and celebratory pantheon of heroines.
I think about this book all the time and am enormously grateful to Daphne A. Brooks for writing it – thank you so much. I will do a more fulsome review of the book in coming weeks, but couldn’t talk about Woman In All The Blues and this chapter of Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1 without mentioning this magnificent work of scholarship and repair.
As well as this book, the following books have proved incredibly helpful in our search for the original Woman Blue:
Blues Legacies and Back Feminism – by Angela Y. Davies
The Cooking Gene – by Michael W. Twitty
Bessie Smith – by Jackie Kay
Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage – by Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes
For The Ancestors – by Bessie Jones
All That She Carried – by Tiya Miles
Blues People – by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka
Sing it Pretty – A Memoir – by Bess Lomax Hawes
The music used in the Sonic Essay was either purchased from Smithsonian Folkways Records or, wherever possible, directly from artists on Bandcamp and labels such as Music Maker, who are transparent and ethical regarding the compensation of artists recorded by their label. I used Mixcloud because it is a paid-for service that includes royalties for artists whose work is streamed.
Thank you for joining us for this adventure in knitting and sound.
Yours in all the Blues,