Aretha Franklin, First Woman in Fact and in our Hearts

Many have paid tribute to Aretha Franklin but few have outlined all her achievements as a First Woman:

     –First Woman inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame (and second in the UK)

     –First Woman to have 100 titles on Billboard’s top R&B/hip-hop songs chart

     –First Woman to win the newly created Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. She won this award in 1968, the year it was created. The first eight years the award was given, she won every year. She later received the award three more times and was nominated for the award a total of twenty-three times. She won seven other Grammys as well.

Aretha was an innate musician. As a child she taught herself to play the piano by ear. She was ten years old when she began to sing in her father’s church. She toured on the gospel circuit and made her first secular album in 1961. Her last album was produced just last year. She has so many Grammys, degrees, and medals her mantle must have sagged from the weight—if one mantle could even hold them all.

When musicians we loved as younger people and continued to follow as adults take their final bows, we reminisce about all the joy they gave us through the songs they sang. We do reflect on their lives, their struggles, and their successes, but more often it is the music that connects us to them, and to the world. A favorite tune becomes an “ear worm,” and rather than be annoyed at its intrusion, we rejoice in all the blessings it bestowed upon us.

We remember the special places where we heard those songs played, during our first kiss, while we pondered ending a relationship, when our love was overwhelming, when our hearts were broken. We relive those times, we rejoice in them, and we regret the passing of the voice of those memories.

For me, that connection feels even stronger with Aretha Franklin. She sang words that defined who we were, that gave us power as women, that wrenched our souls. She spoke forwomen and she made us feel like “A Natural Woman.” It is as if she, through her music, did exactly what that song said, “When my soul was in the lost and found, You came along to claim it.” Aretha Franklin built us up and comforted us in our struggles. It is with enormous “Respect,” that “I Say a Little Prayer,” for her, and for me, that I might be the woman of her songs.

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Ella Higginson, First Poet Laureate of Washington State

In 1931 the state of Washington named Ella Rhoads Higginson as its first poet laureate. Not its First Woman poet laureate, its first poet laureate, period. Higginson was known throughout the United States for her depictions, both in prose and poetry, of the Pacific Northwest. And yet she received only a minimal obituary in the local paper when she died, and her name was lost to history. This changed in 2014, the day that Professor Laura Laffrado discovered Higginson’s archives in a Western Washington University library.

Ella Rhoads was born in Kansas, raised in Oregon, and settled with her husband, Russell Higginson, in Bellingham, Washington. She first published a poem when she was 14. Her early poems were published anonymously, as was the case for many women. After she married, she began to write under her own name (actually her husband’s name). She wrote more than 300 poems, published short stories, a novel, a travel book, and a newspaper column. Her novel, Mariella; of Out-West, was compared to Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, and Émile Zola. Her travel book, written over four summers spent in Alaska, poetically describes this unknown land, with words like “the mists, light as thistledown and delicately tinted as wild-rose petals.” The rest of the country felt invited to this distant land that was almost foreign to them.

Higginson was also an editor, having learned typesetting and editorial writing at the age of 15, while still living in Oregon. She was an editor for the Portland, OregonWest Shoreliterary magazine and an associate editor of the Pacificmagazine in Seattle.

Higginson, like many First Women, helped other women to succeed. In 1912 she was campaign manager for fellow Bellingham resident Frances C. Axtell when she ran for the Washington State House of Representatives, even though no women had served in the legislature since the state’s founding in 1889. Axtell was elected as was Nena J. Croake from Tacoma, the First two Women to serve in the Washington State Legislature.

Professor Laffredo, the hero who rescued Ella Rhoads Higginson from the dustbins of history, has given her a new life. Not only is her work being studied by Laffredo’s students, her archives are being used as a means to teach a new generation how to do research. One can only hope that this education will lead to the discovery of more women who have been erased from history.

 

P.S. Thank you to The Seattle Times for writing a superb article about Higginson and Laffrado in their Pacific NW magazine, and for re-writing her obituary to recognize her significance.

 

Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman

screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-12-58-35-pmLast weekend I attended a concert by the Lake Union Civic Orchestra and found a First Woman in the program. But, first, about the concert.

I was attracted to the concert because they were playing two fanfares: Aaron Copland’s stately Fanfare for the Common Man and Joan Tower’s energetic Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. The Copland I knew well, but I had never heard the Tower piece before.

Although they are scored for the same instruments (with Tower using a bit more percussion), they are a contrast in gender. Copland’s fanfare is a majestic melody, fit for royalty. It is often used for sports spectaculars, corporate promotions, commercials, and space flights. Tower’s fanfare is more frenetic, much like a woman’s life. And yet the repeated patterns exchanged between instruments felt like cooperation between disparate elements, an art women learned long ago.

One of the most entrancing parts of the concert evening was watching the percussion players. Two of the three were women and they were amazing. During the Copland fanfare, the bass drum player struck the massive drum with her whole body, not just her arm, lifting herself off her feet. During the Tower fanfare, the timpanist made sounds on the kettledrums I had never heard before. Mallets, sticks, wrists, and flickering fingers flew through the Tower piece.

Joan Tower says her fanfare honors “women who take risks and are adventurous.” Doesn’t that include most women? Aren’t most women “uncommon” in that they are capable of amazing things? Perhaps Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman should be the theme song for my First Woman Project.

First Woman: Tower dedicated her fanfare to Marin Alsop who, as music director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was the First Woman conductor of a major U.S. metropolitan orchestra. Alsop is also music director of the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra. She has won prizes and recognition for her conducting throughout the world. One of her first awards, the Koussevitzky Prize awarded to the outstanding student conductor at Tanglewood, was also presented to Seiji Ozawa and Michael Tilson Thomas when they were at Tanglewood as students.

You can see Marin Alsop conducting Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdqjcMmjeaA

Ginny Baker – Fictional First Woman

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-9-53-47-am       I would like to have been a fly on the wall when Rick Singer and Kevin Falls “pitched” their idea for a new television series about a woman baseball player who makes it to the major leagues. The series, aptly named Pitch, debuted last week on Fox.

Ginny Baker is the pitcher who is given a change to play in the major leagues. Her debut performance is abysmal, but she bounces back and, although she doesn’t finish her second game, pitches long enough to earn credit for a win. The story, of course, is about relationships: the relationship she has with a former teammate who is her restrained cheerleader, the complicated relationship she had with her father, and relationships with the men who see her as an intruder on their turf. I understand the relationship with her mother will be introduced later in the series.

Although the producers say that they didn’t have a particular race in mind for the part, they cast the black actress Kylie Bunbury, and now the writers are free to introduce thematic material around her color. In the first episode much is made of the fact that the number on her uniform is 43, one off from Jackie Robinson (who, by the way, has the only number in baseball retired by the entire league).

The possibility that some television executives thought this might make good television is certainly a sign of the times. That the Major Baseball League (MLB) is a partner in the venture, allowing the producers to use their stadiums and logos, is even more remarkable. On the show Ginny plays on the San Diego Padres.

The real San Diego Padres aired the show on their video board the day before the series ran nationally. Their advertising for the game encouraged fans to bring their “girls and families” to the park for this event. Perhaps this is all a marketing ploy to get more girls to major league baseball games, but I can’t forget one image from the show. Ginny Baker arrives at Petco Park and a mob awaits her. As she is rushed through the crowd she sees a small, blonde, white girl in her daddy’s arms holding a sign that says, “I’m next.”

Viola Davis – Emmy Winner

     “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” [Viola Davis]

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 2.44.45 PM     Viola Davis won the Emmy this week for Lead Actress in a Drama Series for playing Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder. For a graduate of Juilliard, winning an acting award is not surprising. However, Davis’ distinction is remarkable because she is the First African-American Woman to win an Emmy as a Lead Actress. Davis reminds us that she is also “of a certain age and a certain hue,” making her award even more exceptional.

Juilliard is not an opportunity one might have expected for Viola Davisd. Born on a former plantation in South Carolina, Davis’ father was a horse groomer and trainer and her mother a maid and factory worker. She was raised in Rhode Island, a minority in her community, taunted with racist insults. Poverty was constant. She stole and scavenged food when she was hungry, tied her braids with the clips from loaves of bread, and moisturized with lard.

Davis has a long list of credits in film, television and theatre. When she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the movie Doubt, she demonstrated the depth of her talent; the Oscar was awarded for a total of nine minutes of screen time. She has also won two Tony awards, one as Best Featured Actress in a play and one as Best Actress in a play. For the most part, however, she has played supporting, not starring roles, from a crack-addicted mother to a rape counselor. Her dedication to the craft, however, is evident. “Even when I get the fried-chicken special of the day,” she says, referring to her smaller roles, “I have to dig into it like it’s filet mignon.”

When Shonda Rimes was ready to cast Annalise Keating for “ How to Get Away with Murder” her first choice was Viola Davis. An absorbing story for audience members, with its twists and turns, passion and complexity, the most memorable scene for many of us “of a certain age” is the one where we watch this powerful, calculating woman remove her makeup and wig. She tells it like it is, in her acting and when she receives awards. Not surprising for a woman whose mother was also a civil rights activist.