DAWN LANDES – The Liberated Woman’s Songbook (own label)

The Liberated Woman's SongbookReleased in the wake of Women’s History Month, in tandem with producer Josh Kaufman, Landes has interpreted and expanded songs from The Liberated Woman’s Songbook, originally published in 1971, the year before Roe vs Wade, with a chronologically ordered selection of women’s activism numbers from 1830 to 1970, with messages that are still timely today. It starts in 1830 with the traditional ballad ‘Hard Is The Fortune Of All Womankind’, originally recorded by Buell Kazee is from 1928 and subsequently by Peggy Seeger in 1954 and Joan Baez in 1961 as ‘The Wagoner’s Lad’, which switches between the voice of a young lass bemoaming of her suitor has gone off now he’s made a fortune and him saying how her folks didn’t want him calling because he was poor. The message of the title is spelt out in the first verse “Oh hard is the fortune of all womankind/They’re always controlled, they’re always confined/Controlled by their parents until they are brides/Then slaves to their husbands for the rest of their lives”.

Written by Fanny Gage in 1852 as ‘One Hundred Years Hence’, the year after she organised a women’s convention, ‘One Hundred Years’ is a bluesy steady shuffle rather overoptimistically envisioning a brighter future when “Lying, cheating and fraud will be laid on the shelf/Men will neither get drunk, nor be bound up in self/But all live together, good neighbors and friends…Then woman, man’s partner, man’s equal will stand/While beauty and harmony govern the land”.

Moving to 1866 and another covered by Seeger, ‘The Housewife’s Lament’, the longest track at over five minutes and taken at a suitably wearied pace with strings and sparse piano, was written as a diary entry by Sarah A. Price of Ottawa Illinois whose sons were all killed in the Civil War and pretty much does what it says in the tin as she enumerates the daily drudgeries (“There’s too much of worriment goes into a bonnet/There’s too much of ironing goes into a shirt/There’s nothing that’s worth all the time you spend on it/There’s nothing that lasts us but trouble and dirt… It’s sweeping at six and it’s dusting at seven/It’s vittles at eight and it’s dishes at nine/It’s potting and panning from ten till eleven/We scarce break our fast till we plan how to dine”).

Giving it a new piano arrangement (it was originally to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’), ‘Keep Woman in Her Sphere’ dates from The Woman Suffrage Campaign Song Book of 1882 and is credited to a D. Estabrook, though this might in fact have been Experience Estabrook, who was appointed attorney general of Nebraska territory in 1855, and unfolds as a satire against those who opposed suffrage (“I saw a man in tattered garb/Forth from the grog-shop come/He squandered all his cash for drink and starved his wife at home/I asked him “Should not woman vote”/He answered with a sneer–“I’ve taught my wife to know her place/Keep woman in her sphere”), the last verse announcing its true intent (“I met an honest thoughtful man/Not many days ago/Who pondered deep all human law/The honest truth to know/I asked him “What of woman’s cause?”/The answer came sincere –“Her rights are just the same as mine/Let woman choose her sphere”.

Moving into the 20th century, the first of three pertaining to industrial issues, the lazily strummed ‘The Factory Girl’ isn’t the one popularly known via The Roches, Rhiannon Giddens and The Chieftains with Sinéad O’Connor, but, a variation of an early blues number from 1906 (though an early broadside was published in 1830) collected by Alan Lomax’s father John from a gypsy singer named Rose Treventham in Ft. Worth. It details the conditions mill workers with the narrator getting married, quitting the dispiriting work and looking forward to staying in bed, with its catchy chorus of “Pity me my darling/ Pity me I say/Pity me my darling and carry me away”.

The first of the two best known numbers, notably through the version by Judy Collins, ‘Bread And Roses’, here a simple acoustic marching song, was a poem by James Oppenheim first published in The American Magazine in December 191l and inspired by a line in that speech by American women’s suffrage activist Helen Todd, and came to be associated with the textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, between January and March 1912 appealing for both fair wages and dignified conditions.

The second industrial number, from 1929, is ‘Mill Mother’s Lament’ which, sung to foot stamp and finger click percussion marching beat and minimal piano accompaniment, Mill Mother’s Lament was written by workers’ activist Ella May Wiggins, a 28 year-old abandoned by her husband and pregnant by a fellow mill worker where she worked a weekly seventy-two-hour night shift for nine dollars, and performed during the Loray Mill strike that summer, with Wiggins subsequently shot dead at a roadblock by officials financed by the mill, the song being sung at her funeral. That’s followed appositely by the slow lurch, earworm catchy and chorus friendly ‘Cotton Mill Girls’ from the following year, a traditional number (but sometimes credited to Hedy West) speaking to the condition these workers laboured under (“us kids worked twelve hours a day/For fourteen cents of measly pay”) .

The second familiar number is ‘Which Side Are You On?’ a union song best known as sung by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie but actually written in1931 by Florence Reece, the wife of Sam Reece, a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky, in response to being terrorised by the local sheriff and his men. Here, given a traditional folk marching beat feel, it becomes a lyric mash up with Aunt Molly Jackson’s ‘I Am a Union Woman, who, writing simultaneously with Reece but without knowing her, used the same melody, with Landes singing the part of Reece and Kanene Pipkin of The Lone Bellow counterpointing and overlapping her vocals to Jackson’s lyrics.

It ends with two from 1970, first, with an almost easy rolling Fairgound Attraction flavour, is ‘There Was A Young Woman Who Swallowed A Lie’, a feminist parody reworking of the children’s nursey rhyme by Meredith Tax, from the Arlington Street Church Women’s Caucus and part of the Bread and Roses collective (“There was a young woman who swallowed a rule/”Live to serve men,” she learned it in school/She swallowed the rule to hold up the lie/We all know why she swallowed that lie”) and, finally, the brief ‘Liberation, Now!, written by Betty Friedan (author of The Feminine Mystique) and composer and children’s author Jacquelyn Reinach for the National Organization for Women in advance of the Women’s Strike for Equality August 26, 1970, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment.

An essential album for the sisterhood, whatever gender you may be, that proudly wears its heart and soul on its sleeve, it barely scratches the surface of what’s actually in the songbook (she demoed 25 of the 77), so maybe when the month rolls round again next year, a second edition might hopefully be rolling off the press.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.dawnlandes.com

‘Hard Is The Fortune Of All Womankind’ – official video:

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