It’s My Way! is the first album by folk singer Buffy Sainte- Marie, released in April 1964 by Vanguard Records. It is a seminal folk album, marking the beginning of an extraordinary career for an extraordinary artist. The album is both scathing and topical, examining the plight of indigenous Americans and critiquing war in the album’s most famous and enduring song, The Universal Soldier.
Buffy Sainte-Marie is an indigenous American-Canadian musician, educator, artist and activist. Blacklisted by American radio stations during the 1970s, her music has nevertheless endured. She has managed to successfully cross over from folk protest music to mainstream success, winning an Oscar in 1982 for the song Up Where We Belong which was the iconic song performed by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes in the film An officer and a Gentleman.
It was Donovan’s version of The Universal Soldier that was the first protest song I heard. It led me to Dylan and Masters of War when I was about fourteen and both songs continue to move me. It is Buffy Sainte-Marie’s version that I prefer to Donovan’s these days as her authenticity and originality touches me deeply.
The album sounds current. The vocal is strong and powerful, particularly on the track Ananias which is the one I have listened to most during my weeks of listening to and appreciating this album. Buffy Sainte-Marie has a voice as distinct and powerful as her contemporaries, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. Although widely known and highly respected she is arguably not the international household name that she deserves to be, most likely due to her heritage and the racist misogyny that too often undermines women’s careers.
Buffy Sainte-Marie has a string of awards and credits to her name that indicate her power, relevance and artistry. She has remained a life-long advocate and activist for the rights of indigenous peoples. She has the gravitas and grace of a true elder, a woman who rightly commands great respect and who stands up to multiple listenings.
Umm Kulthum was born Fāṭima ʾIbrāhīm es-Sayyid el-Beltāǧī on 31 December 1898, or 4 May 1904. Birth registaration was not enforced in Egypt at that time. She died 3rd February 1975. She was a singer, songwriter, and film actress working between the 1920s and the 1970s. She was given the honorific title Kawkab al-Shar meaning Star of the East.
Umm Kulthum was renowned and admired for her vocal ability and style. She sold over 80 million records worldwide, making her one of best-selling singers of all time from the Arab World. In her native Egypt she is regarded as a national icon and has been dubbed the voice of Egypt and the fourth pyramid
Part of my reason for undertaking this Listening to Women project was to ensure I explored music beyond my usual ranges of taste and experience. Music from different cultures and traditions is much more readily available now than when I was growing up and discovering music for myself in my teens. In the 70s and 80s I was listening to music via Radio 1, Top of the Pops and whatever my parents were playing – which to my good fortune was curiously eclectic, ranging from Chris Barber to Earth, Wind and Fire to Tammy Wynette. The latter will always have a place in my heart.
My tastes have expanded over my life but have been firmly western for the most part. Furthermore, I have realised that I was listening to a lot of men, with women being in the minority of artists that I regularly turned to. This lack of balance is a reflection of the wider culture and the sheer dominance of male voices, musicians, producers in the music industry. I am making a deliberate and concerted effort to address these imbalances and to seek out work by women, not only in music but in every field.
Listening to Umm Kulthum has been a beautiful experience. Her voice is complex, with range and depth that has a profound emotional impact. She has been lauded by fellow artists, as diverse as Bob Dylan and Maria Callas and it is clear why. Her voice reaches in and demands a response. I listen and find myself emotionally engaged in her music, committed to it, following her voice note by note. She sings in a language I don’t speak but her music transcends that. I have looked at lyrical translations but of course in English the words do not have the same resonance. I decided not to worry too much about that and to focus on the sound, the emotion, the sheer beauty of her work.
Umm Kulthum was politically engaged and post the revolution in Egypt in 1952 she became persona non grata for a while. Her music was banned from airplay. Nasser insisted that she be restored to her prominent position and even timed his broadcasts to not interfere with her performances on the radio. She became friends with Nasser – who is of course a problematic figure. Her story illustrates yet again that politically engaged artists can and often do face danger in countries and regimes where their work is considered a threat to power.
The Litanies of Satan is the debut album by American avant-garde artist Diamanda Galás, released in the UK by Y Records in 1982; it was released in the USA in 1989.
The text for “The Litanies of Satan” is taken from a section of Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire. According to the album notes the work “devotes itself to the emeraldine perversity of the life struggle in Hell.”
I have nothing but admiration for Diamanda Galas and her ferocious commitment to using her art to speak up for victims, whether that be victims of the Aids crisis, political injustice or war crimes. She is utterly unique and uncompromising in her presentation of her work. The energy and passion of it is indisputable.
I have been listening to her work for the past couple of weeks and considering her artistic courage and absolute refusal to produce within the narrow parameters of what is so wearyingly expected of women. She is bold and brave.
I found her work deeply upsetting and a difficult listen. I don’t know if I can go back to it. I am pleased to have heard it and to have spent some time with it but It has disturbed me greatly. Perhaps that is a good thing.
Mercedes Sosa en Argentina is a double album by Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa. It was recorded live at the Teatro Opera de Buenos Aires in February 1982 and released on the Philips label. The concert and recording marked Sosa’s return to Argentina after three years in exile.
Described as the driving force behind the nueva canción movement, singer Mercedes Sosa was born and raised in Tucumán, Argentina. She began her career as a performer at 15 after winning a radio hosted competition. The nueva canción movement was a political movement of protest music that spread across Argentina and Chile during the 1960s. The movement was attacked as part of the 1973 CIA-sponsored coup which overthrew democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende.
Because of her repertoire of songs championing human rights and democracy, Sosa was treated as a serious threat by the military regime which came to power in Argentina. In 1975 she was harassed and arrested during a live performance. Audience members were also arrested and imprisoned. Death threats followed and she left Argentina in 1979, and she lived in exile in Paris and Madrid for three years, before returning to Argentina in triumph in 1982.
Over her long career, Sosa collaborated with artists as diverse as Joan Baez, Pata Negra and Luciano Pavarotti. She was loved and admired across Latin America and lived a life of extraordinary musicianship, political principle and engagement in human rights and other causes.
Mercedes en Argentina is a remarkable and moving listen. Her voice is extraordinarily rich and textured, exuding humanity, compassion and integrity. Listening to it led me to the equally powerful Misa Criolla, composed by Ariel Ramirez in 1964. This was one of the first non-Latin masses, written in the vernacular. It is a mass composed using folk and traditional instruments alongside soloists and choirs. Ramirez recorded with Sosa in 1999. It is a beautiful and haunting work and can be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJPZXSpxBkE
What a complete delight and pleasure it has been to spend time listening to the undisputed Queen of Soul. Her perfect voice, immaculate diction and sheer emotional depth and authenticity have helped me in the past couple of weeks to find some inspiration and joy.
There is a plethora of writing about Aretha Franklin and every plaudit she has is richly deserved. I am not going to add anything other than my respect and admiration for her.
I am particularly moved to learn that she held women’s rights and civil rights as central to her life and values. Not only this but she quietly and privately supported the struggle for the rights of indigenous Americans. She refused to perform at Trump’s inauguration as an act of protest from artists and musicians. She led a principled life and is a powerful role model for women everywhere, not just in music. She spoke up for Angela Davis when she was arrested and jailed in 1970 telling Jet magazine :
“Angela Davis must go free … Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people.”
I was spoilt for choice over what link to share, so here’s a couple. Treat your ears:
It’s World Poetry Day today – a lovely thing in such dark and difficult days. I’ve posted this poem before, a couple of times, because it becomes more relevant and sinister by the day. It is part of my 2018 collection, Poems from the Swamp which explores the psychogeography of an imagined version of the East Marsh where I live; it’s material reality and the unconscious and mythic layers that exist beyond the thinnest of veils. Each poem is written from the point of view of characters I have created. These characters now inhabit the novel I am currently writing.
There are Gauleiters everywhere, enabled by their pigs. We have seen them in action recently. They are as likely to be found on the streets, violently suppressing peaceful protest as they are to be found on the benches of the House of Commons. We live in a time where pigs are handed obscene prizes by their Gauleiters, whether that is PPE contracts for equipment that never arrives or for Test and Trace systems that are not fit for purpose. The sty is certainly seamier even than it was when I first wrote this in 2017.
My thanks to Sophie Ashton for her drawing of the pig. My apologies to pigs, which in truth are lovely animals. Also thanks again to Nick Triplow who painstakingly edited Poems from the the Swamp and to who I am indebted.
Nick has co-curated Hull Noir, one of the UK’s premier crime fiction festivals this weekend. Follow this link to catch up with what’s on at the festival https://www.hullnoir.com/
The Gauleiter and His Pig
Transcribed and translated by George Lydda
The Gauleiter and his pig reside here
in the swamp, a septic, infected sty,
poisoned with wormwoods for false prophecy.
Their respectability has that stink
of swill that clings like thin grease, that chokes throats,
an insinuation of rancid filth.
They can wash their hands, insipid Pilates,
and never know what it is to be clean.
The people have spoken, so it is claimed
the people shriek their will, so it is claimed
across this newly grim, unpleasant land
where mandrakes strike and strangle healthy plants,
spread tendrils of fervour amidst the sane,
sanguine folk of once fair-minded islands
made pestilential and sabre-rattling
when pigs and Gauleiters take command.
This pig and Gauleiter feed on censure ,
patrol the streets, sniff out the shunned ,
hunt the dreamers, the effete, the forceless
poison the water, spread lies, deception
that find keen reception in willing ears.
These guardians of now lost Albion
with pig battalions in eager service
goose step, relentless over small town swamps
spreading venom and violence as they go.
People need their pigs in lipstick, panders,
apologists, pimps and patsies.
These quiet and not so quiet fascists
impose their spurious jurisdiction,
shift the paradigm of civilisation,
spawn bleak new dawns of moral disaster,
bring terror, trauma and catastrophe.
This Gauleiter and his wallowing pig
inhabit the swamp imperiously,
belch and fart out obscene absurdity,
at which the cowed folk quake and shiver,
scuttle with truffles to please and appease,
to sate and satisfy lusty tumescence,
with Destroying Angel, Fly Agaric,
to avoid the cosh, the truncheon, baton.
But nothing placates appetites like these
where only the hunger, the greed is fed.
The sty turns seamier, with deepening stench,
while mists from the quagmire hint and hiss,
meander in serpentine gyres and twists,
layering the space where once the light lay
with impenetrable shadows of boundless black.
Once before, in still living memory
the fair-minded folk of a place like this
thrilled in denouncing friends and neighbours,
those whose faces no longer fit.
Trucks rattled the bones of human cargo
along tracks destined for nightmarish swamps,
as pigs and Gauleiters squealed and capered,
wallowed in a surfeit of harrowing loss,
caroused at perdition and extermination,
a Saturnalia of uncountable cost.
This Gauleiter, pig, and the onlookers
are droghers who’ll carry the weight of the swamp,
Pauline Oliveros (May 30, 1932 – November 24, 2016 was an American composer, accordionist and a central figure in the development of post-war experimental and electronic music. She was a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Centre during the 1960s, and worked as its director. Oliveros wrote books, formulated music theories, and investigated ways to focus attention on music including her concepts of deep listening and sonic awareness.
Pauline Oliveros is a real discovery for me, someone to whom I will return. I have spent some time in the past couple of weeks doing my best to listen deeply to this album and to sit with my responses to it, which have ranged from an increased heartbeat and visceral engagement to great difficulty in coping with some of the frequencies and dissonances. As I write I am listening to her album The Roots of the Moment and finding that I am equally drawn to and repelled by the discordance and strangeness of it.
This music demands concentration and attention and these skills were central to Oliveros’ practice as a musician and a teacher. Unfortunately, I have been distracted and unable to focus attention on listening to Oliveros in the way she deserves because other more urgent voices have demanded my attention.
The irony of my project title, Listening to Women has come to the fore in this most depressing of weeks. We began the week on Monday 8th March, International Women’s Day. There was the usual snarky whataboutery of when’s International Men’s day; tone deaf and unable to use Google to find out it’s November 19th, same as every year since its inauguration in 1992.
Exasperation turned to fury as UN Women UK published its report on sexual harassment; 97% of women aged 18-24 reported that they had experienced harassment and 96% said they had not reported it because they didn’t believe they would make any difference by doing so. Instead of universal outrage and condemnation and a stated will and desire to do better, to be better, our old friend systemic misogyny reared its head and Twitter was inundated with #notallmen excuses. Of course it’s not all men, but it’s enough men to have created an unsafe country for women where 97% of young women have been harassed and an unsafe world where one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence at the hands of men in their lifetime. It’s not all men, but it is some men, and the trouble is, we can’t predict where or who they are.
At the same time as these statistics were causing distress to male privilege, racist male privilege was also being demonstrated in the media via the spectacular hissyfit of a bloated, entitled male TV presenter storming off because of his peculiar and perverse obsession with Meghan Markle – this generation’s convenient scapegoat for monarchy and monarchists who refuse to acknowledge the fundamental weirdness of this anachronistic institution.
Then it all took a dark and nasty turn with the devastating news of the murder of Sarah Everard, a young woman who went missing from Clapham Common in early March and whose body was found dumped in a large bag. A police officer has appeared in court charged with her abduction and murder. Sarah’s story is another desperate moment on the seemingly endless continuum of violent and fatal acts against women. Having spoken to several women over the past few days, we share in the grief, the sorrow and the rage at her death.
In private, I know I am not alone in having trawled back over the times in my life when I have experienced violence at the hands of men. It’s odd and disturbing how memories come back when you venture down this dark and frightening rabbit hole of memory. On this particular journey, I recalled being punched, hard, in the breast by a boy at the age of 12, just at my breasts were emerging. I remembered how startling, how unexpected that assault was.
I know I am not alone in having carried a bunch of keys protruding between the fingers of a clenched fist, of having taken the long way round, hesitated outside a lit shop window, felt sick with terror at the sound of footsteps behind me, broken into an unsteady run. Countless narratives are appearing on social media telling the same depressing stories to the backdrop of an abdication of responsibility in that #notall hashtag along with an absolute refusal to listen.
Last night officers of the Met bungled their policing of a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard, using heavy handed and violent tactics against women who went to Clapham Common to show solidarity and to publicly demonstrate their grief. Arrests, restraints and horrendous photographs of women being knelt on by police officers demonstrate the miserable failure in the police response and in the attitude of their commanding officer, Cressida Dick, who faces widespread calls to resign.
In an increasingly authoritarian country, with a home secretary who clearly revels in oppression and state sanctioned violence against refugees, travelers, protestors and anyone she considers troublesome and who is presenting a draconian policing bill to parliament this week, we are clearly in trouble.
In the entire history of struggle for rights and freedoms, those in power never give it up willingly. Power has to be wrested from them and there is always a fight. There needs to a be a fight now. I hope that this week, which concludes with Mother’s Day for God’s sake, is the start of a fight; one which can be won and not by those currently holding the levers of power.
Next week I will return to music. The events of this week have been too important for me to not reflect on them.
My Life is the second album released by singer-songwriter Iris DeMent. Released in 1994 on Warner Bros, the album was dedicated to her father, Patric Shaw DeMent, who died in 1992.
Sometimes life interrupts your plans and so I have been spending longer with Iris DeMent than I’d planned and I’m not sorry. My Life is an extraordinary, tender and evocative album that is definitely worth a fortnight. In fact, several of the albums and artists I have visited thus far have remained in my head and I am looking forward to compiling a lengthy playlist featuring all of these exceptional women.
Iris DeMent came to prominence in the early nineties with her song Our Town which was used to close the final episode of the run away television hit Northern Exposure. By a strange coincidence, serendipity or just a fortuitous moment, we are currently watching Northern Exposure, a show we have chosen as an antidote to the rotten times in which we live. I wonder how many people shipped out to Alaska after watching the show in the nineties, and if Alaska is currently open to disenfranchised Europeans in search of a seemingly gentler place to live.
More recently, the title track of My Life was used in another hit TV show, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that took on extraordinary resonance during the Trump years and which stands as a terrifying imagining of the horrors of authoritarianism combined with extreme misogyny. The song was used for the opening sequence of Season Two Episode Seven, when the handmaids attend the funeral of other handmaids, killed during a failed attempt to overthrow the regime. The sight of a trembling and tearful Aunt Lydia wishing for a ‘peaceful world’ when she herself is a weapon of state-sanctioned violence against women brings bile to to the throat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrzYwYGt-p0 Iris DeMent’s beautiful, haunting music juxtaposes the horror of the moment, a sweet, life-affirming and poignant song against a backdrop of blood-soaked horror.
Iris DeMent’s voice is pure country, dripping in sorrows and heartaches, simple living, family, home and of course love. It is unsentimental, cracked and honest, reminding me of Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. She has worked with Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and John Prine and is an artist who seems intent on her own authentic path, pursuing her truth and telling stories in her songs with profound resonance; stories of the reality of being, of love and death.
Oulou Sangaré recorded her first album, Moussoulou (“Women”), with Amadou Ba Guindo, a renowned maestro of Malian music. The album was very successful in Africa, with more than 200,000 copies sold initially on tape. The album was released in 1990 when Sangare was twenty-one years old.
In the midst of a bleak week, Oulou Sangare’s voice brought shafts of sunshine and warmth. Listening to her debut album, its rich rhythms and feisty vocals, I was lifted out of the challenges of the days for some bright and beautiful moments. Prior to listening to this album I knew nothing of Oumou Sangare. Part of the point of this year is to listen to more diverse women’s voices and to educate myself about the cultures these artists come from.
Moussolou means women and in the album’s title song Oumou Sangare speaks to the women of Mali about their lives and their positions. She has written extensively since her first album about women and the low status that women endure in society. She is an advocate for women’s rights, and is critical of child marriage and polygamy, having experienced the effect the latter had on her mother when Sangare was a child.
Oumou Sangare has performed all over the world since her success with Moussolou and has worked with numerous artists including Herbie Hancock and Bela Fleck. She is a vibrant and inspiring artist with a captivating voice and commanding musicality.
In 1998 Ms Hill exploded as an artist in her own right after extraordinary success with The Fugees. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is an opus, a personal and political album that combines soul, hip-hop, reggae and R&B. The album is rich, complex and full of detail referencing Ms Hill’s religious sensibility, her struggle as a woman to assert herself in a musical culture towered over by men, her influences and her personal experience of young motherhood.
Ms Hill’s struggles and scandals have been well documented, including her battle with New Ark (her band for the Miseducation sessions), her notorious lateness to performances and considerable diva-ish traits. In truth, I knew little about her and haven’t followed her career or paid much attention to her work. Coming to such a lauded album twenty- three years after its multiple award winning success, reading about her life and career and considering the culture in which she was working I have found considerable respect and admiration for Ms Hill. She was so young in 1998 and made an enormous impact with her work which was described as genre bending. She left a lasting mark on the scene she was so much a part of with her soulful voice, clever rhymes and spiky content.
The album launches with the excoriating Lost Ones and then weaves through changes in mood and style for one hour and seventeen minutes. The album has a huge cast of musicians, singers and producers including Mary J Blige and D’Angelo but is universally acknowledged as Ms Hill’s vision in action. Stand out tracks for me include the cautionary tale Doo Wop (That Thing) which mixes doo wop with R&B creating a clever groove fusing past and present. The video is illustrative of the theme. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6QKqFPRZSA The song is hypnotic with its sample piano chords, layered vocals and brass.
The whole album is worth a proper listen, and if you’re a listener who wants a truly deep dive, check out Dissect, a podcast that takes apart great albums track by track: https://castbox.fm/vb/99609373
In 2019 Ms Hill contributed the track Guarding the Gates to the Queen and Slim film soundtrack. The film is exceptional and the track gives us a mature, confident Ms Hill full of soul. You can listen to the track here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yG_JfVAOifA