Dyann Arthur and the MusicBox Project’s Americana Women
Victory Music Review. June 2011.
Next Gen Folk Column
Dyann Arthur and the MusicBox Project’s Americana Women
Seattle folklorist and filmmaker Dyann Arthur has been putting countless miles on her car and traveling cross-country to document the music of Americana women, but this isn’t fieldwork that’s going to be buried in an archive in some stuffy institution. This is fieldwork that you can see right now, on YouTube, free and open to everyone, and this is fieldwork that is especially timely. Dyann started her organization, the MusicBox Project, with her husband Rick because, as she says, “there was a striking lack of historical accounts of women musicians in traditional genres of American music.” Having retired in 2008, Dyann was looking for a project that would involve her love of music and fieldwork, and her realization that so many voices were going unheard prompted the start of Americana Women.
Dyann & Rick Arthur
Between 2009 and 2010, Dyann traveled with Rick through America, from Maine to Louisiana, meeting and interviewing women of all ages and career levels. An innovative folklorist, Dyann conceived of Americana Women as a three-pronged research approach: 1) an oral history interview; 2) an acoustic performance at the time and place of the interview; 3) a public performance (something previously scheduled, like a festival or gig, or arranged specifically for recording purposes, like a jam session). She filmed everything, and spent hours editing the interviews and performances into short snippets. Though she’s ultimately working towards a full-length documentary of the many musicians she’s filmed and interviewed, plus an educational project and touring concert series, for now Dyann has made much of her fieldwork available as YouTube vignettes. Beautifully shot in high quality video, these vignettes feature inspirational women musicians ranging from 18-93 years old and encompassing women making music for fun with family, all the way up to Grammy-award winning, nationally famous artists. Dyann was looking for women musicians, singers, bandleaders, but not your typical artists. As she says, “The project does not center around ‘women fronting bands.’ I was able to locate women performing Americana ‘roots’ music all over the country who go beyond the traditional women’s role as vocalist (i.e. “the singer in the band”); women who strive for equality in musicianship and artistic contributions.” Working towards equality hasn’t been easy, of course, and Dyann came away with many hard-luck stories, but also stories of overcoming prejudice, “Though there are numerous diatribes about unequal treatment and discrimination, the overwhelming majority of the women we met understood that if they approached those tougher situations in a professional manor they were eventually taken seriously and ultimately respected.” It helped too that Dyann covered such a wide range of ages, working with at least three generations and gaining valuable perspective from the elder generation.
Americana Women Trailer
Americana Women is an ambitious project that logically would see no end, but Dyann doesn’t care, she’s as inspired by the journey as she is by the destination, a key trait in any fieldworker. We asked her to share some of her favorite moments and stories.
Dyann Arthur’s MusicBox Project Highlights:
Cindy Cashdollar, 5-Time Grammy Award Winner, Austin, TX
“Cindy Cashdollar is a 5 time Grammy Award winning artist, with a heart of gold and talent that is immeasurable! She was moving at the time – life in a jumble – but still managed to meet with us. The shoot was at Ray Benson’s Bismeaux Recording Studio in Austin. Just being there in and of itself was something! The story she told about acquiring the Koa guitar was so emotionally moving. And, though you likely cannot hear it, the instrument continued to ring with vibration long after she set it back on the stand. (This is a comment I love from our Youtube Channel “i love koa, i built a commode out of koa, when i fart it rings out forever.” )The music on the Koa instrument is simply an improvisation, – I like this clip for the story:
“But the rendition she did of ‘Oh Susannah,’ by Stephen Foster is so rich with her choice of reharmonizations and melodic exploration, the listener breathlessly waits for the next phrase to unfold like they’re hearing the song for the first time.”
Valerie June, Organic Moonshine Roots Music, Memphis, TN
“Valerie June is an extremely charismatic young artist. A veritable diamond in the rough! This is her original ‘Workin’ Woman Blues.’ It shows off her ‘organic moonshine roots music’ style, very unique and haunting. A ‘self-taught’ guitar player, composer and troubadour of heartbreak ballads, folk songs, spirituals, soul-stirring blues, Valerie is poised to reach a wide audience as one of the stars of the ballyhooed new MTV web series “$5 Cover” which is written and directed by Craig Brewer, creator of the Oscar-winning movie: Hustle & Flow… We met with her at her folks place – a lovely quiet home in the Memphis area. Valerie said she was honored to be included in the project – a sentiment echoed time and again by the women we filmed.’
Rhiannon Giddens, Old-Time Fiddle/Banjo
“Rhiannon Giddens plays her fiddle and sings along at the same time on the traditional song ‘Real Ol’ Mountain Dew.’ Her talent is amazing. Her group The Carolina Chocolate Drops won Grammy of the year this past Feb. for Best Traditional Folk Album with ‘Genuine Negro Jig.’ Not only is she an outstanding musician but a fine, caring and intelligent human being! While Rhiannon talked and played, her wonderful soulmate and husband Mike took care of their daughter and made some mmm-mmm-good mac and cheese.”
Eden Brent, Blues Pianist, Greenville, MS
“Eden Brent playing piano at her home in Greenville, MS she shows off her ‘My Man.’
Love her because Eden is the real deal! She lives the life of a bluesman! She’s a BMA award winner in 2009 as Pine Top Perkins award winning pianist, but a real performer – she sizzles on stage!”
Anna Roberts-Gevalt, Old-Time Fiddler, Floyd, VA
“Anna Roberts-Gevalt (with housemate Joe DiJarnette) sittin’ on their porch which overlooks the New River Coal Train Line in a town of 200 people. Joe has a small recording studio upstairs that constantly shakes – makes for some interesting editing techniques! They play “’And The Cat Came Back.’ I like this because Anna makes that fiddle meow! Anna’s a studied folklorist and instructor with a deep-rooted love for old time music, though she started as a kid playing classical violin!
Casey Henry, Bluegrass Banjo Player, Nashville, TN
“Casey Henry (daughter of Murphy Henry – also interviewed) plays her ‘Real Women Drive Trucks.’ This woman is such a proficient artist, it is no surprise that she had The Casey Henry Signature Series 5 String Kel Kroydon® Banjo developed for her personal use. She also has a series of instructional DVD’s she’s worked on with her mom (The Murphy Method). She’s currently playing with the big kids in Nashville, and knows first hand just how tough it is for a woman to break the barriers there. She plays Scruggs style banjo with a vengence!”
Karen Taylor-Good, Songwriter
“Karen Taylor-Good is such a great writer, with several SESAC award-winning songs under her belt! She chooses at this point in her career to provide ‘inspirational music.’ Her ‘Bless Your Heart’ is so damned funny – not only did I have to learn it, I had to include it in my picks. But her ‘How Can I Help You Say Goodbye’ was a big seller for Patty Loveless and is now being featured by Laura Branigan.”
Violet Hensley, Old-Time Musician
“One more – I cannot leave out the love of our lives – little Violet Hensley – she captured our hearts! 93 and still sharp as a tack – we spent the day way up in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas with her and 21 of her family members – many of whom also play. She talked for 10 hours!! Played up a storm, and finally when her daughter Sandy needed to borrow her glasses, she slumped down like someone had pulled her plug. The glasses are like pop-bottles, and do well to keep her connected to life. Amazing stories of life in the early 20th century like when her dad said to her ‘it’s a sin for a woman to play the fiddle!’ She puts a rattlesnake in each of the fiddles she makes (73 of them to date) to keep the devil away. She said to us that the difference between a fiddle and a violin is that a violin sings and a fiddle dances! Boy can that girl dance! This traditional tune ‘Black Eyed Susie’ features, from left to right, Rick and Dyann Arthur, Violet’s 2 daughters Lewonna Nelson playing the “jackassaphone” (yep, it’s a jack ass jaw bone used as a percussion instrument) and Sandy Flagg on guitar, son-in-law Tim Nelson on banjo, leader of the band: Violet on the fiddle, grandson Sterling Flagg on mandolin, and Ashlie Heuter, an apprentice fiddle maker and friend of the family also on fiddle.”
Focusing on women musicians can be a double-edged sword, however. In fact, there are some who’d say that women already get unfair attention in the ultra-competitive world of Americana roots music. Dyann has a story to relate to that: “This reminds me of a conversation I had early on in my research with a well known and well respected folklorist, who’s name I shall withhold,” she says. “I was discussing the lack of women musicians in the overall mix of our traditional music culture and he said, in a rather defensive manner ‘Well what about Dolly Parton? And…there’s…the Dixie Chicks.’ My mind was saying…my point exactly, and I’m sure my eyes and mouth simply popped open. Don’t get me wrong – I like both Dolly and the “Chicks”, but they are marketed not by their proficiency, but by their sex appeal or their novelty. Most women musicians would prefer to be taken seriously, instead of being seen as a spectacle.” And that’s Dyann’s mission, to push beyond the spectacle of “women’s music” to a point where the gender lines aren’t such a focal point. As she says, “It’s not so much that women are being purposefully kept from realizing their artistic potential, but that they truly lack the role models men have had all along to be able to SEE THEMSELVES doing what it is they might dream of. This project can be a bright piece in that tapestry. It can serve as an evolving cog in the wheel of transformation within our society.”
NOTE: This article first appeared in the June 2011 issue of the Victory Music Review. Published online in the Pacific Northwest, the Victory Music Review features articles, interviews and album reviews of many acoustic folk musicians. Hearth Music writes a monthly column for Victory entitled Next Gen Folk.