Music keeps traditions alive. It can also transform them. Tradition-bearers preserve cultural heritage, songs, and stories, and pass them on to the subsequent generations. Music can also provide an outlet to influence changes within a culture.
Teaching Children Values
Historically, caregivers and educators have used music as a way to teach children morals, values, and societal norms. Nursery rhymes and folk songs can both warn and inform, teach and entertain.
The fabled female figure Mother Goose has delighted children through s tories and songs since the 1600s.
“They’re swingin’ everything else — why not nursery rhymes?”
— Ella Fitzgerald, New York Post, 1938
Whether teaching children folk music or connecting to other school subjects, music plays a critical role in educating children.
For more than six decades, award-winning musician Ella Jenkins (born 1924) has performed multicultural music for child audiences. Her albums and songbooks teach children about a diversity of cultures, languages, musical concepts, histories, and geographies.
Family and Faith
Many women musicians started out performing in family bands or in their local churches. Sometimes they did both. These community-centered environments offered safe places to perform as well as protection on the road.
They also offered another type of safety: freedom to experiment with music while maintaining social “respectability” as women of family and faith.
Esteemed folk artist Jean Ritchie (1922–2015) was born into a musical family. She performed traditional Appalachian songs, composed original material, raised environmental awareness, and reinvigorated interest in the mountain dulcimer.
Lydia Mendoza (1916–2007), the “Queen of Tejano,” started out in a family band. She popularized Tejano (Tex-Mex) music, which blends the musical traditions of Mexican, Spanish, Polish, German, and Czech immigrants.
Some musicians pushed the boundaries of what religious music sounded like. The “Queen of Gospel” Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972) used the words and music of gospel to support social causes, such as civil rights and desegregation efforts.
Keepers of Tradition
Women researchers, performers, and collectors have worked to document musical expressions across the United States. Their efforts have provided an invaluable record that many scholars, artists, and community members continue to use today.
Documentarians have come from a variety of backgrounds. Some identified with the groups they recorded. Others were outsiders who wanted to record something they feared could be lost. In some cases, their audio and print recordings were the first efforts to formally collect music that had been passed from generation to generation through oral tradition.
Lucy McKim Garrison
Abolitionist musicologist Lucy McKim Garrison (1842–1877) was one of the first researchers to document and publish traditional songs sung by enslaved African Americans in the Southern United States.
Ella Sheppard served as assistant director, soprano, pianist, and arranger of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. Founded in 1871, the group interpreted and popularized concert spirituals based on traditional music of formerly enslaved African Americans.
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston’s research included the documentation of traditional songs, music, and stories of African American culture. In Mules and Men, she documents several songs that she encountered during field work in Florida and Louisiana.
The staged photo on this album cover depicts Mountain Chief (Pikuni Blackfeet, 1848–1942) listening to and interpreting a song in Plains Indian sign language for musicologist Frances Densmore (1867–1957).
Densmore specialized in recording and documenting Indigenous North American music at a time when Indigenous languages, traditions, and lifeways were being actively suppressed by the U.S. government. Densmore and her contemporaries were often driven by assumptions that Native traditions would soon disappear. Today, Indigenous scholars use her work as just one part of their ongoing efforts to preserve and strengthen Indigenous traditions.
Born on a sailing ship and raised on the seas, Joanna Colcord (1882–1960) was an important documentarian of sailor songs and sea shanties.