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bessie smith :: Blog

America's Foremothers

Monday, September 12: 11 a.m.
Bessie Smith

"America's Foremothers" is the first installment in a special series that highlights the evolution of women in music by placing their accomplishments, inspirations and influence in the context of the eras that shaped their sounds and messages. 

Between 1920 and 1947, roughly the period covered in the “Foremothers” section of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Women Who Rock exhibit, American women made great strides toward gaining equality while championing basic human rights. Female musicians responded to the liberation evolving around them, forming a collection of voices that melodically – and often defiantly – set the tone that inspired generations of women. Leading the charge were the “Foremothers”: Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and Mother Maybelle Carter.

Among the suffrage movement's greatest victories was the passing of the nineteenth amendment in 1920. The ensuing decades saw many more developments as women were elected to office, quite literally taking seats of power: state governor (Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming, 1924) and senator (Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas, 1932); and the first female member of the President’s cabinet, Francis Perkins, was appointed Secretary of Labor in 1933. The Women’s Amateur ...


continue Categories: Hall of Fame, Inductee, Exhibit

Women Who Rock spotlight: The Piano That Started it All

Friday, July 8: 11:15 a.m.
Posted by Jim Henke
Lady Gaga's childhood piano.

On the fourth floor of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, there’s an old upright piano. It’s the first artifact you see when you go to the Hall of Fame’s Women Who Rock exhibit. It’s the piano that Lady Gaga played when she was a little girl. Gaga’s father’s parents bought the piano in 1966 for $780. When Gaga was not even a year old, her grandparents gave the piano to her parents. According to Gaga’s mother, “When Stefani started to crawl, she would use the leg of the piano to pull herself up and stand, and in doing so, her fingers would eventually land on the keys.  She would stay there and just keep pressing the keys to hear the sound.  We would then start to hold her up or sit on the bench and let her tinker, you know, things like ‘Chopsticks’ and ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’” Gaga began taking piano lessons when she was four. She wrote her first song when she was five. It was called “Dollar Bills” and was inspired by Pink Floyd’s “Money.” She continued to play this piano until her parents ...


continue Categories: Exhibit, Event

Women Who Rock spotlight: Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday

Wednesday, July 6: 3:38 p.m.
Billie Holiday's fur stole in the Museum's Women Who Rock exhibit

I saw the film Lady Sings the Blues, starring Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Diana Ross, when I was about 11 years old.  One of the images in the movie that still resonates with me is one in which the around 11-year-old Billie Holiday, circa 1926, is working as a cleaning and errand girl for a Baltimore “house of ill-repute.” When she is supposed to be scrubbing the front stoop, she sneaks away and spends most of her time leaning over the Victrola in the brothel parlor, cranking up Bessie Smith’s latest hit, “’Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do.” She plays the record over and over, singing along, studying every note and syllable. So, that film was not only my introduction to Billie Holiday, it was also my introduction to Bessie Smith, and an important lesson in how artists pass the cultural torch. Watching Diana Ross’ portrayal of Billie Holiday learning from Bessie Smith, I recognized the same way that I studied every Supremes’ 45 on my old Sears Silvertone. I can imagine Lady GaGa at 11 years old, listening to Madonna’s “Express Yourself” on her Walkman in exactly the same way. Seeing Lady Sings ...


continue Categories: Event, Exhibit
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