Increasing Visibility of Female American Roots Musicians

Jan 25, 2012

PORTLAND - Quick, think of any famous female musicians in the American roots genre. Sure, today there's Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch. But for the most part, history remembers a lot of men in old-time country, blues and folk music... names like Lead Belly, Muddy Waters or Doc Watson.

Not a lot of women in American roots music are getting their due. That's according to a folklorist from near Seattle. She and her husband have made it their mission to change that. The Library of Congress has taken notice. Correspondent Tom Banse reports.

Dyann and Rick Arthur are in their element. We're at the Old-Time Music Gathering in Portland. Impromptu jam sessions and multiple concerts are underway across three floors of this performance hall.

As she prowls the halls, Dyann observes the ratio of male to female instrumentalists.

"This one is pretty well integrated and then there are some of them that are primarily the guys," she says.

Dyann herself plays piano and guitar. She recently retired from a career in mortgage banking. Her husband is a retired pilot.

The couple from Mill Creek, Washington talked for a long time about what they would do in retirement. They wanted something "of social value" that would combine music and travel. The result was a trek through Oregon, Washington and 28 other states to collect oral histories and tape live performances of women making traditional music.

"I think culturally we lose a lot of the skill that is with women," Ricks says. "They don't have mentors. They don't have an image to see themselves in that position. Early on we took that as kind of a philosophical goal to produce those types of images that women could identify with."

The retirement endeavor quickly morphed into a small nonprofit named the MusicBox Project. It presently has full profiles of 81 American roots musicians.

"All forms of music," Dyann says. "We like to say A to Z, Appalachian to Zydeco."

The Arthurs donated a copy of their digital collection to the Library of Congress. One featured artist is vocalist and guitarist Lauren Sheehan of Portland.

Sheehan trained as a classical musician at Reed College in Portland in the late 1970s. Then one day, she borrowed a folk music anthology from the college library. It was a turning point.

"When I heard that breadth, I sought out folk festivals even more," Sheehan says. "That was because there was archived piece of real music that spoke to me."

The influential series on vinyl included selections of 1930s-era field recordings collected by the Library of Congress.

Now through the MusicBox Project, Lauren Sheehan herself is in the Library of Congress' American Folklife collection.

Her reaction, "It's unbelievable ... I am only a little drop in the bucket of oral tradition, but I am a drop in the bucket and wonderful players have passed stuff on to me who have now died. All this being in the Library of Congress is so cool because other people can hear that."

MusicBox Project co-founder Dyann Arthur says part of her mission is to present role models for up-and-coming women players.

"With the educational piece that we hope to do as this thing goes forward -- I would say three to five years out -- is going to go into the schools in a format that says, 'Look at that saxophone player. There's another one. I can do that too.'"

Besides donating the recordings to the Library of Congress, the Arthurs have also created a YouTube channel. It includes more than 300 song performances. Dyann Arthur is currently editing some of the material into a documentary, which she hopes to take on tour.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network