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Freegal Celebrates Women in Music

Women In Music History

Posted: 01 Mar 2017 03:52 AM PST

In celebration of Women's History Month this March, we're highlighting awe-inspiring women musicians who have brought their art to a new level. Read on and recall some former favorite tunes or discover some revolutionary sounds. All of the artists discussed below are on the Freegal site, free to download or stream with your Peoria Public Library card and PIN.

In March of 1930, Ruth Crawford became the first woman to win the Guggenheim Fellowship. The honor is given annually to individuals who have demonstrated " exceptional creative ability in the arts". The award was given for the songs she wrote that were set to poems as well as her piano and violin compositions. Ms. Crawford was radically original for her time, and one of very few women composers. She is now considered one of the most important modernist composers of the 20th century. Later in life she married Charles Seeger and became involved with the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. Her step-son Pete Seeger is a well known folk artist. 

According to Biography.com, Eleanora Fagan had a rather arduous childhood. She was raised by a young, single mother who never had it easy. Eleanora reportedly escaped by singing along to records by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.  When she was a little older, she followed her mother to New York City and started singing in clubs. She gave herself the stage name "Billie" after the film star Billie Dove. At only 18 years of age, Billie was discovered by a record producer while singing in a jazz club. The Billie Holiday we all know and love then started her career.  Ms. Holiday started to work with major artists such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Her fame exploded when she struck out on her own. It was at that time that she recorded some of her most well known songs such as "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless The Child". "Lady Day" as she is otherwise known, is considered one of the best jazz vocalists of all time.  She has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and has influenced countless musicians. 

"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" by Kitty Wells was the first #1 country song by a woman in music history per Rolling Stone. It was released in 1952. The song topped the charts despite it's being banned on NBC Radio because it talked about a woman "living the wild side of life". The tune included the lyric "It's a shame that all the blame is on us women". The song remained in the top spot for 6 weeks and then crossed over to be a hit on  Billboard pop charts. Ms. Wells sang other top charting songs such as "Paying for That Back Street Affair" and "Hey Joe".  She paved the way for many others. More influential female singers near that time such as Patsy Cline and Brenda Lee made sure that women stayed in the country music spotlight. Contemporary vocalists such as Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, The Dixie Chicks, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood keep breaking ground with their songs.
Aretha Franklin has excelled at singing gospel, pop, and R&B  music. She also earned international acclaim for her performance of the opera aria "Nessun Dorma" at the 1998 Grammy Awards.  An 18-time Grammy winner herself, Ms. Franklin was also the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On Rolling Stone's list of "The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time", she is ranked as #1.   Signature hits such as "Respect" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" contributed to her becoming one of the best selling musicians of all time. 



Folk musician Joan Baez is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April of this year. Ms. Baez has been performing music professionally since she first sang at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. It did not take long for her to become successful. Her second, third and fourth albums were all certified gold. In the early to mid sixties she was on the forefront of the American roots revival. She introduced her audiences to the then unknown Bob Dylan. Outstanding folk talents such as Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris cite her as a source of inspiration. In addition to being a talented singer, she was and is a tireless activist. The artist counted Martin Luther King Jr. as one of her friends and she is one of the founding members of Amnesty International. 


As the lead singer of the psychedelic rock band 'Big Brother and The Holding Company', Janis Joplin found success. The group's 1968 record "Cheap Thrills" was regarded as a "masterpiece of psychedelic sound" according to Billboard, and it went to #1. Shortly after that record, "Pearl" as Janis Joplin was sometimes called, went out on her own. The artist was advertised as a headliner for Woodstock in 1969, where she did perform. Ms. Joplin had she had many hit singles after that. The best selling album of her career, Pearl, was released after her death. It reached #1 on Billboard charts and has been certified quadruple platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. It also made Rolling Stone's list of the "Greatest Albums of All Time."

Like all of the genres discussed here, rock has so many important women musicians that it is difficult to limit them: Artist Patti Smith started to become influential in the punk rock movement with her LP "Horses"; Joan Jett has been nicknamed "The Godmother of Punk" and has three albums certified platinum or gold; Stevie Nicks helped Fleetwood Mac sell over 140 million records during their music career; the music of 14-time Grammy winner Bjork spans many genres. Bjork has also made Rolling Stone's list of the "Greatest Singers of All Time" and Time Magazine's List of "The 100 Most Influential People In The World". 

Music giants such as Carole King, Whitney Houston, Cher, Beyonce and Adele often dominate the world of pop. The Guinness Book of World Records cites Ms. Houston as "the most awarded female act of all time". She is the only musician in history to have seven consecutive #1 Billboard hits. Her second LP "Whitney" was the first album by a woman to debut at number one on the charts. Carole King was the first woman to be honored with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2013. She has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Singer/Songwriter Adele has numerous mentions in the Guinness Book of World Records. Her LP '21' has spent more time at #1 on Billboard charts than any album by a female singer in music history. Her hit song "Hello" became the first single to sell a million digital copies in the United States within a week of release. At the 2017 Grammys she won more awards than any artist this year including"Album of The Year" and "Song of The Year". 




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