An Introduction to the Women’s Liberation Music Archive – Nicole Emmenegger

No Men Saturday: Making the Invisible Visible

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It’s Thursday, 11 August 1977 and a local London newspaper teases with the headline “It’s Jam Today – no men Saturday.” The article goes on to introduce the band Jam Today and their “Funky Rock,” which will be on display for a women-only audience at the Action Centre at Waterloo on the coming Saturday. The article is quick to point out that the event will not fall foul of the Equal Opportunities Commission – a women-only event does not break the sex discrimination laws. How fortunate indeed, not only for the eight female musicians of Jam Today,but also for the audience invited to be in attendance at the gig and the workshop to follow, wherein the audience members are invited to learn how to play the band’s instruments as well as engage in discussions on various feminist subjects.

The article appears to have been hastily clipped from the newspaper, with a chunk missing near the bottom and without a proper citation of the name of the broadsheet. Yet the slim, one-column piece has been carefully preserved and saved – worn, torn, and taped up again after what must have been numerous re-reads and giggles over the last thirty-five years. I am not fortunate enough to have seen the original version, however, instead I am gazing at a scanned and digitized file that appears in my web browser.

This bit of ephemera is part of the online Women’s Liberation Music Archive (WLMA), which sets out to document twenty years of feminist music-making by female musicians and bands from across the UK and Ireland between 1970-1990. The project was developed and is currently overseen by Deborah Withers and Frankie Green. Withers, a historian, punk-rock musician, and independent publisher, had been wanting for years to archive music made by women during the Women’s Liberation Movement, but the project only came to fruition when she meet Green, former drummer for Jam Today, who had been looking for a suitable platform to share the story of her band and the stories of her female musical colleagues. After a process of gathering initial materials while mastering the art of scanning, blogging, and Soundcloud, the archive finally sprung into virtual existence on May Day 2011.

The digital database contains hundreds of photos, news clippings, flyers, manifestos, interviews, sound files and videos – many of which are seen and heard here for the first time. Most of the materials where obtained directly from the former members of the 130 bands featured on the site, including Abandon Your Tutu, The Fabulous Dirt Sisters, The Northern Women’s Liberation Rock Band and Sisterhood of Spit, to name but a few.

It is slightly ironic that a piece on male exclusion should be one of the bits that managed to make its way into the collection. For the archive itself, as Withers notes, by its very existence, is a record of all that is missing from the herstory of women in music – the lost, the invisible, and the untold: “It is a record of no’s and exclusion as much as it is a document of what happened.”

While collecting stories and items for the archive, Withers saw how the narrative of many of the bands played out identically – they never recorded professionally, stuck to live performances, and eventually disappeared into obscurity. If they did manage to gather enough cash and gumption to take to the studio, the final product was often not a sufficient reflection of who they were as a band, due to difficulties with sexist male technicians and their shyness about asserting themselves and controlling their own sound.

So the women took it upon themselves to imagine and create a collective space where their voices and music could be heard and where the process of music-making became as important as the music itself.

Your Music in Those Dark Spaces: Developing a Feminist Lineage

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Screenshots from Silk Sows Ear, a film by Penny Florence, 1986.

We see: individual close-up shots of three women with faces painted in white greasepaint and abstract tribalist designs. They recite lines from a poem as the camera switches from face to face with a polarizing distortion filter added for extra dramatic effect. We hear:

Imagine
a whole new culture
reaching right into your body’s soul
recognition
outside the obsessions

Imagine
new song
Power
in those dark spaces
your music
in those dark spaces

This is a moment from Silk Sows Ear, a 1986 short documentary film on feminist music-making in 1980s Britain by Penny Florence. It is one of the many hidden treasures uncovered and digitized for inclusion in the online archive. The film both depicts and incorporates a feminist working process, from the “collective crewing” list in the film’s credits to the lengthy segment around demystifying the music recording and production process. The story is non-linear – a veritable collage of images, sounds and stories – and while the special effects are distracting at times, the joyful benefits are clear: sharing knowledge, collective working, and being part of a feminist lineage.

The WLMA follows suit through its non-hierarchical data management and do-it-yourself archiving tactics, using free and open blogging software that allows visitors to the website to comment and elaborate on content. More than anything, the site is a place to browse, where entries blend into one another and you stumble across one band while searching out info on another.

Much as the film highlights not only the musicians in the scene but the producers, sound engineers, administrators and everyone behind the scenes – the archive equally documents music-making (and blogging!) as a process rather than an end product. Both the film and the archive become about sharing, inspiring, and encouraging a new generation of feminists to take tools in hand and make things happen.

Bands such as the Feminist Improvisation Group (FIG), an “up-to eight piece improv ensemble,” sparked a lifelong interest in collectivist principals for many of its participants. Sally Potter, now an esteemed filmmaker, spent a bit of time with FIG in the 1980s and took that shared collective ideal with her when creating the SP-ARK archive. This online resource makes readily available materials relating to every stage of the filmmaking process of Potter’s 1992 film Orlando. Everything is shared – from the filmmaker’s handwritten notes to production schedules and call sheets, behind the scenes photographs, publicity documents, and casting footage.

Similarly, Maggie Nicols, since her time with FIG, has gone on to a successful solo jazz career but still enjoys her Monday night Gatherings that have been taking place every week since 1989. These informal musical, social workshop drop-in sessions have improvised music and collective action at their heart. And, as Nicols states, “The Gathering has a political dimension, it’s creative, it’s community. It feels like home.”

Taking it to the Street: Embodying a Feminist Space

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Photo of the York Street Band by John Walmsley.

The permanent home for the archive is online, but its presence and impact go far beyond the digital. Recognizing the importance of creating and occupying a physical feminist space as well as virtual one, Withers has developed a touring exhibition, Music & Liberation, to coincide with the archive that sees collected objects of ephemera, recordings, video, and audio visiting various gallery spaces across the UK in the Autumn 2012. In each of the cities of Cardiff, Manchester, Glasgow, and London, a live events program brings together young and old generations of female musicians to reflect on the past and work together in the present.

The poster for the Music & Liberation exhibition features a photo that fittingly encapsulates both the attitude of the exhibition and the movement itself. The photograph depicts a scene in an English public town square sometime in the 1970s or 1980s: in the forefront, one of the members of the all female York Street Band, with tambourine in hand, is dancing with an older woman. The moment is spontaneous and light and the jig they dance is one perhaps inspired by the lively accordion player smiling and high-footing it in the background. It’s anyone’s guess what the situation is beyond the frame of this photo – was the older woman a mere onlooker who was roped into a dance by the band? Or, upon hearing the music on the street, did she spontaneously decide to join in?

Whatever the situation before or after the photo was snapped, this moment is what counts – this feminist, joyful, transitory, ephemeral minute. It is here that we get to the “body’s soul” of what inspired the women to band together and make music thirty years ago and what motivates Withers and Green to catalog and archive these moments now. They are, we are, claiming space, making noise, demanding to be heard, seen and remembered, even if only for a moment and even if only for ourselves – a notion perhaps still as radical and necessary now as it was on that August evening in London in 1977.

The Music & Liberation exhibition will make its last stop in London from 1 December 2012 – 13 January 2013. From April 2013, the physical archive will be deposited in the Feminist Archive (South), which is housed at the Special Collections archive at Bristol University.

Nicole Emmenegger (a.k.a. DJ Jenny Woolworth) is a Swiss/American cultural producer, DJ and on-line archivist of women in punk. She currently lives and works in London, England. 



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