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Songs of the Struggle: Dawn Landes timely reimagining of The Liberated Woman's Songbook

March 27, 2024 10:43 am GMT

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“In order to know where you are going and how to get there, you have to know where you have been and how you got to where you are,” reads the introduction to The Liberated Woman’s Songbook. First published at the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement in 1971, the book contained 77 singable folk songs about women and their battles with husbands, lovers, the devil, the system, and at times, with themselves; tracing the history of their struggles from the 1800’s through to the 1970’s.

Dawn Landes playfully reimagines 11 songs taken from the collection for her own Liberated Woman’s Songbook, released to coincide with Women’s History Month. Beginning with ‘Hard is the Fortune of All Womankind’ from 1830 and running chronologically through to the second wave feminist anthem ‘Liberation, Now!’ from 1970, Landes pulls from a centuries old canon of women’s activism bringing back around tales that could not be more prescient; women have been fighting for their voices to be heard for centuries, and these messages are just as timely today as they were then.

The project began when the pandemic hit and her touring-life screeched to halt, singer-songwriter Dawn Landes found herself homebound, leafing through a songbook she’d picked up 10 years before.

“I had just stumbled across it in a used bookstore, and found it very intriguing and grabbed it,” Landes remembers. “I just sort of carried it around for maybe 10 or more years, really. Then I got more interested in it when women's rights started to be taken away in America, and I was sort of just looking for solidarity somehow. And I thought the songs were really interesting. There's a whole section of this book called ‘Songs of the Struggle’, and those are the ones that I really gravitated to for the album.”

In 2022, reeling from the repeal of Roe vs Wade, Landes turned to the songbook for inspiration, wondering what songs of liberation and hope women had been singing throughout history.

“It wasn't just Roe vs Wade being overturned,” says Landes, speaking to us from Chapel Hill, NC, where she now lives. “It's been a scary time to be a woman all over the world. Women getting kicked out of university or not allowed to go to university in certain countries, and women's reproductive rights here. What I found interesting about this book was, because it was published in 1971, that's before Roe vs Wade, but there was such a movement happening. I think as a result of some of that energy and some of that activism, there were changes made in policy. So, I'm kind of trying to harness that somehow and recreate it.”

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when the The Liberated Woman’s Songbook was first published, Tammy Wynette’s conservative crossover hit ‘Stand By Your Man’ might have been topping the charts, but it was an era that was also throwing up some fairly unlikely feminist anthems too – from Dolly Parton admonishing her boyfriend for his double standards in 'Just Because I’m A Woman' to Jeannie C Riley demanding recognition in 'The Rib' and Loretta Lynn singing the praises of birth control - as the tensions of the women’s liberation movement played out in country music to produce some of the most innovative and groundbreaking pop music of the time.

Women have always been able to tackle subjects like the workplace, motherhood, marriage and divorce, adulthood and ageing, and explicitly address an adult female experience in country music and american folk; documenting the thoughts and experiences of working class women through songs created by working class women for working class women.

“The story of women in country music is a window into the world of the majority of American women,” write Mary Bufwack and Robert Oermann in Finding Her Voice, their urtext on women in country music and American folk. “It describes poverty, hardship, economic exploitation, sexual subjugation, and limited opportunities. Sometimes it is self-defeating and reactionary, painful and despairing. But it also contains outspoken protest and joyful rebellion, shouts of exultation and bugle calls of freedom. There is humour as well as sadness here, victory as well as heartache.”

“I really wanted to tell a story,” Landes says. “Where have we come? How far have we come? And hopefully, where are we going? Just to see progress over time makes me feel better about where we might be at the moment.”

Landes made demos of 25 folk songs from The Liberated Woman’s Songbook and enlisted the help of her long-time collaborator, producer Josh Kaufman, best known for his work with Bonny Light Horseman, Bob Weir, and Cassandra Jenkins. They worked on the album remotely, sending recordings back and forth to each other.

“Most of these songwriters were not household names,” Landes says. “Most of them couldn't even play music or read music. A lot of these lyrics were written to popular hymns of the day or popular music of the day. Together with Josh, we sort of rearranged the music and gave it a fresh spin, modernized it a little bit, and I worked on the lyrics a little bit to bring them more into the present.”

“There wasn't too much of a translation needed,” Landes explains about how she went about modernizing some of the language, particularly in the older songs. “Things like ‘Ye forth, the grog shop come’ for example. Nobody says that in modern speak, so that becomes ‘He came back from the bar’, stuff like that. One song in particular that we worked on was ‘One Hundred Years.’ For that one, I had to change the whole rhyme scheme because I wanted to take out the word ‘Hence’. Mainly because nobody says hence anymore.”

Now, she’s taking the songbook out on the road. Having already performed it live at Newport Folk Festival and the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh, NC, she’ll be playing at the Playmakers Theater in Chapel Hill in May, before crossing the pond to play at Mosely Folk & Arts Festival, End of The Road Festival in the UK, and selected venues throughout Europe, before a show at The Barbican in London, where she’ll be joined onstage by Peggy Seeger.

The show, which feels more like a theatre show than a regular gig, includes a script, projections and costumes, as well as collaborators who she invites to take on a song of their own.

“I can also sing all the songs myself,” she says. “Which I do from time to time, but it's much more fun for me to do it with other women and to get together and all sing together because that's what it's really about.”

“When I had Alice Gerrard playing, she did three of her own songs,” she adds, explaining how the show often stretches beyond the recorded songbook depending on who is joining her onstage. “Alice Gerard is turning 90 this year. Her and Hazel Dickens were definitely making feminist music back then in their own way. So, it's just so cool to be able to share the stage with her. Peggy Seeger also, same generation and just as active now. I love that they're both making music still and both performing and just kicking ass. It's so inspiring, really is. Peggy Seeger has already recorded a lot of these songs herself. And she actually knows the author.”

Landes explains how she wants the show to be “open” to any audience: "I want men to come to the show, and I want everybody to have fun. The show isn’t speaking badly of men. Men can be allies. I want people with different political views to come and enjoy the music. That's the beauty of music. People can enjoy it across political lines, but a lot of the songs in this are speaking to different issues that people can all identify with: the burden of housework; feeling unappreciated in your job. These are things that are universal.”

“I think just having performed this several times now, I really am struck by how it affects people across generations,” she says. “I wasn't sure who would be the audience for this. I was making it because I was interested in it, and I needed to hear it. But what I found really great was that older women and younger women came and took something from it. 12-year-old girls came to the show and they enjoyed it just as much as their grandma and their mom. It was multigenerational, and that was really inspiring.”

The video for ‘Hard is the Fortune of All Womankind’ feels like a similarly bigger production. Landes embodying women from the past including a farmer, a suffragette, a factory worker, famed union-activist and martyr Ella May Wiggins and even recreating the famous ‘Break the Dull Steak Habit’ poster from the protests at the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City.

She's even put together her own Liberated Woman playlist to accompany the album.

“I was thinking about how in the 70s, there weren't any playlists,” she explains. “People weren't able to share songs in that way, so the way they shared songs was through songbooks or zines. They had to print them out, write down the lyrics. People used to make mixtapes, but before that, there were zines and there were song books. In the early 70s, there were so many wonderful zines, like women everywhere making awesome zines, just photocopyping and collaging. It was just really amazing to find that stuff and I discovered some really cool songs from that too. Songbooks and zines are the original playlists.”

Listen to Dawn Landes’ Liberated Woman playlist here.

As frustrating as it is to think how slow change has often been over the last 50 years and how depressingly we seem to be moving backwards as often as forwards in recent times, there is something strangely comforting about the timeliness of Dawn Landes singing the songs from The Liberated Woman’s Songbook.

“My one chance of life was a ceaseless endeavour to sweep off the waves as they swept over me,” she sings softly on the exquisite ‘The Housewife’s Lament,’ a song written by Mrs. Sarah A. Price in 1866, that could have been lifted straight off the last boygenius album. Elsewhere, the glitchy folktronica of ‘Keep Woman in Her Sphere,’ originally written in 1882, is evidence that the backlash against women’s advancement had been going on long before Susan Faludi identified it, while ‘Mill Mother’s Lament’ and ‘Cotton Mill Girls’ from the 1920s are incendiary rallying cries for solidarity in the face of exploitation and inequality that feel just as pertinent and powerful nearly a century on.

The two songs included from 1970 – ‘Liberation, Now!’ and ‘There Was A Young Woman Who Swallowed A Lie’ – read like Riot Grrrl manifestos, even if Landes delivers them like fireside folk laments.

Of all the songs on The Liberated Woman’s Songbook, perhaps the one that hits home hardest is ‘One Hundred Years,’ highlighting just how far we’ve come and how far we still have left to go.

“That song was written in 1852, and the whole premise of the song is that in a hundred years, everything's going to be better, which would be like 1952, right?” Landes says. “That didn't happen, and now nearly two hundred years later, I'm singing this song. But Fannie Gage, the woman who wrote those lyrics, was a playwright and a journalist and somehow I share her optimism even now. You could sing that song with some sarcasm, but I don't.”

“I really do feel optimistic,” Landes says. “Despite everything that’s going on.”

The Liberated Woman’s Songbook by Dawn Landes is released on March 29th on Fun Machine Music. For all the upcoming shows click here including tickets for Live at 21c in New York City, Playmakers Theater in Chapel Hill, NC, and all the UK and European dates.

Written by Jof Owen
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