HERSTORY celebrates the role of women in American history

HerStory is a group of songs celebrating the role of women in American history from the Colonies to the early 20th century.  These are our maternal ancestors speaking to us about their lives, giving us a window into the poorly documented world of women.  Although they couldn't make the laws or even elect the lawmakers, their influence and contributions were real.  HerStory is my attempt to honor them.  Dedicated to all women, everywhere.

Cotton Mill Girls

traditional

Although this song probably dates from the south in the 1920's rather than New England in the 1820's, it serves well to illustrate the conditions in the early mills. The reason it's so flexible: when the mills moved south in the 1900s they simply transplanted the system they had perfected in the north. Girls worked long hours for little pay while breathing in cotton dust. In the early mills, teenage Yankee farm girls were the work force, but as conditions grew worse, and the operatives began to demand better pay and treatment, the mill owners turned to immigrant labor, which included men, women, and children as young as seven.

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Wagoner's Lad

traditional

The first verse of Wagoner's Lad gives a succinct summary of most women's situation. When performing HerStory, I usually sing only this verse, but the whole story is worth a listen. The wagoners were rather romantic figures, like railroad men and truckers, since they had the opportunity to travel. Like many traditional songs about women, she is at the mercy of others.

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Common Bill

traditional

No offense intended to all the Bills out there, including my dear husband. To the girl in this song, however, Bill has no romance whatever. On the other hand, what if his offer is the only one she gets? A real dilemma for many a young girl both in our distant and not-so-distant past.

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Gray Goose

traditional

I learned this from the singing of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and my attempt is a poor homage to their brilliance. I have changed the sex of the goose to female, because I just liked it better that way. To me, it stands for African Americans in general, and the women in particular, who keep on rising under almost impossible constraints.

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Johnny's Gone for a Soldier

traditional

This is an Irish melody which came here early and was adapted for the Revolution, and still sung during the Civil War. It relates to all women left to wonder as their husbands leave for the battlefield. It's important to know that when the young wife offers to sell her spinning wheel and flax, she is making a very significant contribution to the war effort. The soldiers had to arm and outfit themselves and this often demanded great sacrifice from the family left behind.

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The Single Girl

traditional

When a woman married, her legal status was subsumed in that of her husband, but at least she gained social standing, the achievement of what society called her highest aspiration. Although marriage was the goal of many a young girl, a bad marriage was often a jail sentence It wasn't easy to escape from an abusive husband for most of our history. Even if she could sue for divorce, she risked losing everything, since her husband's rights were paramount. He could dispose of his wife's property, take their children, and leave her destitute. The girl in this song is left longing for death, her only means of escape.

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Go Down, Moses

traditional

Harriet Tubman is probably the most famous woman of the civil war era. In every classroom I visit the children know her name. Her nickname, Moses, was derived from her similarity to the biblical character in bringing her people to freedom. Tubman was a very formidable woman, whose exploits deserve more recognition from adults. Her heroism and ability to escape capture were truly remarkable, as was her devotion not only to freedom, but to women's rights.

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Sweet Betsy from Pike

traditional

This is a song which I might have ignored, since it seemed like such a worn out chestnut, but I found some verses in my library of folk song books which gave the old gal quite a bit of spunk. What’s wonderful about the song is that it very accurately describes the trials of the trip west across the Oregon or California trails. Another interesting fact is that, although relatively few women actually went west in the Gold Rush, the two best-known songs about it are both about women, being this one and “My Darling Clementine,” which is also, sadly, seldom heard.

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There'll Come a Time

Charles K. Harris - 1895

I have always tried to imagine what a young girl listening to this song would have gleaned from its "wisdom." Basically, it says women are not to be trusted and may fall victim to their emotional shortcomings. There are many songs of this ilk, despite the fact that it was far more common for a man to abandon his family than for a woman to do so. There'll Come a Time was written by Charles K. Harris, the author of "After the Ball," the nation's first million-seller (of sheet music!). It was later taken up, as many parlor songs were, by old time and country musicians, who smoothed out the melody and shortened the verses, but kept the message. My version retains the original melody but gives it a little old-timey treatment.

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When the Girls Can Vote

M.H. Evans and Emma Pow Smith- 1890

When women's suffrage was first proposed it was firmly denounced by the liquor industry, who feared that the many women temperance crusaders would prohibit alcohol. This little ditty was, I think, meant to be sincere at the time, but sounds pretty funny to me now. Thanks to Byon Yeatts, Dana Pearson, and Bill Grabin for the Ahurrahs. They are based on directions in the original sheet music.

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