The best books about women in rock, folk, and blues

Bonnie Morris Author Of The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture
By Bonnie Morris

Who am I?

My expertise as a scholar of the women’s music movement spans 40 years--ever since I attended my first concert and music festival in 1981. A lecturer at UC-Berkeley, I’m the author of 19 books on women’s history, and published the first book on women’s music festivals, Eden Built By Eves, in 1999 (now out of print.) More recently I’ve organized exhibits on the women’s music movement for the Library of Congress, co-authored The Feminist Revolution (which made Oprah’s list), and I’m now the archivist and historian for Olivia Records.


I wrote...

The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture

By Bonnie Morris,

Book cover of The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture

What is my book about?

The Disappearing L offers an overview of the rise and fall of lesbian cultural spaces. What was the soundtrack of the feminist revolution? How did artists, producers, and fans create a vast network of women’s concerts, recording companies, and festivals that offered meaningful performance spaces for women coming out as lesbians—and performers too radical for the mainstream? The book examines how women’s bookstores, women’s studies programs, and other year-round institutions built spaces that included a music subculture—only to see independent venues vanish once LGBT rights and mainstreaming were attained. As women’s music spaces are disappearing, how will we remember them?

The books I picked & why

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Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir

By Linda Ronstadt,

Book cover of Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir

Why this book?

This wonderfully written memoir by one of the most successful singers in American rock and popular music offers a thoughtful look at the artist’s rise to fame in multiple musical genres—from folk clubs to sold-out stadium concerts, to Broadway, torch songs, and the Mexican Canciones music of the author’s Sonora heritage. The book is a keen glimpse at the pressures of the road (and expectations for women in the spotlight), but a triumphant story of talent and artistic innovation.


Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday

By Angela Y. Davis,

Book cover of Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday

Why this book?

The well-known radical activist and scholar brings a wealth of knowledge on women’s blues songs to this collection of lyrics, stories, and keen feminist analysis—expanding on what we know about the oral tradition, the alternative venues available to Black women in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, and spotlighting Billie Holiday. Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. (A great text to pair with Gayle Wald’s Shout, Sister, Shout!, about the career of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.)


First Time Ever: A Memoir

By Peggy Seeger,

Book cover of First Time Ever: A Memoir

Why this book?

Not everyone who loves and admires this folk musician, the half-sister of Pete Seeger and a longtime collector of English folk ballads, knows her as the songwriter behind Roberta Flack’s hit “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face;” hence the title. The quirky style of this real page-turner provides fantastic stories of folk heritage, song collecting, love, child-rearing, radio performance activism, encounters with English Travelers, travels to China, and life growing up as a daughter of the ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger.


My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming Onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement

By Alix Dobkin,

Book cover of My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming Onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement

Why this book?

The child of Communist parents, Alix would grow up to be one of the most profound movers and shakers of the lesbian music movement, producing the first full-length lesbian album, Lavender Jane Loves Women, in 1973. But this memoir is a series of chapters on her early years growing up in the 1950s with progressive activists and folk club life, embarking on her own career in the folk circuit, singing against the backdrop of repressive politics, and coming into the women’s movement as a married mother about to fall in love with another woman.


Land of a Thousand Bridges: Island Girl in a Rock & Roll World

By June Millington,

Book cover of Land of a Thousand Bridges: Island Girl in a Rock & Roll World

Why this book?

A lead vocalist of the Billboard-charting girl group Fanny, a rock sensation of the 1970s, June continues to publish rollicking memoirs of growing up in the Philippines, relocating to white American suburbia, and starting a band with her sister Jean. Now featured in the independent documentary film “Fanny: The Right to Rock,” June and her former bandmates hope to see Fanny inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The book covers years of wild gigs, how the band negotiated twin pressures of racism and sexism, and recording alongside a range of celebrities--including Barbra Streisand.


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