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Celebrating The Black Women Guitarists Who Made Music History


SISTER ROSETTA THARPE: (Singing) Up above my head, music in the air.


As Black History Month gets underway, let's take a moment to appreciate a very special group of artists who are being celebrated on sheshreds.com in a post titled "7 Guitars That Prove Black Women Were Pioneers In Music History."


SISTER ROSETTA THARPE: Let's do that again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fabi Reyna is founder of She Shreds Media, and she joins us now from Portland, Ore. Welcome to the program.

FABI REYNA: Hi. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're listening there to the godmother of rock 'n' roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who's naturally on your list. She was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, I believe. But the first musician in your article is actually not a guitarist. Let's listen now to Mamie Smith.


MAMIE SMITH: (Singing) Now I got the crazy blues since my baby went away. I ain't got no time to lose. I must find him today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about Mamie Smith and this song from the 1920s, "Crazy Blues."

REYNA: Yes. So we wrote an article in our 20th issue that was called "The Evolution Of Women Musicians In Media." And we said, you know, rock created the music publications we read today. R&B created rock. Blues created R&B. And Mamie Smith made the blues a national sensation. So basically, Mamie Smith really is credited with not just giving voice and value to Black consumers but bringing it to a national level.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because she was the first blues singer, right? That song is the first blues song recorded by a woman.

REYNA: Exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, next on the list, let's listen to Elizabeth Cotten and her song "Freight Train."


ELIZABETH COTTEN: (Singing) Freight train, freight train, run so fast. Freight train, freight train, run so fast. Please don't tell what train I'm on. They won't know what route I'm going.

REYNA: Elizabeth Cotten was, like, an innovator. She was a self-taught guitarist who really wrote a lot of her music between the ages of 7 and 12. And because she was a left-handed guitarist, she played her guitar upside down and created something that we today called the technique Cotten picking. And so "Freight Train," a song that she wrote in 1904 when she was 11, has been praised and covered throughout generations by artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Laura Gibson and many more.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we also have Sylvia Robinson. Here she is with Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange."


MICKEY & SYLVIA: (Singing) Love. Love is strange. Yeah, yeah. Lot of people...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there is a connection to this song...


THE SUGARHILL GANG: (Rapping) Check it out: I'm the C-A-S-AN, the O-V-A, and the rest is f-l-y. Y'see I go by the code of the doctor of the mix. And these reasons I'll tell ya why...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me how they're related.

REYNA: She became the founder and CEO of Sugar Hill Records, which is a label known for its role in jumpstarting hip-hop. And in 1973, Robinson actually wrote and recorded and released her own album called "Pillow Talk."


SYLVIA ROBINSON: (Singing) What your friends all say is fine, but it can't compete with this pillow talk of mine. Oh, baby...

REYNA: So she was really, you know, an entrepreneur. She had a vision.


ROBINSON: (Singing) La, la, la. La, la, la...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And now to a player, Peggy Jones. Here she is playing in 2011 at the age of 72.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: 72. She's also known as Lady Bo, and there's a Bo Diddley connection.

REYNA: Yes. So Bo Diddley actually had two guitarists in his time, Lady Bo and the Duchess. And they're two different people that played with him two different times. And it's important to say that because Wikipedia actually has a photo of the Duchess for Lady Bo's biography. But the reason we included Lady Bo instead of the Duchess was because Lady Bo was actually part of a songwriting team for a lot of Bo Diddley's early music. And so while he was coined as sort of this founding member of R&B, she was right there writing a lot of those hits, a lot of those songs and, sometimes, in those recordings recording all the guitar parts.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there's also a left-handed player known as the Lefty Queen of R&B. Let's listen.


BARBARA LYNN: (Singing) If you should lose me, oh, yeah, you'll lose a good thing...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Barbara Lynn's "You'll Lose a Good Thing." Tell us about her.

REYNA: I think one thing about Barbara Lynn's story and that's really good to remember about all of these artists is that these artists were coming up at a time when it wasn't normal for women and especially Black women to own their voice, you know, to have their own stage. And Barbara Lynn was obviously coined the Lefty Queen of R&B because she was a left-handed guitarist but also because she was one of the first Black women to be televised as a songwriter, as a leader of her own group. So that was really powerful, and "You'll Lose A Good Thingm" one of her, you know, best songs continues to be a sort of cultural reference.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should mention you're in your 20s. You're a player yourself. Tell me about this project. I mean, why did you want to highlight all these women?

REYNA: I started She Shreds about 10 years ago. And it started because I knew that there was another truth to the story. I was never seeing myself represented. There was no visibility for Black and brown and Indigenous women. And so as a native Mexican-American, I knew that the history, the truth wasn't being told. And so I decided to dedicate my life to doing the research, you know, to really showing the guitarists and the impact that they've had on music history, music history being and music being one of the most beautiful ways of expressing yourself, you know? And, you know, 10 years later, now in 2021, it's a sort of global revolution, you know? Being able to see ourselves depicted in history really gives us the power to visualize the kind of musicians and people that we want to be today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're going to go out now with Beverly Guitar Watkins playing at a club in Atlanta in 2016 for her 77th birthday. Fabi Reyna - her article on sheshreds.com is "7 Guitars That Prove Black Women Were Pioneers In Music History."

Thank you very much.

REYNA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAYING GUITAR) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.