Whether in rockabilly or punk, heavy metal or soul, women have made a profound, enduring impact on their craft. In recognition of their seminal achievements and influence, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland is set to premiere a groundbreaking new exhibit, Women Who Rock.
Commencing on Friday, May 13, and running through Feb. 26, 2012, the exhibit occupies two full floors of the seven-story museum. Divided into eight sections, it not only chronicles women’s contributions within the rock ‘n’ roll era to date but those of preceding and otherwise influential genres as well.
“Women have played a major role in the evolution and development of rock ‘n’ roll,” says Jim Henke, vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, “especially during the early years, people think of it as being a male-dominated form. What we wanted to show is that women have played a key role.”
Even as it recognizes such contributions, the exhibit is very much designed to educate and enlighten its visitors. “It’s interesting,” Henke notes, “Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey made blues records before any men made blues records. ‘Mother’ Maybelle Carter, she made country records before any men were making country records. A lot of people don’t realize that.”
Since its inception, one often tacit yet ubiquitous theme of rock ‘n’ roll has been its depiction and perception of women as objects of sexual temptation and fantasy. Some of the exhibit’s featured artists, like Debbie Harry and Madonna, cunningly toyed with their images and gender roles; others, like Diana Ross and Stevie Nicks, asserted their femininity in more discreet but no less iconic ways.
As Henke suggests, though, the exhibit concentrates more on talent. “It does show that it wasn’t just based on their looks or anything like that,” he says. “There were a lot of important musicians and singers and songwriters who were women who played a big role.”
An arsenal of artifacts — guitars from the likes of Wanda Jackson and Chrissie Hynde; bass guitars from Tina Weymouth and Kim Gordon; a Dobro® guitar from Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time sessions; one of Meg White’s bass drums — illustrate perhaps the most tangible manifestation of such talent. “The exhibit includes a lot of different instruments,” Henke confirms, adding that while procuring them was no easy task, artists and their representatives were eager to assist. “When we called and told people about this exhibit, almost to a person everyone was excited and wanted to take part in it. They were very receptive. The general excitement was probably greater than most of our [other] exhibits put together.”
To commemorate the opening of Women Who Rock, some of music’s leading and legendary ladies, including Mavis Staples, Wanda Jackson, and Darlene Love, will headline this year’s It’s Only Rock and Roll Spring Benefit Concert, Saturday night at Public Hall in the Cleveland Convention Center.
“Look at the charts now and they’re pretty much dominated by women,” Henke concludes, “but they have been playing a key role, and we just wanted to bring that to the forefront.”