Hep girls who can hit still face discrimination

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Kim Thompson, the drummer for Fred Armisen’s band, which plays on TV’s Late Night With Seth Meyers. - Photo: Zildjian.com

More than 70 years ago, woman drummer Viola Smith rattled the music establishment when she wrote an editorial for the jazz magazine Down Beat declaring that “hep girls” could hold their own in any jam session. The piece, title “Give Girl Musicians a Break!,” expressed the frustration that she faced as a woman playing instruments that society believed women were not capable of playing as well as men.

Smith was one of many legendary female drummers interviewed by author Angela Smith for her new landmark book Women Drummers: A History From Rock and Jazz To Blues and Country. Smith reports that women drummers hadn’t always been a novelty act. In ancient times, for instance, women were the primary percussionists: Drums were seen as symbols of fertility, and only women could play them.

But the Middle Ages changed that attitude. By Victorian times, women were only expected to participate in music in the home, and even there they were mostly restricted to singing or playing the piano. The harp was another acceptable instrument for women, because they could remain graceful while playing it. But drums, often seen as the most primitive of instruments, were strictly off limits for women.

Smith is a classical cellist by training, but 10 years ago she started playing the steel drum. It was an instrument that had intrigued her from childhood. Her experience in learning to play the steel drum led her to write a successful book titled Steel Drums and Steelbands: A History. As part of the project, she met many percussionists, including women and men drummers. 

After the success of that project, her publisher asked her to look into Karen Carpenter’s position as an influential drummer in pop and rock music. While doing the research into that, Smith learned about the challenges women drummers face. So she pitched the publisher about turning that discovery into book. He loved it, and the project began.

During her research, Smith learned many interesting anecdotes. She interviewed dozens of women drummers, from 101-year-old Viola Smith to Meg White of The White Stripes. Smith said the greatest factor behind discrimination against women drummers is the perception that playing the drums requires a great deal of physical strength and dexterity that women don’t have. 

Most women drummers have heard at least once, “You hit pretty good for a girl,” Smith said.

One story she likes to recount in this vein is about blues legend Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. “She got her start in the music business by helping a producer move a piano up several flights of stairs,” Smith said. “If she was strong enough to do that, then he would give her a chance to prove her skills as a drummer and vocalist.”

Smith said Karen Carpenter, of the pop duo The Carpenters, once beat out John Bonham of Led Zeppelin to be named best drummer in a Playboy reader’s poll. Bonham was incensed, but jazz great Buddy Rich rallied to her side, saying Carpenter was one of the greatest drummers he had ever known. Musically, she always considered herself “a drummer who sang.”

Canadian Michelle Josef began her drumming career as male drummer Bohdan Hluszko. Regarded as Canada’s best country music drummer, she faced a lot of discrimination in the percussion community for being female after transitioning to a woman, even though her skills remained the same.

Dotty Dodgion accomplished the exceedingly difficult task of having a successful drumming career in the jazz community. But she related a story about performing with the legendary Benny Goodman and getting more applause than he did. She was fired the next day.

Smith said things are changing for women drummers. Kim Thompson, the drummer for Fred Armisen’s band on TV’s Late Night With Seth Meyers, gives nightly exposure to women drummers. A recent iPhone ad featured a young girl playing the drums. There is also a magazine —Tom Tom — which is devoted exclusively to female drummers.

But Smith said she believes it will be a very long time before women drummers are seen as “more than a novelty.”

The book Women Drummers: A History From Rock and Jazz To Blues and Country is fascinating reading for music fans and those who are interested in gender issues as well. Smith recounts stories that should be heard as today’s young girl drummers seek to break stereotypes and pursue their personal muses. The book is an essential work on both women’s history and the contemporary state of female percussionists in the music industry.