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Honoring the Female Musicians, Inventors and Execs Who Shaped Popular Music

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Jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby, an influence of Stevie Wonder’s, and electronic music innovator Wendy Carlos are two of the women Mark Montgomery French covers in his course, “The Unsung Women of Music.” (Serendip LLC/Courtesy of the artist)

Did you know that the A-X in Stax Records stands for Estelle Axton, one of the country’s first female record executives? Or that a Black, bisexual guitarist named Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a major influence of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan?

Speaker, writer and composer Mark Montgomery French is on a mission to make sure that the legacies of these and other influential women in music aren’t forgotten. In early 2020, French enjoyed a successful run with his talk “All Your Favorite Music is (Probably) Black.” And during the pandemic, he’s stayed busy with various projects, including creative directing the online broadcasts for GLIDE Memorial Church, writing for PopMatters and managing queer country singer Secret Emchy Society. Now, he’s getting ready to launch a new online course, “The Unsung Women of Music,” through Rhythmix Cultural Works. 

Beginning on Feb. 23 and running through the end of March, Women’s History Month, the course is divided into six subject areas: rock ’n’ roll; jazz and hip-hop; songwriters and composers; R&B and electronica; blues, gospel and country; and iconoclasts and inventors. (You can either sign up for the full six-week course or drop into one session at a time.)

Music lovers might recognize some of the featured artists, such as jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby—a favorite of Stevie Wonder’s—or Wendy Carlos, an electronic music innovator and soundtrack composer (A Clockwork Orange, The Shining) whose public coming out was huge for trans visibility in the late ’70s. “I definitely talk about some people who were behind the scenes as well that people don’t know, who started labels, were equipment manufacturers or were guitarists who played on records,” French says.

Indeed, to fully appreciate women’s contributions to popular music, those behind-the-scenes figures are just as important to celebrate as the stars: even now, only 5% of music producers are women. The music industry has a tremendous way to go when it comes to gender equality, and French’s project reminds us that to move forward towards progress, we must also honor the past.

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More information on “The Unsung Women of Music” can be found here

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