The personal stories are always the best ones

Wednesday, July 13: 2:34 p.m.
Posted by Sarah Dougher

Guest blog courtesy of 2011 Summer Teacher Institute participant Sarah Dougher, educator at Portland State University and at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland.

One thing about exploring the history of women is that in order to tell these important stories, the personal is made public, and the personal often becomes political. Although this is an old saw, it sings a new tune when we are talking about the materials in the Women who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power exhibit. Upon seeing Wanda Jackson’s dress, a kind of shabby-looking red, white and blue number hanging next to her hand-decorated guitar, our tour guide mentioned that when the museum had asked Jackson for items to display, she didn’t have many dresses from the early period.  She explained that her mom made all her dresses by hand, and because they were poor, would often recycle elements, such as fringe and rhinestones, in dress after dress. 

What we saw displayed at the museum were elements that may have graced the famous dress that did not cover her shoulders when she first played at the Grand Ole Opry. She was forced by the host to wear a jacket on stage because her dress was “too revealing.” We might have been looking at elements from the dress she wore on Town Hall Party in 1958 when she belted, “You gotta rock your baby all night long” in her growling, assertive voice. But this tidbit of information, which doesn’t appear anywhere in the text of the exhibit or in the catalogue, is the one I keep thinking about: Her mom made her dresses. They were poor and had to make due and recycle.  

These stories resonate with people, and especially young people. These kind of details can fuel a discussion about the socio-economic conditions for a young white woman playing music in the segregated American south in the 1950s, and can connect the day-to-day elements of music with the flashes of celebrity and fame that also occupy these exhibits.

I felt very lucky to be able to talk with educators at the Rock Hall’s Summer Teacher Institute about how women who rock can be a way into history and music for many different kinds of learners. We talked about how girls’ singing and dancing games, like “Little Sally Walker,” provide an unbroken link between girls who lived in a time before widespread electricity and ourselves, and the importance of these games in different modes of getting along, different modes of singing, dancing and playing together. If we say, “girls’ games don’t have anything to do with rock ‘n’ roll,” we are wrong.  If we say the fringe doesn’t matter, we are also wrong. To best connect younger learners with the significance of popular music in American life, in their lives, we have to pay attention to these less obvious, less conventional historical details of the lives of girls and women. The Rock Hall, together with the Library and Archives opening next year, have tremendous intention to keep telling these important stories, in order to connect to a new generation of learners. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they come up with next.



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