On this International Women’s Day during the Smithsonian Year of Music, we are pleased to introduce Meredith Holmgren as the institution’s first ever curator of American women’s music. She is one of six new curators taking part in the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative, Because of Her Story, which launched in 2018.
This new curatorial cohort will spotlight little-known stories, historical collections, and present-day issues of women in the United States. Holmgren, in particular, focuses on women in music, examining not only recordings and performances but research, education, and industry dynamics.
Holmgren got her start in the field as an ethnomusicology major at UCLA. There she focused on the music of protest and struggle, taking classes with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings founding director Anthony Seeger and performing with the university’s Indonesian gamelan and Bulgarian women’s choir ensembles. She continued her education at Leiden University in the Netherlands, where she earned master’s degrees in cultural anthropology and Asian studies.
For six years, she has been at the helm of education programs at Smithsonian Folkways, managing the annual World Music Pedagogy courses and online publication of Folkways Magazine, among other digital storytelling projects. With her deep understanding of and passion for music collections at the Smithsonian, in this new role she is primed to share the institutional knowledge with the public.
In this interview, Holmgren identifies some significant recordings and artifacts in our collection and lays out plans for programs during the next four years.
What role has Smithsonian Folkways played in the history of American women’s music?
Folkways has a unique profile: it has recorded many seminal musicians, especially related to the music of protest and struggle, experimental music, and folk and traditional music.
Peggy Seeger is one of our most prolific artists in American folk and protest music genres. She appears on nearly three dozen Folkways albums, both as a solo artist and with various family members. It’s just a treasure trove. The recordings follow her from her early days of recording folk standards through writing her own songs, many of which speak to the women’s rights movement. A lot of the themes present in her repertoire are still relevant today. On our new Social Power of Music box set, there’s a track called “Reclaim the Night” that’s about sexual assault and the will to walk at night and not feel threatened. That’s just as relevant today as when she recorded it in the 1970s.
We also have several “firsts.” We have what is commonly referred to as the first commercial album of Asian American music, A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America. Nobuko Miyamoto, a Japanese American woman, recorded it with a trio of West Coast musicians for Paredon Records, which is now under Smithsonian Folkways.
We have some recordings done by Marilyn Ries, known as the first professional female sound engineer. She was an important figure in the women’s music movement of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, becoming sort of the go-to sound engineer for women recording artists, especially those in the LGBTQ communities. So we have some of her recordings, one of which is called Songs of a Lesbian Anarchist. She also worked at many of the early women’s music festivals, which also took off around that time. So we have photographs in the Diana Davies collection of her working a sound board at the first National Women’s Music Festival.
What are some major milestones in American women’s music in the Smithsonian’s collections?
I’m still discovering the breadth of our collections, but some of the earliest I’ve been able to find are in sheet music. In the mid-1800s, upper-class women were expected to have some training in piano, probably as part of “charm school” conditioning, starting with young girls. So there were all these music books created by women, for women. It is an interesting moment when women composers and song compilers start getting a lot of attention.
Then we have some sheet music from the temperance movement, which aimed to stop alcohol sales in the United States and sparked Prohibition in the 1920s. It was largely led by women and religious groups, many of whom were fed up with men drinking too much and not fulfilling their family responsibilities. There’s some interesting protest music there. I get really excited about it because they’re often in these beautiful songbooks that are hand-bound with homemade cloth.
Then there is music from the women’s suffrage movement, which eventually prevailed with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The Smithsonian has some music from that period, including a Folkways recording of women in the 1950s revisiting some of that sheet music and recording it for commercial production.
The civil rights movement has a lot of great music recordings and compositions by women, and the Smithsonian has a great deal of that material. We worked closely with Bernice Johnson Reagon, who sang both solo and as part of the SNCC Freedom Singers. The Ella Fitzgerald collection has sheet music, writings, and original materials. We have Marian Anderson’s recordings, photographs, and clothing. There’s also a portrait stamp of her.
As for more recent additions, I love our new album by Lula Wiles. It’s a trio of young women who are carrying forward the American folk tradition, paying homage to some of the earlier women composers and writers, like Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, and reinterpreting that music for younger audiences. They also write their own material. They’re talented musicians, but they’re also very thoughtful about social issues.
I’m also wild for the new album by Our Native Daughters, which features poignant songwriting about historic injustices that have been perpetrated against African American women. It’s a stunning record in sound and subject, and a true supergroup if I ever heard one.
As the Smithsonian’s first curator of American women’s music, what kind of projects are you planning?
There will be a book coming out in 2020 that spotlights Smithsonian collections that related to women’s history. Through the American Women’s History Initiative, our editorial team is working closely with Smithsonian Books to find objects that showcase a breadth of historical materials. We’ll have items from the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage alongside work from the other research centers and and museums. Stephanie Smith, former director of our Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives, has been writing a piece about Jean Ritchie, and we hope to have photos from the Diana Davies collection and Smithsonian Folkways.
I’m also curating an exhibition in the Smithsonian Libraries space at the National Museum of American History, which will open sometime in 2020 or 2021. It will be all about American women’s music history and the incredible collections we have in Smithsonian libraries, museums, and archives. It will include some material culture from all over the institution, but it will hopefully feature multimedia as well, so we’ve already been talking about how to incorporate recordings and sound design. It’s going to be a little different for a music exhibition, working with a lot of two-dimensional library materials. I envision it being a place where we can have performances and talks throughout the year. It will be my first exhibition here, so I’m also going to be learning a lot about the process of creating.
During all of this, I’m also going to be working on a CD box set featuring women musicians and composers on Smithsonian Folkways. I’ll be looking across our sound collections to find thematic ties and important pieces that could benefit from contemporary interpretation. There have been compilations about gospel music and bluegrass and all kinds of genres, but we haven’t really focused on women artists. I believe it will be the first of its kind here.
I think part of going through all of this material will also be about identifying gaps. From there, we’ll be better positioned to bring new artists to the label, acquire new collections across the institution, and rethink some of our strategy in terms of programming and education.
We’re trying to squeeze in quite a bit in the next four years. I’m going to be busy, but it will be so fun. I just can’t wait to get going.
Are you organizing anything for the Smithsonian Year of Music in 2019?
So, this is my first week on the job, basically. But the first month will be Women’s History Month, so I’m organizing a panel with other women at the Smithsonian who have focused on music. We’re going to have an open discussion at the end of March to talk about the past, present, and future of women and music curation at the Smithsonian.
This was prompted by the revelation that, in the 173-year history of the Smithsonian, we’ve only identified two women who have held the title of “music curator”: Cynthia Hoover, formerly of the National Museum of American History, and Dwandalyn Reece of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. That’s not to say that other women haven’t curated music as part of their jobs—there are actually hundreds of women who have contributed to the vitality of music curation at the Smithsonian—but when it came to hiring full-time music curators, women have barely been present. Now the American Women’s History Initiative is working to change that.
What excites you the most about this new job?
The position is very exciting on a personal and professional level, but it also is a big responsibility to serve the public and the desires of all women across the United States. I really want to approach this position from the standpoint of being very inclusive, being a good listener, and trying to make everyone feel like they are a part of history, because they are!
Ultimately, this is the National Museum of the United States—the largest museum, education, and research complex in the world. We’re here not for ourselves, but for the public. It’s a great honor.
Women’s Liberation Playlist
Women and Folk Playlist
A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle of Asians in America
Bernice Johnson Reagon – Give Your Hands to Struggle
Elizabeth Knight – Songs of the Suffragettes
Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard – Pioneering Women of Bluegrass
Jean Ritchie – Ballads from her Appalachian Family Tradition
Kathy Fire – Songs of Fire: Songs of a Lesbian Anarchist
Lula Wiles – What Will We Do
Our Native Daughters – Songs of Our Native Daughters
Peggy Seeger – Different, Therefore Equal
Suni Paz – Entre Hermanas: Between Sisters
Elisa Hough is the editor at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She basically owes her career to Meredith Holmgren, for taking her in as an intern in 2013.
In 2019 we are celebrating the Smithsonian Year of Music, with 365 days of performances, exhibitions, and other music-related programming around the institution. Learn more at music.si.edu.