This post was co-authored by Kaleena Black, Educational Resources Specialist, and Monica Valentine, Program Specialist in the Library’s Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement.
As we continue to observe Women’s History Month, we wanted to shine a light on the achievements and pioneering work of diverse women across fields and professions, including the women of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. (You can listen to a sound clip of the band’s music, here.) This group and their story may inspire the teenagers in your life, including those interested in jazz musicians, the World War II era, and more.
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a multiracial all-women’s jazz orchestra, began in the late 1930s as an effort to raise money to sustain the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. However, in 1941, after gaining some fame, the young women embarked on a music career full-time. Ultimately growing to 18 members, the group comprised vocalists, saxophonists, trumpeters, drummers, trombonists, and others.
Examples of the excitement around performances by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, including ads and announcements, can be found in various newspapers of the 1940s, featured in the Chronicling America newspaper database. For example, in its September 1, 1944 issue, The Apache Sentinel described the ensemble as “America’s Most Versatile All Girl Band,” and went on to say that they “…boast some of the hottest swing artists in the music world. Their harmonics are classed as superb and to watch Directress Winburn draw the melody from this group of feminine musicians is a thrill in itself.” Later, an article in the November 4, 1949 issue of the Arizona Sun described the group as “the sensational dance band the whole country’s talking about… playing dreamworld music—captivating rhythm—that makes you want to dance.”
Aside from their talent, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, like other female groups popular during the WWII era, may have also flourished in part due to the number of male musicians who were serving in the war. A number of articles from the early 1940s—e.g., “Women Replace Men in Name Bands”, “Girl Bands May Replace Male If War Continues”, and “War Provides ‘Break’ for All-Girl Bands”— also suggested this. You might read these articles, and consider sharing and discussing one with the teenagers in your life, particularly those who have learned about WWII.
Moreover, newspapers that spanned the period described the International Sweethearts of Rhythm in various ways—not only by their musical skills, but also by their physical appearance. Some papers even touted the musicians as “18 beautiful girls of all nations“, “bewitching maidens”, “a carload of sepia beauties” and even, “That Musical Novelty of the Century”. Below is one example of an advertisement for one of the band’s shows in 1944, which might spark an interesting conversation with your kids. After they examine it, ask them which words are used to describe the band. What is their impression of the group, based on the ad? Do they think this is similar or different to how women artists are portrayed today?
While the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were pioneers as female jazz musicians, they also faced bias on multiple fronts. Indeed, they did tour nationally and throughout Europe, including performances for African American troops stationed abroad. However, they faced hardships as they toured across the United States, particularly in the South, where they confronted segregation and Jim Crow laws, which discriminated against Black people. Consider the advertisement below from the March 24, 1945 issue of The Mississippi Enterprise, announcing an upcoming concert by the band. You might discuss with your children what it might reveal about some aspects of the band’s experience during this period.
Although the International Sweethearts of Rhythm ultimately separated after the 1940s, their music lives on. Recordings of the band may not have survived if not for the efforts of collectors who had a special interest in recordings of women jazz and blues musicians. A collection of such recordings was added to the National Recording Registry in 2011, and you can read a scholarly essay about the entry.
If you are interested in learning more about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and other similar female musicians, you can start by exploring the following resources:
- Bonnie Morris’ 2017 lecture “Soundwaves of Feminism: The Women’s Music Movement” (21:00-23:25)
- Meredith Holmgren’s (curator of American Women’s Music at the Smithsonian Institution) 2019 lecture “Women Documenting the World” (14:05-16:40)
- “Hottest Women’s Band of the 1940s”–International Sweethearts of Rhythm,” a scholarly essay by Dr. Chris Robinson and Dr. Sherrie Tucker
And if you’re looking for images of other jazz musicians and vocalists, check out the collection of William P. Gottlieb, which includes photographs of icons such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and many more.
Finally, for the younger children in your life, you might explore these books about some women of the Big Band/Swing era:
- Carol Boston Weatherford and Elizabeth Zunon, The Legendary Miss Lena Horne (Simon & Schuster, 2017). Ages 4-8.
- Vivian Kirkfield and Alleanna Harris, Making Their Voices Heard (Simon & Schuster, 2020). Ages 4-8.
- Mara Rockliff and Michelle Wood, Born to Swing: Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Life in Jazz (Calkins Creek Publishing, 2018). Ages 7-10.
- Katheryn-Russell Brown and Frank Morrison, Little Melba and Her Big Trombone (Lee & Low Books, 2014). Ages 7-10.
- Gary Golio and Charlotte Riley Webb, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of A Protest Song (Millbrook/Lerner, 2017). Ages 8-12.
The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Another excellent resource is the 1986 doucmentary film “International Sweethearts of Rythm” by Greta Shiller.
(Ms. Shiller’s 1985 film, “Before Stonewall” was added to the National Film Registry at the LoC in 2019.)
Information about her films is available here: jezebelproductions.org/films/