Earlier this year, sea shanties enjoyed a popular moment thanks to their sudden resurgence on the social media platform TikTok. In a roundabout way, this got me thinking about songs by women, or she shanties, if you will. In honor of International Women’s Day, I thought I’d take a quick look at three songbooks from women composers.
According to information on the cover of our first songbook, Woman’s Suffrage Songs captures tunes “sung at the Indiana State Convention of the Woman’s Franchise League” which met in Indianapolis May 4-5, 1913. The Woman’s Franchise League of Indiana was founded in 1911, and quickly became the largest organization in that state advocating for women’s suffrage. The seven songs published in this booklet were composed by Pauline Russell Browne and are arranged for chorus or for solo voice. Not much is known about Browne. Her name appears in the Indianapolis Star recital announcements of the time listing her as an accompanist and sometimes as the composer of programmed works. Who she was, where she received her musical education, and what events inspired her suffrage songbook remain mysteries. An Indiana death certificate documents the passing, on September 8, 1929, of a Pauline Russell Browne with the occupation of “musician.” This is likely the very same composer of Woman’s Suffrage Songs, but corroborating information proved difficult to find. Her age listed at time of death was 58.
Moving from the political to the personal, our next work is a songbook of spirituals arranged by Eva Jessye (1895-1992). The first African American woman to garner an international reputation for choral conducting and arrangement, Jessye grew up in Coffeyville, Kansas, and was educated at Western University in Kansas and Langston University in Oklahoma. In addition to leading her own choir, she was the choral director for groundbreaking theatrical works Four Saints in Three Acts (by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein, 1934) and Porgy and Bess (by George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, 1935); for many decades after its premiere, she remained the authority on Porgy and Bess’s choral music. Jessye’s first major publication, My Spirituals, a collection of 16 arrangements for solo voice, appeared in 1927. In her introduction, Jessye clarifies that the work is not meant to be a scholarly investigation, but simply “a recording of some songs I grew up with … the songs of my childhood and of my own people.” As a preface to each piece, Jessye includes memories of friends, neighbors, and family members.
The third songbook documents the creative output of a singer and songwriter who is still making music. The Peggy Seeger Songbook, warts and all: forty years of songmaking was published in 1998 and consists of more than 150 songs written or arranged by Seeger. Organized chronologically, the songbook also includes a subject index whereby users can search for songs on specific topics such as “Unions and Industry,” “Racism, Fascism,” or “Love–serious and otherwise,” themes Seeger often explored and revisited. As with Jessye’s songbook, Seeger introduces many of her songs with a short anecdote or thought on the song’s origin and her connection to it. Seeger, who turns 86 in June, was raised in a prolific musical family and has been making recordings since 1955. Her 24th solo album, First Farewell, will be released next month.
Each of these works is worthy of more considered attention than I can provide here, but my hope is to ignite your curiosity about songs by women composers. To explore more songbooks, visit the Library’s catalog. Who knows, what you may find may even perhaps spark the next social media trend.