"There is evidence that in many societies the bulk of the work of transmitting cultural tradition is the province of women, who, after all, are mainly concerned with the early rearing of children. Thus it is interesting to see that in the thousands of publications and recordings of Child ballads examined by Bronson (1959-72), the majority were sung by women. Female representation in many of the larger collections of European folk music is about half, and it often seems to be particularly the women who know the older material." - Bruno Nettl, The Study of Ethnomusicology (336).

"Years ago when that funny old Englishman [Cecil Sharp] come over the mountains and wrote down these old love songs that I know, I could sing like a mockingbird and wasn't no step that I couldn't put my foot to in a dance" - Aunt Lize Pace, from Alan Lomax' headnote to a version of "The Mermaid," Child #289, in Our Singing Country.

"One of our friends owned a real African princess. She must have been over a hundred when I knew her. ...We dearly loved her songs, which were African ones, thrown into rough English by herself." - Georgia Bryan Conrad, "Reminiscences of a Southern Woman," The Southern Workman 30 (March, 1901), p. 168 as quoted in Dena Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, p. 129.

"I remember the weeping as we went across the fields to see cousin Johnny - "Cousin Johnny dead," - the nearest cousin, the clock stopped. My aunts dressed in black with long veils, but dancing in a corner, dropping deeply and rising rhythmically from the floor - Aunt Sarah with her hair always corn rowed. The timbre of the voices of my aunts passing the farm at night, giving their special hollers…About five or six years ago, in the archives of the Library of Congress, I sat listening to a recording of early blues and hollers. Suddenly I found myself weeping, weeping almost to the point of embarrassment. The timbre of the voices of my aunts had come to me from some place deep in myself, which I did not know existed." - Undine Smith Moore, African American composer, keynote address to the First National Congress on Women in Music, 1981.

Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


This subject investigates the special relation of women to several musical folk traditions in the British Isles and North America. Throughout, we will be examining the implications of gender in the creation, transmission, and performance of music. Because virtually all societies operate to some extent on a gendered division of labor (and of expressive roles) the music of these societies is marked by the gendering of musical repertoires, traditions of instrumentation, performance settings, and styles. This seminar will examine the gendered dimensions of the music - the song texts, the performance styles, processes of dissemination (collection, literary representation) and issues of historiography - with respect to selected traditions within the folk musics of North America and the British Isles, with the aim of analyzing the special contributions of women to these traditions. In addition to telling stories about women's musical lives, and studying elements of female identity and subjectivity in song texts and music, we will investigate the ways in which women's work and women's cultural roles have affected the folk traditions of these several countries.

The subject is organized both chronologically and topically. We begin with the earliest eighteenth-century collectors of folk music in the British Isles, focus on Anglo American and African American repertories and end with the most recent folk revival of the 1960s. Readings and listening assignments are given for each week of the semester, accompanied by questions that are intended to guide thinking about the material for that week. Weekly listening assignments are also included.


Grades are based on two major factors:

  1. The quality of your written work on the weekly question responses and final research paper
  2. Your participation in class discussion.