Women of Color in Folk Music: Legendary & Contemporary Artists

Arts & Culture

In recent years, indie folk music has given rise from its ashes to folk music. This is not the first revival that happened in folk music. From the ’40s to the ’70s, folk music has become more and more popular, and reach a peak during the Civil Rights Movement. Many folk singers supported the Civil Rights Movement such as Bob Dylan, Peter Seeger, and Joan Baez.

Joan Baez is a folk female music legend and activist. Women of color in folk music as non-white men have been over the years erased from the folk music scene and get far less recognition than their white peers. The few recognition they can have, will often favor black male folk artists. Let’s have a look at women of color legendary and contemporary artists, in the folk music who shaped the industry. 

Legendary women of color in folk music

Joan Baez, the so-called ‘The Queen of Folk’

joan baez women of color in folk music
Joan Baez – ©BRUNO BRIZZI/PACIFIC PRES/SIPA

Joan Baez is a legendary folk singer-songwriter. Her career started in 1959 and became famous as she performed several times with Bob Dylan, in the early sixties. Besides being a singer-songwriter, she was also a social activist. As Joan Baez was exposed to racial prejudice and discrimination due to her Mexican heritage, she engaged in many social causes, such as civil rights or non-violence. She refused to perform to segregated audiences and she supported the civil rights movement. In 1963, she performed at the March of Washington while singing ‘We shall overcome’.

In 1965, Joan Baez took part in the Selma to Montgomery march and founded ‘the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence.’ She also took part in several demonstrations against the Vietnam War and was jailed a couple of times. She kept performing for different social causes in the ’80s and ’90s.

In 2017, Joan Baez was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall Fame and the next year released her last album ‘Whistle Down the Wind’.

Odetta, the other Queen folk

Odetta was an other legendary singer-songwriter in the folk scene. In the late ’40s, Odetta started her career stands out from the folk scene by mixing blues, spirituals, and folk. Her unique style with flamboyant outfits, her presence, her mimicking, and her Afro, leaves a lasting impression to the audience. In 1956, she released her first album,‘Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues’. She also took part in the civil rights movement, through the 1963 March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery march.

Many of her songs became folk classics such as ‘Oh Freedom’ or ‘Glory Glory’. In the 1960s, Odetta’s career shrank. ‘Yet, as popular music changed during the 1960s, she came to be seen as old-fashioned. Her reliance on traditional material meant she was overtaken by a wave of folk-inspired singer-songwriters, while her mezzo-soprano vocal appeared formal compared with the gospel/blues-derived voices then favoured in black music ’as explained in the ‘Queen of folk led way for female solo singers.’ In 2001, Odetta released her last album ‘Looking For a Home’ and passed away in 2008. She influenced many artists like Janis Joplin or Bob Dylan and have left her mark in folk music. 

Besides these two legendary women of color folk artists, other women of color in folk music had an influence.

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie is a Canadian Native American composer, lyricist, singer and actress. She was born on the Piapot Cree First Nations Reserve and abandoned as she was an infant. Her songs are, mainly love songs and politically/socially engaged. She wrote many songs about Native American rights and histories such as ‘My country ‘ Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying.’ This song is talking about the crimes the Canadian government did against the Native American communities.

Her politically and socially committed songs will affect her career. Indeed, from 1963 until 1969, she has been blacklisted during President Lyndon Johnson’s term. Her songs are no longer broadcast on the radio. She did not give up and kept persevering in her career and in activism. In 1969, Buffy Saint Marie founded ‘the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education’. In 2015, she released her last album, ‘Power in the Blood.’

From the past to the present folk music

These 3 women of color definitely help to the revival of folk music and get involved in social causes through their music. Joan Baez and Odetta are two legendary women of color in folk music who became influential in the industry. Unfortunately for Odetta, she faded from memory after the civil rights movement. After the main social changes in the US, such as the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, folk music became less a means of expressing social causes.

However, women of color in folk music still do not get enough recognition and remain invisible in the media. Which women of color folk artists shape the industry?

Contemporary women of color artists in folk music

Rhiannon Giddens

women of color in folk music rhiannon giddens

Rhiannon Giddens is a 42-year-old folk singer-songwriter and musician. She grew up in North Carolina with her white American father and Afro and Native American mother. As this time, it was as difficult for her parents being in an interracial relationship as being for her a mixed-race child. Her album ‘Freedom Highway’, released in 2017, paid tribute to African-American history, from slavery to the Black Lives Matters movement. Through her career, Rhiannon Giddens won several awards, such as the Grammy Award for the Best Traditional Folk Album in 2011, and other Grammy Award in 2016 for the Best Folk Album.

Mariee Sioux

folk singer mariee sioux

Mariee Sioux is a folk singer-songwriter from Nevada City, a small town with a population of over 3000 in northern California. She started her career in 2006, by releasing her first self-released album, ‘A Bundled Bundle of Bundles.’ In 2007, in her first studio album released ‘Faces in the Rocks’ Mariee Sioux honors her Native American roots, by combining folk music and Indian sounds, such as percussion and wind instruments. In 2012, she released her second album ‘Gift for the end.’

Fatou Diawara

malian folk singer fatou diawara

Fatou Diawara, a Malian singer who mixes traditional Malian music, Malian blues, folk and western blues. She began her career as an actress and got her first role in 1996 in Adama Drabo’s film ‘Taafe Fanga.’ She took part in several feature films and performed with great Malian singers such as Oumou Sangaré and Cheikh Tidiane Seck. In 2011, Fatou Diawara released her first album ‘Fatou’, and made her name for herself. She has collaborated with many western singer-songwriters such as Paul McCartney, or the french singer M. Her latest album, ‘Fenfo’, was released in 2018. It combines light to more engaged subjects as genital mutilation, modern slavery.

Valerie June

women o color in folk music valerie june

As the musician Chastity Brown, Valerie June is also from Tennessee. At the age of 19, she moved to Memphis with her husband with whom she formed the duoBella. They released an album in 2004 called ‘No Crystal Stair.’ When they separated, Valerie June learned the guitar, the banjo and became a street musician. In 2009, a web MTV show called ‘$5 Cover’ , which follows the ups and downs of Memphis musicians to make a living from their music, will be the real springboard of Valerie June’s career. After three self-releasing albums, in 2013, she released her album Pushin’ Against a Stone, with two independent music companies. In 2017, Valerie June released her second album, The Order of Time.

Chastity Brown

Chastity Brown is a folk and jazz musician and singer-songwriter from Tennessee. She started her career in 2006, by performing her first show in Knoxville. In 2012, she toured for the first time in Europe. Four years later, Chastity Brown signed with Red House Record. In her biography on her website, she explains how being a mixed-race woman is political. ‘What I’ve realized is that the personal is political. Just by me being a biracial, half-black, half-white woman living in America right now is political. Just being a person of color, a queer woman of color, for that matter, is freaking political.’

Final thoughts

For Joan Baez, Odetta, Buffy Saint Marie, and many others, folk music has a lot contributed to vocalize many social issues that affect ethnic minorities. Nowadays, the focus is on the whitewashing of folk music. As women of color in folk music, they entitle themselves to re-appropriate a genre that its roots in the African-American culture. The lack of representation and visibility points to the position women of color have in society and the different obstacles to overcome. The younger generation is also picking up the torch, like Anna Leone, the young Swedish songwriter and Marem Ladson, a black American and Spanish singer, whom I met in Madrid.