Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music by Heather Augustyn has been published by Half Pint Press and is now available. The book is a comprehensive look at Jamaican vocalists, instrumentalists, record producers, dancers, wives, mothers, and deejays who helped to shape the course of Jamaican music on the island and worldwide. Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music is the fourth book from Augustyn on Jamaican music and culture.
According to Heather, there are over 500 books written on Bob Marley but none written on the women of Jamaican music — without whom Bob Marley may have very well not existed as a performer.
These women shaped the culture of Jamaican music by having careers as vocalists, instrumentalists, producers, dancers, mothers, wives, and partners. They were crucial, and I wanted to make sure that people knew how important these women were and are. I wanted people to appreciate their music and lives more deeply,” she said.
The book features dozens of interviews with women who found a way to share their talent in a culture and industry that was marked by brazen displays of masculinity. They endured harassment and received little or no pay to perform as backup or alongside or in front of the male musicians. They sacrificed family and home for a life in the spotlight, or they brought their babies with them on the road. They took over the studio and made it their own, or they suffered unimaginable violence, even murder. They changed the course of music all over the world. The book also features over 100 exclusive photographs and memorabilia that supplements personal narratives and archival material.
Heather Augustyn spent two years researching and talking to such women as Millie Small of “My Boy Lollipop” fame who rarely grants interviews, and she obtained photographs from her personal photo album. Others include Enid Cumberland of Keith & Enid who is now in her mid-80s; Janet Enright, the country’s first female guitarist who performed jazz in the 1950s; Marcia Griffiths of the I-Threes, Bob Marley’s backup singers, and vocalist for the Electric Slide, the staple of every wedding reception; members of the first all-girl ska band, the Carnations, featuring the parents of Tessanne Chin, winner of The Voice; Doreen Shaffer of the Skatalites; Patsy Todd of Derrick & Patsy and Stranger & Patsy; Althea & Donna, and dozens of others.
Augustyn is also author of Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, McFarland 2013; Ska: An Oral History, McFarland 2010; and Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation, Scarecrow Press 2013.
She is a correspondent for The Post-Tribune and an adjunct professor at Purdue University’s North Calumet campus. She lives with her husband and two boys in Chesterton, Indiana. Songbirds Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music is available at skabook.com and amazon.com.
We asked Heather how she came up with the title of her book and she said, “Well, a woman or a girl in the UK skinhead subculture, one of the groups of people who appreciate Jamaican music the most, is called a bird. So what better way to honor the fans and the performers than letting them become the title of the book, Songbirds. The subtitle, Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, acknowledges that these women are the ones who led the way for the current group of female performers.”
The idea of this book was initially presented as a paper at the International Reggae Conference at the University of the West Indies at Mona in February 2013, and was eventually developed further into this completed book.
Hortense Ellis, yes, the cover image looks like her — Carie Coslov, a friend of Heather, is an art teacher who brilliantly created the image with the look of a 1950s postcard.
One of the challenges Heather faced in writing this book was ensuring that no one was left out. “Unintentionally, there were times when I just had to use the information and research at my disposal. She continued, “There were some people I wanted to talk to, to interview them about living with or working with one of the women, but sometimes it’s just not possible.”
Writing this book has taught her to hear the music of these amazing women in a new way. “I realize we have similar personal and familial responsibilities, however; unlike me, these women had to face unbelievable challenges —men who were unscrupulous and tried to withhold their pay or made sexual advances.”
“Try balancing a career with having nine children; touring with the greatest singer the country had ever seen with a baby in a basket on the bus; performing on stage with a group of men against the family patriarch’s wishes; and other tales of abuse and even murder,” Heather commented.
This narrative tapestry provides an in-depth look into the lives of these pioneering women — these amazing women! You will learn that these women were even stronger than you could imagine.
By: Karl A. Haughton
Contact Heather Augustyn: firstname.lastname@example.org.