Alison Fensterstock

Alison Fensterstock is the former music critic for the New Orleans alt-weekly Gambit and the daily Times-Picayune, and (starting 2018) an adjunct professor at Tulane University. Her collection of oral histories focusing on regional rap traveled to four U.S. cities and Berlin as part of the multimedia exhibit Where They At and is now part of the Amistad Research Center’s holdings. In not-New Orleans, she contributes to Pitchfork, NPR Music, Rolling Stone and other places.

"Alison Fensterstock, Patsy, Jackie, Bobby, Esquerita and Freedia: Queer & Nonbinary Southern Performers of Color at the Dawn of Rock and Roll and Today"
The American South, in the middle of the twentieth century, was an inarguably inhospitable place for gay, transgender, or nonbinary people of color, with actual laws on the books circumscribing or outright prohibiting who they were. And yet to an extent, the stages of the chitlin circuit provided a platform for an apparently thriving queer culture: as documented by authors like Preston Lauterbach in his The Chitlin Circuit and the Road to Rock and Roll, which drew heavily from regional African-American newspapers, troupes of “female impersonators” were ubiquitous on bills topped by artists like Roy Brown and Fats Domino. (Rudy Ray Moore worked as a valet for such a troupe early in his career.) Little Richard was Princess Lavonne (but Esquerita’s pompadour was twice as high); New Orleans’ legendary Dew Drop Inn was presided over by host/ess Patsy Vidalia; trans legend Jackie Shane crisscrossed the US as a soul sensation; gay artist and impresario Bobby Marchan spent a long career, which he ended as a mover and shaker in the nascent New Orleans rap scene, living and performing in traditionally male or female clothing as it pleased him. This paper will examine the gender outlaws of early R&B and rock and roll, and the culture they created – as well as its reverberations, which are still felt today. It will investigate New Orleans in particular, and whether that city’s traditions of masking and identity inversion informed the laissez-faire attitude in its mid-century performance scene, as well as apparent descendants of that scene such as Big Freedia, Katey Red and Nicky da B.