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Sonnet Retman

Sonnet Retman is an Associate Professor of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington where she teaches courses in African American literary and cultural studies.  She is the author of Real Folks: Race and Genre in the Great Depression (Duke 2011). She is working her way towards a book about race, technology, and blues modernity.  She is also a collaborator with the Women Who Rock Research and Digital Archive Project.

"'Swing it, Sister': The Blanche Calloway Story"
There are so many ways to tell the story of Blanche Calloway, yet surprisingly few people have tried. If hepster Cab Calloway is often understood as a predecessor of Prince in his androgynous charisma, sexy swagger, and zoot suit flamboyance, it was his older sister, Blanche Calloway, who taught Cab his first moves: Blanche to Cab to Prince. If female bandleaders had their moment in the 1940s with “all-girl” swing bands, when men had gone to war, in the early 1930s Blanche was the first woman bandleader, of an all-male band, no less: Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys, featuring saxophonist Ben Webster and drummer Cozy Cole, and at least on one occasion, Joy Girl, pianist Mary Lou Williams, among others. If R & B star Ruth Brown was “discovered” by Ahmet Ertegün and Herb Abramson, their Atlantic Records known as “the House that Ruth Built,” it was Blanche who hired Brown for a gig at the nightclub she managed, the Crystal Caverns in Washington, D.C., and who became Brown’s manager for ten years, negotiating that first Atlantic deal. If women didn’t gain a foothold in radio as DJs until the 1960s and 70s, Blanche became a disk jockey for WMBM in Miami Beach, Florida and then its Executive Director in the 1950s, a position she held for 20 years before moving back to Baltimore where she spent the last years of her life.  All this, yet the details of her life and impact are found only in other people’s biographies. It is a familiar problem, indeed, a gendered family predicament. (Judith Shakespeare? Jane Franklin?) What counts as a life’s work in music? What is a public life worth knowing?

In many ways, the rich feminist work presented at the Pop Conference over the past 16 years illuminates how we might evaluate Blanche’s history and legacy as a bandleader, vocalist, composer, dancer, actor, performer, manager and disk jockey, a black woman with a dizzying number of “firsts” in her long and varied musical career. In this talk, I riff on that work to consider the conventions of popular music studies that render Blanche’s story inaudible. Following the recent work of Jordan Stein on culinary editor Avis Devoto and other feminist writers sounding the silence, I’ll offer a review of an “audiobiography” that doesn’t yet exist but certainly should.