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  • Noel McLaughlin

Women of the Ghetto

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

By Noel McLaughlin

The genius that was Ottilie Patterson, like the genius of Nina Simone, was a talent in the interface of music and politics that, sadly, had to be ‘explained away’; the dangerous proposition of female radicialism neutered.

In Simone’s case, for the casual music-loving majority she was reduced to being a fragile and temperamental alcoholic, her achievements downplayed. Hence, the song Jon Savage rightly regards as ‘controversial in extreme’, ‘Mississippi Goddam’, has been filed away, with an attempt at rendering it a forgotten artefact to some degree achieved. If invoked at all, the narrative is in place to dismiss it, if one so chooses, as the product of an unhinged mind. It counsels that anyone who goes against the dominant political order, especially if they have powerful voices in the dual sense of the term, risk the wrath of that authority.

Patterson, too, has been filed away. Achievements whether musical or political, similarly, downplayed. The fate of both artists is framed by a broader sexism: the idea that woman, especially when they have reached a certain age, are expected to disappear, their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, to borrow Laura Mulvey’s famous term, for the male gaze, rendering them as past capitalism’s sexually attractive sell-by-date.

Sadly, we are not at the advanced stage whereby wisdom is valued from whatever source, old or young, male or female. But Ottilie Patterson, similarly, took risks with music and politics that rendered her an unattractive poster girl for the fragile Northern Ireland statelet, despite the success she achieved as an economic and cultural export. This suggests the power of her politics as expressed by, and through, music as the ‘powers-that-be’ should have been overjoyed to have such a success; and for every reason.

If one peers behind the other side of the sexism, it reveals the radicalism of these female artists and their avant-garde qualities in the midst of popular art and performance. They would, of course, be later joined by Marlena Shaw, Joni Mitchell and Millie Jackson, who in their different ways, articulated a vital version of female sexuality and an at times controversial feminist politics.

In the book, we wanted to go deeper into the politics of radical female artists, black and white, but especially the former (and the legacy of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, but also Nina Simone and Marlena Shaw), as their contribution to a just politics across the axes of class, ‘race’, gender and sexuality is such a potent and challenging one.

As Eamonn McCann insightfully notes, this kind of music was a vital catalyst for politics proper. Northern Ireland had, and has, its ghettos. Whether they are called ‘Projects’ or ‘Estates’, like in the United States, they quarantine people on the basis of class and ethnicity. While most urban geographers note that ghettoisation on ethnic and racial terms in the UK is much lower than in the US, the same cannot be said about its ‘most contrary region’, Northern Ireland. Sadly, space precluded further realisation of this ambition. It was already an exceedingly long book. Indeed, there was a point where we just had to keep on writing hoping that the publishers would go with it.

With regard to the politics of African American soul music, it’s of little surprise that Derry, and via the Undertones’ love of the form, would exhibit an enthusiasm for the work of Marlena Shaw and other singers like her. This was social injustice and political corruption called out in song and a music that placed such sentiments on a different kind of public record than Hansard and officially minuted meetings.

As Sean Campbell’s recent writing illuminates, Derry groups such as That Petrol Emotion (who, of course, emerged out of the Undertones) had to work hard to find ways of expressing this type of politics without putting the record buying public off.

I write this listening to Marlena Shaw ‘Live at Montreux performing an extended version of a song we discuss and use as a subtitle, ‘Woman of the Ghetto’. As is customary in jazz and blues performance, she uses the live, improvised context of a jazz festival to extend and to elaborate upon the original record’s themes. It is a testament to the power of female creativity, but it also affords the literal space to be much more specific in its choice of political targets. It is, moreover, even more powerful in its execution than the blistering original. It is, of course, a heavily sampled song by numerous dance artists - and one can see why. It has, like Peter Whitehead’s films, both an aesthetic and a political edge, where one is inseperable from the other. A related question here is why our broader culture more generally wants to play the role of the master distiller, and to annexe these two areas; to dis-entwine the solidity of the connection for the artists concerned (and for many members of their audience).

One of our peer-reviewers poured scorn on our fantasy image in the final chapter of McCann and Devlin forming a band, a ‘connection’ ajudged to be ‘weird’. I hope the humour and the point is not lost on a more general readership. They might not have taken up instruments, but they were sisters and brothers in arms, and ideology, with that lineage of politically adventurous female artists. It is no accident that Northern Ireland’s non-musician ‘street fighting woman of the ghetto’ behaved in a fashion wholly commensurate with what was radical in the popular music counterculture. Her biography is, after all, entitled ‘The Price of My Soul’. This is particularly important, and it speaks to our current context. ‘Soul’ in music wasn’t simply a genre, nor merely a ‘feel’ or an attitude. It was that aspect of the self that was off-limits with regard to coercion, manipulation and myriad types of exploitation; the inner part of the self that wasn’t up for sale, a ring-fenced inner citadel.

However, as history attests, for all of these women calling out a normal society for being anything but was a risky strategy. It could even be a career-ending one. Powerful nations like to forget, even erase, their failures. Nonetheless, in the presence of ‘actually existing socialism’ liberal western democracries had, to a degree, to behave themselves. Opposition and protest in music and song were among the mediums where evidence of free-thinking could be made manifest (and often to explicitly counter Soviet propaganda that the ‘free’ west was a lot less liberal than it claimed).

Often the artists who dared to voice oppositional ideas beyond the consensus would be vilified and promising careers were never recovered. The odd lipstick trace that remains is the inspiration they still command. That is there in the records and in the youtube performances, as well as the legions of quiet devotees who cling to the power of that music. The battle between the stage-management of public memory and actual history will no doubt continue.

One can only hope that popular music in the broad sense will also continue to provide a means of thinking otherwise.

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