The Fabulous Dirt Sisters 1981 – 1989
Deb Mawby, alto, baritone, soprano saxophone, banjo, percussion, vocals; Dorry Lake now Karunavaca, accordian, piano, vocals, percussion, double bass; Jane Griffiths, double bass, cello, vocals; Kaffe Matthews, bass guitar, percussion, fiddle, vocals; Stella Patella, violin, trombone, percussion, vocals
‘Dipatoe’ live at Harrogate, 1986
The Fabulous Dirt Sisters (1981-1989) were an all women band based in Nottingham, UK. They began in 1981 when Dorry Lake and Deb Mawby came together through a shared interest in street musicianship, feminist/peace politics and using music as a platform for inspiring joy in people.
‘Buskin in the Sun’, Machester
‘Women for Peace’
The band underwent various line up changes in their early life until they were joined by Stella Patella in 1982 on the fiddle. She would stay with the band until they split up in 1989. In 1984 Kaffe Matthews joined as an inexperienced bass player and a more solid line up took shape. As Matthews became more interested in playing percussion they were joined by Jane Griffiths on double bass in 1987.
‘Didn’t Affect Me’ – Flapping Out
The band used their music to express political ideas, particularly around feminist and peace activism when mobilisations at Greenham Common were just beginning. In the early days of the camp Deb and Dorry used to take their instruments, the saxophone and accordian respectively, to lift the spirits of the protesting women. The Dirt Sisters were regular visitors to Greenham throughout its existence. Their music is often directly inspired by these experiences. ‘Wood Song’, for example, is based on the process of building a fire at the camp, as the feminist activist cultures are woven into the fabric of their songs.
‘Wood Song’ live in Manchester
‘Deb is a Roofer’ Flapping Out
‘Buskininthesun’ – Flapping Out
The mischief of feminist activism abounds in the Dirt Sisters’ music. Later the song ‘T’aint necessarily our fault’ detailed a mass feminist action that stuck curfew posters on the streets of the city saying that men should stay at home following a number of sex attacks that had happened in Nottingham. This, of course, reverses the usual rhetoric that women should stay at home – a rhetoric which reinforces the idea that women are to blame if they are sexually assualted. The police allegedly received a record number of phone calls from men unhappy with the directive.
‘Army Song’ – Flapping Out
Kaffe Matthews talks about recording with the band
The band’s artistic inspiration sprang from the everyday experiences of women’s lives. On stage they often played to a backdrop of washing line, a prop they took from show to show. Using domestic imagery was a strategy to create female-centred symbols that are often invisible or denigrated within male-dominated cultures. With this background and the colourful clothes the Dirt Sisters wore on stage, the band used theatricality and performance to communicate their musical messages.
‘Planting Trees’ Flapping Out
Oral History interview conducted with the band as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded Music & LIberation project. Interviewed by Deborah Withers, filmed and edited by Emma Shula Thatcher.
The Dirt Sisters improvising
The Fabulous Dirt Sisters were a collective, inspired by the feminist and left-wing politics of the 1970s. There was an urgency at this time ‘to do things differently’. This meant trying out different forms of decision making, organisation and, within the context of the Dirt Sisters, writing music as well. The music the band created has a very unique sound, described by Matthews as ‘home-made’, a product of them trying new things (including learning their instruments as they went along), experimenting with song structure and rhythm. The absence of electric/ 6-stringed guitars situate the tradition within an emerging culture of ‘women’s music’ that sprang from the women’s movement. This music self-consciously sought to create music which reflected women’s culture in sound as well as lyrical content. Despite being protest music, the Dirt Sisters’ lack of aggression in delivery demonstrate the influence of the peace movement politics on the band.
‘Street Song’, Manchester, 1985
During their time together the band toured the UK and Europe extensively, playing at activist benefits (including miners’ strikes and Lesbian and Gay activism), arts centres and festivals. Perhaps most interesting are the band’s ‘world tours,’ where they took busking holidays around Europe in the summer months. Playing on the street was a massive part of the Dirt Sisters’ political intervention. They did this to be visible as women on the streets (thus reclaiming a space traditionally defined as male), and as a way of being accessible to their audiences, ‘not hiding behind a barrage of equipment and cool,’ they often attested. They were inspired by other political street bands of the time, such as the York Street Band, the Black Cardigans, the Bristol Ambling Band, the Peace Artists and the Fall Out Marching Band.
Perussion – ‘Flapping Out’
Kaffe Matthews talks about the DIrt Sisters’ ‘world tours.’
‘Wood Song’ Flapping Out
The band’s collective politics led to setting themselves up as the Catflap collective. From this they would run their label, Spinaround Records. Setting up a label in order to have control over the production and distribution of their material was part of the band’s politics of ‘doing things differently’. On Spinaround they released two full-length records, Flapping Out (1986) and Five Strong Swimmers (1988). The band also had their own PA and woman sound engineer who they took to their events because in-house engineers often didn’t understand their sound.
‘Money’ – Flapping Out
‘Street Song’ – Flapping Out
In 1989 after almost a decade of playing music together the band went their separate ways. They left behind a colourful musical legacy that teems with personality, originality, humour and joy.
Flapping Out, Spinaround Records, 1986
Didn’t Affect Me (Mawby); Deb is a Roofer (Lake); Buskininthesun (Mawby); Army Song (Lake); Tree Planting (Lake); Perussian (Patella); Wood Song (Lake); Money (Camilla); Street Song (Lake); Women on the Streets (Lake); Dipatoe (Patella).
‘Women on the Streets’ Flapping Out
‘Dipatoe’ – Flapping Out
Five Strong Swimmers, Spinaround, 1988
Girls I Knew (Patella); Dance of the Ukrainian Axewoman (Matthews); Resistance Tango (Lake); Knots (Patella); Taint Necessarily Our Fault (Patella/ Lake); Van Tune (Mawby); Susie’s Wedding (Patella); Microbe (Matthews); Angie Babes and Malibu (Lake); Koh Pi Pi (Lake).
The Fabulous Jam Tarts
Carol, rhythm and lead guitar; Melanie Rosatone, lead vocals, clarinet and keyboard; Suzy, drums and acoustic guitar; Wendy Huston, bass guitar, keyboard and vocals
Photographs of the Fabulous Jam Tarts’ gigs in Birmingham’s Peacocks Bar, Jo Joe’s Bar and the Northwick theatre, Worcester, courtesy of Melanie Rosatone
The Feminist Improvising Group
Angèle Veltmeijer, sax; Annemarie Roelofs, voice; Cathy Williams, voice; Corinne Liensol, trumpet; Françoise Dupety, voice; ; Frankie Armstrong, voice; Georgie Born, bass, guitar, cello; Irene Schweizer, piano, drums; Lindsay Cooper, bassoon, oboe, sax; Maggie Nicols, voice; Sally Potter, voice, tenor sax
‘Improvisation reaches out, breaks down barriers, challenges frontiers. Music is about liberation, jazz is about liberation, that’s the word to focus on.’ ~ Maggie Nicols
‘An up to eight-piece ensemble – the first women-only group of improvisors to challenge the hitherto male-dominated musical improvisation scene. FIG performed live in London and toured Europe several times, where they played at music festivals in various venues. In 1983 FIG evolved into the European Women’s Improvising Group (EWIG).
FIG’s debut performance was at a “Music for Socialism” festival at London’s Almost Free Theatre. Their act was a combination of music and comedy, and ‘quite anarchic. It had elements of theatre; we had props, we were chopping onions, I was rushing around with perfume, it was completely improvised.’ ~ Maggie Nicols
For an interview with Maggie Nicols which includes info on FIG, please see http://georgemckay.org/jazz/
Five Famous Women late 1980s
Angela Cooper, vocals; Janet Woollstonholme; Jenny Clegg, bass; Luchia Fitzgerald, vocals; Clair ; Una Baines (keyboardist with The Blue Orchids.)
Formed subsequently to the Bad Habits and also containing members of the Northern Women’s Liberation Rock Band, Five Famous Women played, amongst other songs, ‘Pale Blue Eyes,’ ‘Shame,’ Cris Williamson’s ‘Dream Child’ and Sweet Honey in the Rock’s ‘Ought to Be A Woman.’ ‘We played at the Stop Clause 28 event in Manchester in February 1988 at the Free Trades Hall social after the huge national march, which I helped to organize.’ ~ Angela Cooper, 2012
Silk Sows Ear, a documentary by Penny Florence. Includes footage of The Fabulous Dirt Sisters, Sista Culcha, Ova and many other women involved in Women’s Liberation music.
Frank Chickens 1982 ~ ongoing
‘Founded in 1982. Played Edinburgh Fringe Feastival and had an independent chart hit with ‘We Are Ninja’ and released 5 albums. They toured world wide including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada. In 2000, Ninja Tune label released remix collection of ‘We Are Ninja’ including mixes by Neotropic, Fink and Konishi Yasuharu. The group recently has performed in the Linbury Room at the Royal Opera House, Japan Matsuri in Spitalfields and the Sacred season at Chelsea Theatre. Members throughout the years have included Kazumi Taguchi, Atsuko Kamura, Chika Nakagawa, Akiko Sato, Ricca Kawai, Yumi Hara,Tomoko Minamizaki, Kinue Kato, Tomomi Sayuda, Tomoko Komura, Nao Nagai, Yoko Nishimura, Azusa Ono, Yuko Obata, Saneyuki Owada, Tatsu Ozaki, Ray Hogan and many many more… Their live set is as eye-catching as ever, with songs, stories, costume changing every time you turn your back (watch out!), visuals and a cast of thousands (well, there’s a lot of them now, anyway).’
We Are Ninja (Not Geisha):
‘I’m delighted to add my contribution to the Women’s Music Archive. My fear is that I’ll go on far to long and overstay my welcome. This is partly simply a feature of having reached the age of 70, having consciously begun researching and singing women’s songs back in 1966, and realising that songs illuminating women’s lives, both old and new, have been with me ever since. Indeed they have continued to be the main body of my song repertoire.
The project that Peggy Seeger, Sandra Kerr and myself embarked on in 1966/7 was to research, perform and record women’s songs from the rural and industrial traditions of the UK and the U S (Peggy having grown up in the States). We found a wealth of songs in addition to becoming aware that the bulk of our repertoires was already largely related to the experiences of women. This isn’t surprising in retrospect but those were early days re the second Feminist Movement and we were a little surprised by this. Please correct me if I’m wrong but I thing the album we created, ‘The Female Frolick’, was the first conscious women’s recording. Whether this is the case or no, it’s still something I’m very proud of having been part of. Performing these songs, in concerts and folk clubs, along with proverbs, poems and historical sayings on gender certainly sharpened our awareness so as to make us very ready for the arrival of The Women’s Movement a few years later. Peggy’s anthemic ‘I’m Gonna Be An Engineer’ was written in 1970, if I remember aright, and Sandra’s ‘Maintenance Engineer’ followed not long after. But happily the traditional songs had furnished us with many songs of defiant and feisty women from the past three or four centuries giving us a sense of solidarity with our past sisters. When Sheila Rowbotham’s ‘Hidden From History’ was published we felt that we’d made some contribution to this desire to find out more about the poor and working women of these islands.
I started travelling and singing in North America each year from 1973 and my unaccompanied songs from, and about, women struck a chord and created a very enthusiastic response which led to appearances in women’s concerts at Folk Festivals alongside such wonderful singers as Sweet Honey in the Rock, Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens, and had me invited to sing at several national conferences – one on Women and Mental Health and another for women engineers.
Back home in Britain I was involved in a range of performances with other singers and colleagues, looking at such issues as women and madness, ‘A Maid in Bedlam’, women and alcohol, and women in textiles before and during the Industrial Revolution amongst others. In 1971 and ’73 I made my first solo albums for Topic Records, and while not ‘feminist anthems’ the majority of the songs featured women as protagonists. In ’75 I was asked if I’d make a record while out in California for the summer and ‘Out of Love, Hope and Suffering’ for Bay Records proved a more overtly feminist album. No doubt it was ‘I’m Gonna Be An Engineer’ which has made it my best-selling album of the ten solo albums I’ve made to date. Back in London in 1975 I spent a period with The Women’s Theatre Group, writing and singing songs for a play about teenage girls, sexuality, contraception and abortion. It was my first foray back into theatre since Ewan MacColl’s Festival of Fools which I took part in for about 6 years in the 60s. Indeed it was for the Festival of Fools that Peggy wrote ‘I’m Gonna Be An Engineer’ which I think was a wake up call for many of us at that time. Working with the WTG was a surefire way to keep waking up with a vengeance. It was also very moving. I recall a performance we gave for youngsters in Covent Garden, which in those days was still a working class area before it was trendified. I remember conversations with young lads who had clearly been stirred by the issues raised. Their vulnerability and confusions were palpable and it was timely at that very militant point in the Women’s Movement to be reminded that such youngsters needed listening to too.
It was also in ’75 that I started pioneering my voice workshops based on the belief, then as now, that singing is our birthright and that it is as innate as our ability to speak. This of course is scientifically proven now but the proof came as no surprise to me after witnessing the powerful effects of the workshops, especially on those who had been told they couldn’t sing. (I have been horrified to find out how many thousands of people had as children, suffered this fate from “ignorant” adults.) But of course given the legacy of Patriarchy it’s especially been women with whom I’ve worked over the 36 years of running the workshops and the trainings over the past 22 years. It has been such a privilege to witness the number of women who have laughed, cried or jumped for joy on realising they had a full, free voice and had the right to use it. Of course being a singer the focus of my work/play has been on the melodic voice but also having been a social worker, counsellor, youth worker and trainer I know that liberating the voice in any form has profound effects on the whole person – and what more wonderful way to do it than through finding the singing voice that comes up from the soles of the feet, inhabits our whole resonating bodies and soars out untrammelled to the sky? The workshops spread from one evening in a pub room in central London to my being invited to run them for Women’s Centres, Theatre Groups, Folk Festivals, Youth Work Conferences and some of the early national Women’s Liberation Movement conferences. In the late ’70s I was involved with a national youth club organisation running Voice Workshops at Boys Rule Not OK weekends we ran in various parts of the country with teenage girls. Funny how clearly I remember these occasions with young people! My first session was in a vast hall with some 80 girls. I’m severely visually impaired and so could not see what was going on. All I could hear was giggling and hooting. However Janet and Lois, standing on either side of me for support, kept urging me to keep going, ‘they really are intrigued – just embarrassed’ they said. And lo and behold within minutes they were responding back to my melodic calls, as if we were women working in the fields. Next morning the Youth Workers who were ‘looking after’ them said they were kept awake till the early hours with the girls chanting and calling from dorm to dorm. And for the years I stayed in youth work after that there was this legacy – it made me delighted.
In 1978 my friend Kathy Henderson said she wanted to put a collection of women’s songs together, both old and new. Pluto Press agreed and Kathy embarked on the research that led eventually to ‘My song Is My Own’. Kathy and I had many conversations about the songs and selection and Sandra Kerr was invaluable in providing the musical notation along with ideas for songs. It was more than generous of Kathy to include my name on the front of the book as I did a fraction of the work she did, but I’m ever grateful to the book and subsequent record for firming up a friendship I still enjoy and value highly.
I’m losing track of chronology, but sometime around here the Women’s Right to Choose campaign was needed in response to pressures from the right and some Catholic Right to Lifers to restrict abortion in the UK. I had already sung in Trafalgar Square at anti-Vietnam war protests and so singing there and at Westminster Hall at our rallies wasn’t too intimidating. The other movement that I’m proud to have been in on at the beginning was Women For Life on Earth. This was an early recognition of how much the environmental movement needed a feminist perspective and conversely women needed to be made aware of all the threats both military and environmental to every creature on this planet. I remember getting the first Newsletter – one sheet of gestetner-printed paper and responding to an invitation to a full moon party, where I met several women who have played a large part in my life since. It was the South Wales Women for Life on Earth who walked to Greenham Common – and the rest is history. I was in Bristol as they camped the night there and Leon Rosselson and myself were part of the musical evening to welcome them. Little did we know we were taking part in such a major event. I wrote a number of songs inspired by the Greenham Women: ‘Out of the Darkness’ (which is on the back cover of the Greenham Song Book) and ‘Shall There Be Womanly Times’. I’m really delighted that the woman who first sent me the above mentioned Newsletter and I will be meeting up in New York State in July. She is now part of an Ecovillage which sounds to be a really sustainable well-run community, so I’m so looking forward to visiting her.
Oh dear, this is already longer than intended and I think I’m only up to the early ’80s! It was around 1981 that Leon Rosselson and Roy Bailey asked me to join them as a trio, especially to perform two shows compiled by Leon, ‘Nuclear Power No Thanks’ and ‘Love, Loneliness and Laundry’. They were very powerful pieces, and as the woman I had both songs and poems that had a strong womanly perspective. It was Leon who wrote the glorious ‘Don’t Get Married Girls’ way back and both shows had a strong female presence in the writing. We worked for 8 years together touring on the continent and in the States and Canada.
In about ’84 I first came down to Cardiff, where I now live, to work with the Centre For Performance Research (then the Cardiff Lab Theatre) and met Joan Mills. The first day we met we were taken for sisters and realised that something quite unique happened when we sang together. Our voices made a ‘whole’ in the sense that separately it was very easy to tell which voice was which, but together even we often couldn’t tell our voices apart. I still listen to us dueting and wonder who is singing which part! Sadly, Joan and the CPR moved away from Cardiff, a loss I still feel. However we did devise two vocal theatre pieces, ‘Lost Voices’ about women imprisoned for their beliefs, and ‘The Wild Girl’ based on Michele Roberts’ reworking of the Mary Magdelene story. Joan has also sung with me on three of my CDs. It is a hope that when time allows we will have a chance to sing together once more. I have sung and still do with many fine women singers but that strange something that happens to our shared resonance is still a wondrous mystery.
And since then. Well, I’ve gone on singing – much of my repertoire, both old and new being songs that illuminate women’s lives. I’m still busy running workshops here and abroad and training others, largely women, to facilitate voice and singing groups with an accepting, non-judgemental and empowering approach. In 1992 The Women’s Press published my autobiography ‘As Far As the Eye Can Sing,’ made possible by the editorial help and skill of my dear friend Jenny Pearson. In 2000 Jenny and I published ‘Well Tuned Women – Growing Strong Through Voice Work’, again with The Women’s Press. This is a book I’m still incredibly proud of having co-commissioned and edited and I’m happy to say it still sells well at concerts and workshops. It has 15 chapters on such a variety of aspects to do with women and voice, from the attempt at silencing women down the millennia to Ysaye Barnwell’s [from Sweet Honey in the Rock, Ed’s note] stunning chapter on voice and song as a way of survival for post-slavery black women in the States. Last year my friend Janet Rodgers from the states and I brought out ‘Acting and Singing with Archtypes’ with Limelight Press and though these are inevitably not all female archetypes I have loved the years exploring and developing such ‘figures’ as The Huntress, The Initiator, The Sybil, The Mother, The Maiden, The Sensual Love Goddess and The Crone. The latter has particular potency for me in my maturer years. She is ‘beyond shame’ – I really enjoy that notion.
In the past month I’ve sung at a benefit concert for a South Wales Women’s Centre and along with Leon, Janet Russell and Bradford Women Singers enjoyed a heart-warming evening in Yorkshire. I’m not ready to put up my feminist feet just yet a while. Writing this makes me realise what a privilege it has been to live through this period in history, for all the fears I have about militarism, pale men in dark suits and what is happening to our beloved Mother Earth I still feel that I have had wonderful opportunities and hope I’ve made a small contribution to our social and cultural life.’ ~ Frankie Armstrong, 2011
‘As Far as the Eye can Sing’ with Frankie Armstrong, Saturday 12th December 2009. This video of an evening of reminiscence and music held at Housman’s Bookshop in celebration of the re-launch of Frankie Armstrong’s autobiography is introduced by life-long feminist and community activist Gail Chester. Frankie reminisces about forty years in the folk, women’s and peace movements, with anecdotes and songs.
From the Sisters in Song book, produced by Women’s Liberation Music Projects
Click here to read more about Frankie in the Frankie Armstrong publicity booklet
Friggin’ Little Bits 1980-1
Elaine Drainville, Lesley Nicholson, Maggie Thacker, Pat Garrett
Newcastle upon Tyne
A 4 piece acoustic band of 4 lesbians ‘writing made-up ditties about life as a lesbian feminist in the North East at a time when the only lesbians anyone had ever heard of were all tennis players (or that rumour about Valerie Singleton and Princess Anne, which of course has long since been discredited…or has it? …’
Friggin’ Little Bits were a low-tech, Newcastle-based harmony group who dared to not only challenge stigmatisation of lesbians but also to laugh at it. They celebrated mischievous lesbian sexualities by singing about sex in a cheeky and irreverent fashion.
The legend states that the group got together after a drunken, trashed out weekend in a cottage in Alston in 1980. They were together only 12 months, performing at benefit gigs and at Women’s Centres in Manchester, Ipswich, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leeds, London and Amsterdam. Like many women’s bands of the time, they often had to pay admission to events to which they were headlining because playing for money was considered reactionary. During this time they recorded a tape album called ‘Come Together.’ The band said the reason they split up was they spent too much time driving up and down the country in a brown Renault.
Friggin’ Little Bits achieved national fame for their appearance on Veronica 4 Rose, a Channel 4 documentary about young lesbians in the UK. The TV programme broke many taboos, and was one of the first to sympathetically depict lesbians and their lives. ‘I would love to see a weekly half-hour of Friggin’ Little Bits replace Top of the Pops. The band have split up now but if you’re reading this – get back together please! Very talented and wickedly funny,’ Lesley Jones wrote enthusiastically.
The wicked humour can be found in the following statement, which parodies the language used on instruction manuals, and was included on their tape booklet:
‘This tape was realised in Dykeophonic sound using a totally new concept in reproductive technique called parthenogenesis which combines DH: 14 XL’s with high frequency catatonic ZX4’s to produce claustrophobic sound which comes from spending too much time in a claustrophobic Renault with the addition of two J.B. Parnell emotion reduction systems to control all forms of water a wholly perfect sound quality is achieved if you happen to own a labia 12 hifidelity stereophonic sound system with the innovative pre-gobalot device that enlarges the gee-wave and hence destroys any reference to the word lesbian.’
Friggin’ Little Bits have since reformed on two occasions, in 2000 and 2012.
Read more and listen to Friggin’ Little Bits’ music on: http://www.myspace.com/frigginlittlebits#ixzz147uYimbe
The Funghetti Quartet 1980’s
Angele Veltmeyer, saxes; Frances Knight, piano; Gail Ann Dorsey, bass; Josefina Cupido, drums (Ann Day, drums depping)