International Women’s Day on 8 March has radical roots. It was formed out of the struggles of working women and the fight for a better world. Celebrate the radical tradition with these 12 tracks:
1: Nina Simone, Feeling Good
What better way to begin International Women’s Day? There can be no other song that combines such depth with such lightness. Simone’s rich vocals speak straight to your soul, celebrating life and the fight to make it better.
2: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Up Above My Head on Gospel Time TV
The woman who inspired rock and roll stars from Chuck Berry to Elvis to Bob Dylan. This track encapsulates the joy of music, and while it starts out as gospel, just check out her guitar work in the second half – on a customised Gibson Les Paul, no less!
3: Eartha Kitt, I Want to be Evil
A hilarious performance in which the young Kitt, replete with pigtails, rejects the gender expectations piled onto her as a girl in the 1950s. She’s had enough of ballet and good manners – she craves beer and cigarettes and trouble. In other words, she wants to be bad!
4: X-Ray Specs, Oh Bondage! Up Yours!
Like an echo through time, punk icon Poly Styrene calls back to Eartha Kitt – “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think oh bondage! Up yours!” Teenagers must have been screaming out the lyrics up and down the country in 1977.
5: Wanda Jackson, Hard-Headed Woman
Jackson is another underrated pioneer, combining rock and roll with country to create a fierce rockabilly sound. This track is a homage to the women through history who have been thorns in the sides of men. In a tight two minutes, her abrasive voice demands to be heard.
6: Dolly Parton, 9 to 5
No list such as this would be complete without Dolly Parton. Like the millions of women who have smiled through gritted teeth at the latest indignity they face, Dolly’s best-known anthem cleverly combines a jaunty, cheerful tune with lyrics full of anger and dreams of something better.
7: Lijadu Sisters, Life’s Gone Down Low
A song that speaks to us in the pandemic. Nigerian Afrobeat stars the Lijadu Sisters take down the tempo for this melancholic but hopeful track about resilience in the face of adversity. “Life’s gone down low, but it’s not too late for me and you if we hurry…”
8: Our Native Daughters, Black Myself
The super-talented Rhiannon Giddens brought together fellow black women artists Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell to produce the stunning 2019 album Songs of Our Native Daughters. This, the opening track by Kiah, is a powerful paean to Black pride.
9: Patti Smith, Gloria
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine…” The immortal opening line of Smith’s loose Van Morrison cover grabs you by the throat. I still remember the grin spreading across my face the first time I heard it. Her brazen combination of sex and religion is joyful.
10: PJ Harvey, This is Love
Simply a track about lust with no hint of guilt. Taking on the role more often performed by male rock stars, PJ Harvey struts around with her guitar, channeling Mick Jagger. This is love; this is pure rock.
11: ESG, Erase You
The Scroggins sisters formed ESG in the Bronx, New York, in 1978, combining elements of funk, punk, electronica and the first stirrings of hip-hop. This raw break-up track is about picking yourself up after bad treatment. And I love how their accents somehow make “drawing” rhyme with “toilet”!
12: Aretha Franklin, A Change is Gonna Come
I hope you don’t need to be reminded to listen to R.E.S.P.E.C.T., so instead here is Aretha’s masterful version of Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem. In dialogue with his version, Aretha skillfully weaves in the need for women’s liberation to be at the heart of any movement for freedom.