Most of us are familiar with this poster of Rosie the Riveter. I myself have dressed as her for Halloween, both as a way of creating a very last minute costume out of things I already owned, and as an homage to this key figure in the societal changes resulting from World War II.
But for anyone that’s not familiar, Rosie the Riveter is a character drummed up as propaganda to encourage women to apply for jobs as labourers during World War II. As more and more men were drafted, more and more opportunities became available for those who wouldn’t have been employers’ first choice in peacetime: primarily women and Black men.
This had a particular impact on the music industry. At this point in time, there were limited venues that would accept Black bands (or bands with Black members), and women musicians were virtually unheard of within the popular music sphere in any other role than the sultry and sequined “chick singer.”
By the 1940s, many of the biggest white bands and entertainers were overseas on the USO tour circuit, leaving popular venues like the Cotton Club and the Roseland Ballroom in need of quality entertainment to keep morale up at home.
Sherrie Tucker, a jazz scholar and professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas, has written an amazingly thorough book chronicling the rise and fall of female big bands. If the subject interests you, her book “Swing Shift: “All Girl” Bands of the 1940’s” is packed with fascinating interviews with the women who toured with these bands as young girls.
One of the bands in the book was not only groundbreaking as a successful all female group, but also as one of the only racially integrated big bands of the day. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were formed out of a school for young women of colour, and their mixed roster caused difficulties when touring in the Jim Crow south. Watch one of their performances below: