Dawn Landes and Friends Reimagine The Liberated Woman’s Songbook | Friday, Apr. 14, 7 p.m. | A.J. Fletcher Theater, Raleigh | $18+
For most of her adult life, Dawn Landes has been moving her copy of The Liberated Woman’s Songbook from one coffee table to the next through a series of relocations, sitting down and thumbing through the photos and lyrics from time to time.
After stumbling upon the book in a used bookstore over 15 years ago, Landes mostly viewed the 1971 collection of 77 folk songs—inspired by the women’s liberation movement and assembled into the anthology by Jerry Silverman—as a curiosity from decades past.
The aftermath of the 2016 election, though, led Landes to a concerted effort of digging deeper into the songs.
“I’ve always been an advocate for women’s rights and reproductive rights,” Landes says. “I knew they would be on the Supreme Court docket, so when Roe fell, I knew it was coming, but part of me was just trying to resist in song somehow by looking to the past for answers. Women have been oppressed for hundreds of years, so I wanted to learn what kind of music they were making then because I wanted something to identify with.”
With reproductive rights increasingly under attack in North Carolina and across the United States, Landes will present 18 selections from the Songbook at Raleigh’s Fletcher Opera Theater this Friday as part of PineCone’s Down Home Concert series, joined by a star-studded cast of mostly Triangle-based musicians that includes guest singers Charly Lowry, Rissi Palmer, Kamara Thomas, Watchhouse’s Emily Frantz, and Violet Bell’s Lizzy Ross. The trailblazing Alice Gerrard also joins—a handful of her own songs are included in the program—while the group will be backed by Seth Barden, Isa Burke, Tatiana Hargreaves, Austin McCall, and musical director Creighton Irons.
Landes moved to the outskirts of Chapel Hill in February 2020, just prior to the pandemic. Despite the timing of the move, though, Landes—who was raised in Kentucky and Missouri but has also made homes in Nashville and New York—has been able to connect with a community of like-minded local singers through mutual friends.
But it wasn’t until last fall, when Tift Merritt invited her to perform at Sing Out NC, a Cat’s Cradle benefit concert for reproductive justice, that Landes finally met many of her collaborators face-to-face. The event reaffirmed their shared spirit in fighting for women’s rights.
“It’s kind of like we’re suddenly back in 1971 all over again,” Landes says, pointing out that the introduction to the Songbook mentions “the grotesquerie of men passing anti-abortion laws” that echoes today. Through Broadway connections, Landes reached out to Silverman’s son—Antoine Silverman, an accomplished violinist—and was granted permission by the family to present the Songbook project.
Landes’s next step was discovering more about the songwriters and the backstories of each song.
“Learning from community can really help a problem, along with learning about these specific individuals who have done so much, especially labor organizers and suffragists, to fight for something and sing about it,” she says.
Landes credits a pair of Triangle institutions—Duke’s Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture and UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection—for assisting in her research for the event. Among the stories she plans to highlight are those of Ella May Wiggins, a union organizer murdered in Gastonia during the 1929 Loray Mill Strike, and Florence Reece and Aunt Molly Jackson, who both wrote songs about the Harlan County War of the 1930s.
Friday’s performance will help tell the stories behind the songs through introductions, videos, and snippets of audio interviews.
“It’s more than just songs, which is what the book is, because it gives you context, which I really am attracted to,” Landes muses. “I spent eight years of my life working on the Row musical and it changed my thinking about performance. I found it really interesting to make a narrative in a performance, so this show is scripted.”
Landes also plans to release a studio album of the songs next year and is reuniting with Josh Kaufman, of Bonny Light Horseman fame, to reinterpret part of the Songbook. Though the two projects share musical overlap, she considers them separate in that the live performance has a more communal approach, whereas primarily she will be doing the vocals on the album.
Together, Landes and Kaufman made some musical adjustments by changing around chords and adding reharmonization to the simple structures of the Songbook selections. Some of the dated language also required an update.
“It felt like a translation,” Landes says. “I’ve translated a couple of French songs into English, and it’s the same thing. You’re just trying to keep the essence of it with the rhyme scheme.”
While Landes hopes to take The Liberated Woman’s Songbook show on the road to other markets, this debut performance will have some decidedly local touches beyond Landes’s cast of collaborators, who will be dressed in costumes by New York–based designer Andrea Lauer with funding from a Come Hear North Carolina grant.
First Lady Kristin Cooper will introduce the performance, and the NC History Museum is helping provide some visuals, along with a display of ERA buttons from the 1970s in conjunction with its current Sign of the Times exhibit on the history of protest in the state. Though the entire production has been in the works for months, it feels particularly timely and relevant given North Carolina’s political climate as of late.
“The recent news has been tough for me and lots of women friends,” Landes says in regard to the state’s recent shift to a GOP supermajority. “I know we’re in for a long fight and it helps to find solidarity where you can, so I’m glad to offer a space and some songs for that.”
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