Jo Kellum is one of the most audacious people I know. Not in terms of the look-at-me audacity of celebrity culture, where luminaries wear meat dresses or overturn tables on TV to grab attention. Kellum is quietly and unapologetically herself.
Our friendship itself is audacious. Jo is a gay woman in her late 70s, a staunchly conservative lifelong blue-collar Baltimorean. I am a married woman in my 40s, a deeply liberal first-generation American from New Jersey’s upper-middle-class suburbs.
When Jo and I get on the phone, our conversations range from politics to music and civil rights. We spoke the day President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage. I support it; Jo does not. (For the record, she is against marriage in general.) What makes Jo easy to talk with is that she shares but does not push her point of view. She is interested in hearing someone else’s take on things, even when she disagrees.
Before we met, I knew some of Jo’s story. She’d been featured on our local public radio station’s show The Signal. Producer Aaron Henkin had interviewed Jo about the Roc-A-Jets, a seminal all-girl band that rocked 1960s Baltimore. Jo, drummer Carla Mandley and front-woman Jan Morrison kept the band together for 40 years.
There was push-back at first. Not everyone wanted to see three women performing in male rockabilly gear. But the music was good enough to earn the band a loyal following and see them through the Civil Rights era. The Roc-A-Jets were a go-to show for headliners who stopped in Baltimore for a night or two, and they performed at filmmaker John Waters’ infamous parties. The band quietly broke up in 1996 when Jan retired.
The first time that I heard Henkin’s 2009 radio segment, the story grabbed me. These were regular women like me with jobs and kids, yet they needed something more. Instead of that old chestnut where the unfulfilled 50s housewife quietly takes Valium to cope, the Roc-A-Jets played music to get by. Gigs not only helped pay for food but also gave band members an artistic outlet. Rock ‘n’ roll was a means of survival.
That the “something more” these women yearned for was satisfied by art, by music, is where I relate to their story. Although I come from a family of creative women, I am the first to pursue the arts beyond the level of hobby. My father’s mother, a violin student at Julliard, left when she married my grandfather, a drummer. Despite years of preparing to be a concert violinist, she never picked up the instrument again. The Roc-A-Jets faced far greater odds, but they were unwilling to give up their music. I was fascinated.
When I say “far greater odds,” I’m talking about getting beat up. Describing the band’s early years on The Signal segment, Jo and Carla remembered men in the audience who’d ask a butch-looking girl to dance and then throw a punch when she said, “No.” They described being harassed by the local vice squad members, who would rip open women’s shirts to check whether they were wearing bras.
For Henkin, this was one of the most memorable moments:
[It] made me realize how different things were then… [The vice squad] would raid their shows and basically molest them under the pretense of making sure that they were wearing all of their proper feminine undergarments. Men would literally get into fist fights with them over the scene they were causing. It’s just hard to wrap your head around that.
What gave them the audacity to keep playing? Music was everything to Jo, an escape and a mode of expression. Saddled with siblings she had to babysit as a teen, Jo invited over neighborhood kids who could play an instrument. Her parents agreed as long as the rehearsals remained at her house. Carla grew up in a show-business family where music was as much a part of the day as “brushing your teeth.”
The fact that the band performed as openly gay women left them open for attack. Both surviving band members still consider the word “lesbian” a slur. But there was also joy in building a community of women and friends around the band. They weren’t just playing music for themselves. They were also providing a haven for other women.
For months, I could not shake that radio piece, the imagery of venues where they played–the low ceilings, lights, crowds and the close smell of beer and sweat. There is a grainy clip of the Roc-A-Jets performing, Jan’s rich voice crooning the Kitty Wells hit “Making Believe” to the crowd.
I saw Henkin at the station this fall. When I complimented him on the piece, he showed me an old press photo of the band from the late 1950s. Jan Morrison, Jo and original drummer Edie Lippincott, in white shirts with short black ties, their hair slicked back in pompadours, are smiling for the camera. On air, Henkin had described the women as “a young Elvis Presley, a diminutive Buddy Holly and a baby-faced Johnny Cash.”
He told me:
I’ve had probably more requests for copies or links to that story than I’ve ever had because…They slowly identify each other, start banding together and start giving each other the courage to be people they could never be on their own. And in the process they create this whole movement around themselves…Baltimore’s gay women must have thought, “If the Roc-A-Jets can do it then it’s okay for me to head out on a Saturday night and be part of the scene too.”
Then he handed me Jo Kellum’s phone number.
Online Editor’s Note: The next installment of Laura’s three-part essay will run next week. In the meantime, you might want to check out the previously posted piece “What Audacity Looks Like” for my take on the relationship between appearance and art. And remember that June is LGBT Pride Month, which commemorates the Stonewall riots that occurred at the end of June 1969.