Pushcart Prize Nominee: Kat Hellen

Along with publishing emerging writers, one of the public roles and great pleasures of an independent, small literary journal is to nominate individual poems, essays, and stories for awards like the Pushcart Prize. This is one more way to say “thank you,” to the hard working writers, without whom LPR wouldn’t exist. These nominations also require renewed attention to the craft and presence of the pieces LPR publishes, and often that attention is rewarded with renewed joy.

Nine Circles

The boy heard
ringing in his ears

that left a hole
in her thigh
the size
of a button.

It bled in her hand
into the patterned sofa he hid under
and he ran

feet loco-moting
like the Road Runner from Coyote.
River Street retreated

into bars and liquor stores.
He turned the block
nine times or more
before

Miss Geneva called him in
her tiny kitchen
gave him lemonade, said:
“Don’t be afraid, Jabo.
Your momma and your daddy
just don’t see things quite the same.”

About the author: Kathleen Hellen is the author of the collection Umberto’s Night, winner of the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize, and two chapbooks, The Girl Who Loved Mothra and Pentimento. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Letters and Commentary, Barrow Street, Cimarron Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Nation, North American Review, Poetry Daily, Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, the Sewanee Review, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere. Recipient of the Thomas Merton poetry prize, the H.O.W. Journal poetry prize, the Washington Square Review Poetry Prize, and twice nominated for the Pushcart, she teaches in Baltimore. This poem appeared in Little Patuxent Review’s Winter 2012 Social Justice issue.

A Tribute to Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton lived in Columbia, Maryland, where Little Patuxent Review is published. In 1979, Lucille became the second woman and first African-American to serve as Poet Laureate of Maryland. In 1988, she was a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry finalist for Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 and Next: New Poems. In 2000, she received the National Book Foundation Poetry Award for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000. In 2007, she was the first African-American woman to be awarded the Poetry Foundation Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for her body of work. Along the way, she even shared an Emmy Award as co-writer of the TV special Free to Be…You and Me. Lucille Clifton died on February 13, 2010 after waging a prolonged battle with cancer.

There’s a lot to say about Lucille, but her poetry speaks for itself. And now that I’ve gone gray and put on pounds, certain poems, in particular, speak to me. Here’s one where, as Margalit Fox noted in The New York Times, the historical and personal converge:

homage to my hips
Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

But you can’t fully appreciate this poem until you see Lucille read it, so here she is:

 

Yesterday, Little Patuxent Review people–Editor Laura Shovan and Contributing Editors Linda Joy Burke and Susan Thornton Hobby–got together with poets Virginia Crawford and Edgar Silex as well as Lucille’s youngest daughter, Alexia Clifton, to stage a tribute to the poet and person that they knew and loved. The event not only included readings from the newly released The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 but also a few on-the-spot poems that some audience members had created in response to Lucille’s poems.

The event was held during the 2012 Baltimore Book Festival in the CityLit tent and was included as part of the 100 Thousand Poets for Change annual global initiative. Here’s a quick look, thanks to photos taken by Laura and daughter Julia as well as Sam Schmitt:

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According to Laura, “It was a great panel discussion. Many people approached me about how much they enjoyed it. Even my mother, who does not read poetry, was so fascinated that she came home and read Lucille’s Collected Poems for about an hour.”

Note: Lucille Clifton was featured in our Summer 2008 Childhood issue. We introduced you to our partner for the Clifton event in “Meet the Neighbors: CityLit Project.” You can catch Won’t You Celebrate With Me? Honoring the Life and Poetic Legacy of Lucille Cliftona photography exhibit, at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Audacity, 50s Style: Part 3

(Final installment, continued from Parts 1 and 2)

Jo dons “gender-appropriate clothing,” dressing as Dolly Parton for Halloween gigs. (Photo: courtesy Jo Kellum)

“There’s a certain section of the population that thinks if you’re gay, you’re a pervert,” Carla Mandley informed me. I was speaking with her and Jo Kellum. The two women, both in their 70s, are the surviving members of Baltimore’s original all-girl band, the Roc-A-Jets. “If it’s so accepted as an ordinary way of life now, why is it so shocking?” she asked. “I’m very sensitive to it because of the abuse I’ve taken and the fear I’ve lived with all my life.”

For Carla, the band’s recent exposure has been uncomfortable. Carla played drums for the ground-breaking group, which entertained Baltimore clubgoers from the late 1950s through the mid-1990s. She feels that The Signal’s recent radio profile focused too much on the fact that they were gay.

I grew up in the 1970s after New York City’s Stonewall Riots sparked the gay rights movement. Homophobia existed when I was a kid, especially in suburban high schools, but before the Civil Rights movement extended to gays, there was no “out.” Then I caught the documentary Stonewall Uprising on PBS’s American Experience. The film gave me a sense of how deeply ingrained anti-gay culture was when the Roc-A-Jets started playing.

Public service announcements aimed at adolescents equated homosexuality with pedophilia and mental illness. If teens were caught in a homosexual act, they could expect to be treated like criminals. One film shows an older man, a pedophile, grooming a teenage victim. When the boy tells his parents what’s going on, they take him to the police, who arrest his abuser but also put the child on probation.

Both women vividly recall this climate of discrimination, symbolized by Baltimore City’s vice squad. Carla said that the police, in the band’s early days, physically beat them and their audience because they were gay. “They’d try anything to bring you down,” she said, including closing down the bars and clubs where the Roc-A-Jets played. The band and its audience dressed in shirts and slacks, so the vice squad tried to enforce a “gender-appropriate clothing” rule, a law that also existed in New York City. Sometimes, the police tore open the women’s dressshirts to check whether they were wearing bras.

Often, the Roc-A-Jets fought back with humor. Once, Carla’s version of gender-appropriate clothing was a ragged dress, a moth-eaten stole and ripped nylons borrowed from her mother. Everyone at the Pepper Hill Club howled at the joke, but Carla still had on the required three pieces of women’s clothing.

The 1969 Stonewall Riots were an uprising, but that wasn’t the Roc-A-Jets style. The band and their fans wore down their detractors. No matter how many punches were thrown, no matter how many times their gigs were raided, the Roc-A-Jets kept playing and having a good time. Eventually, the vice squad “became good friends with us,” Jo said, “and so did the police…They saw that we were just a bunch of young people having a good time and nobody was doing wrong things. And they liked us.”

Longtime friend, performer Buddy Love said, “They went out there, they were a show. They sounded good. They knew how to perform in front of people. They weren’t just anybody. They were special people.”

Because of the band’s popularity, I wondered whether lead singer Jan Morrison and Jo had ever been approached about a recording contract. It wasn’t surprising to learn that Jack Parr had invited Jan to be on his late-night show, as had Jimmie Dean, who hosted a country music TV program.

Even in the early days, before they were an all-girl trio, Jo remembers being approached by a music-industry scout. “This woman come in. We were singing “Bye Bye Love.” She said that she had heard about us and wanted to set us up to go to the Grand Ole Opry.” The band was skeptical, but the woman from the Opry was the real deal. Still, Jan and Jo turned her down. Jo said, “We both had children. And to pick up and leave…We weren’t going to do that, leave our kids.”

Jo began telling me about 50s- and 60s-era performers who were blacklisted because they were gay. The Roc-A-Jets must have been reluctant to trade their slacks and ties for beehives and dresses, the price of working with image-conscious music and television industries. The band was happy to stay in Baltimore, doing their own thing with the fans who knew them and loved them as is.

For Rahne Alexander, who leads the modern-day Baltimore band The Degenerettes, those fears resonate. “Here we are fifty years later and it’s still a novelty to be an all-female band,” she said. “There are queer musicians, obviously, but it’s still this uphill battle.” Alexander, who is transsexual, said being gay is not her band’s primary issue, “but it does flavor everything. It’s hard for us to find each other and it’s hard for us to support each other and it’s hard for us to be out and about.”

For that reason, Alexander understands why the Roc-A-Jets never pursued a career beyond Baltimore. “I know, because of work that I do [as a musician], that I’m going to be scrutinized by people in a way I don’t expect. You’ve really got to steel yourself for that. That’s huge. A lot of people just want to live their lives. Maybe they just wanted to be in a band and not be in a famous band.”

Jo agreed that the idea of putting on a skirt and growing long hair wasn’t appealing, despite the opportunities the Roc-A-Jets had to make it big. But she and Carla both believe that Jan, who died in 2007, could have been a star. Carla said, “I never heard anybody who could hold a note like [Jan] sang…and then go right back into the release. I would have needed oxygen. She was phenomenal, she really was. If there was anyone of the four of us who [could have] made it in Nashville, it was her.”

Since their interview on The Signal, the Roc-A-Jets have been raised to hero status by some in the local gay community and music scene. Alexander said that when she listened to the Roc-A-Jets piece, “I listened to it like twice in a row…Suddenly my Facebook [page] and my email was full of people saying, ‘Oh my God. Have you heard this?’”

Alexander wrote a tribute song, a portrait from the point of view of a 1950s era “Saturday night butch” looking forward to a night out. “The Roc-A-Jets make this woman feel good, and that’s all that the song needs to be about,” she said. The song, “The Roc-A-Jets,” opens with the lines, “Shirley, Shirley, let’s ditch the poodle skirt,” a nod to the classic–some would say closeted–sitcom roommates Laverne and Shirley.

Alexander and I spoke on the phone about similarities between her band and the Roc-A-Jets. She and her partner, Kristen Anchor, are the core of the Degenerettes. She said that the two of them are “still fighting some of the same battles that the Roc-A-Jets were, but still trying to create an atmosphere of fun and enjoyment…rebellion and sexuality and all the sorts of thing rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to give people.”

Over the last six months, Jo and Carla have caught two Degenerettes shows, where they’ve heard some current Baltimore bands. The women brought several of their friends, many of whom started out as Roc-A-Jets customers, to one of the shows. “We played the song and both Carla and Jo came to the stage,” Alexander said. “I just really wanted them to be able to soak up a lot of credit for making it possible for us to do what we do. They really did break a lot of ground.”

The Roc-A-Jets were also recognized recently by their friend Love, who inducted them into his Maryland Country Legends Music Hall of Fame last fall. “These girls earned the respect to be in the Hall of Fame…They were rock ‘n’ roll stars.”

Love said he never witnessed any of the abuse the Roc-A-Jets went through in their early years but pointed out, “They earned the respect of everybody. When you’ve got great people, dressed people doing a show–what they done, they created that image. I never heard anybody say anything bad about them. You can’t argue with class.”

I’ve visited Jo a few times since our first interview. Once, while Jo and I were talking, her friends Cass Drevillian and Donna Kasch came by. Drevillian has known Jo since the 1950s, when both women worked at Eastern Venetian Blind Company. Kasch, Drevillian’s partner, was an early fan.“I used to go down to Pepper Hill…the bar was always packed,” Kasch said. They talked about those in their circle who are ill or have passed away. They bemoaned the “lost” clubs and venues where they used to hang out. Kasch told me that the scene for gay women isn’t as supportive today as it was when the Roc-A-Jets played. She thinks that’s because openly gay women and men can go to any club or bar.

Although the Roc-A-Jets are history, the relationships Jo and Carla developed through the band are strong. Now, their extended group of friends meets weekly at Bobby B’s Palace for dinner and oldies music. Jo continues reaching out, sharing her story with people like me, Alexander and Henkin, who views Jo as a pioneer.

Henkin said the Roc-A-Jets “didn’t know quite who they were when they started out. I don’t suspect they intended to become the epicenter of a whole revolutionary sexual identity movement. But they found courage with each other. They ended up, intended to or not, being heroes and leaders to a whole generation of women just like them.”

Recently, I stopped by Jo’s to go through photographs of the band. Jo’s partner had coffee and donuts ready. Their friend Audrey Anderson was there, and I’d brought my daughter, since school was out. We sat around the dining room table, looking at pictures and chatting. Carla stopped by, too.

Anderson had us all laughing. She was there when the Roc-A-Jets played one of Divine’s birthday parties–the band was a favorite of filmmaker John Waters, who they still see from time to time. At the party, Audrey found herself in line for the bathroom behind a sword swallower. She remembered thinking that if the cops came to break up the party, “What was I gonna tell my mother?”

It would be easy to tell the Roc-A-Jets story as a version of Behind the Music. The band has all the makings of a rockumentary: humble beginnings in working class Baltimore, fans who lined up for blocks to see a show, police busts and broken bones, all of the things that make other acts crack and grow apart. But for every story that ends with the band in a police paddy wagon or hospital, there’s another about raiding a local thrift store for $1 dresses to wear on the dance floor. “We sit around now,” said Anderson, talking about “the fun we had making fools of ourselves and having a good time.”

It was mutual love of music that helped these women find each other, but a sense of community keeps them together still. “Four women. Forty years,” Jo said. “You know women don’t get along with each other that long.” The band had tiffs, but they were usually about their set list or Jan putting the moves on Jo’s girlfriends. Carla said, “But the nitty gritty was it was one for all and all for one.” And in the community of women the Roc-A-Jets built, it has stayed that way for fifty years.

Book Review: Truth Thomas’s Speak Water

speak water

Truth’s new poetry book

I live in an 1830s mill worker’s house on the Patapsco River in the picture-postcard part of Ellicott City, MD. A year ago, Truth Thomas, guest editor for our Winter 2012 Social Justice issue, sat at my dining room table. Before we got down to business with Linda Joy Burke, an LPR contributing editor, two things occurred.

First, Truth heard a train rumbling along the tracks on the high bank forming the other side of the river and ran out to the front porch. He watched it go by with all the delight of a small child. Then, after he came inside and Linda Joy joined us, he told us about the time he was looking in the window of an antiques shop down the hill from my house and two white men driving by in a blue pickup truck hurled racial slurs at him. The juxtaposition of those two things tore my heart.

The latter occurrence served as an impetus for Truth to learn to “speak water,” a term offered with a smile but no precise definition. And made me want to make absolutely sure that I got the right person to review speak water when it came out. That was Joseph Ross, who not only knew about prejudice from being a gay white male but could also turn that into poetry about the African-American experience, as amply demonstrated by “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God,” published in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue.

When I asked Joseph if he might be willing to write a review, he said he would be happy to do this. No need to send a review copy. He already had speak water sitting on his bed stand, waiting to be read. Once he finished reading it, this was what he wrote:

If  the word “scripture” means “sacred writing,” then speak water is, in a sense, scripture. Biblical images weave all through this powerful collection. The poems dare to both lament and celebrate, they have both memory and vision.

As in the Bible, speak water divides into two sections. The first, “The Dry Land Earth,” uses images from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. The second, “Hand Dances at the Well,” draws largely from New Testament images. But these poems are not religious in the traditional sense. These poems use biblical images, looking back, in order to focus the reader on the present world. This is the collection’s strength: these poems witness and call. They describe our human condition in sometimes searing, sometimes playful language.

The book begins, as you would guess, with a poem called “Genesis.” The poem opens with the biblical creation mantra “In the beginning…” and then hurls us into the present, or near-present.

In the beginning, God made heaven, earth
and Shalanda “Sha Sha” Haywood, born in
Brooklyn, August, 1972—died in Maryland,
July, 2010. None of this you will remember

“Genesis” continues as a kind of creation story, or a genealogy. We learn of a family’s losses and its humanity.

“What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear” continues the Genesis imagery in a humorous way. Taking the tempting voice of Eden’s snake, we hear a new version of seduction. This snake flirts with Eve, calling her hips “wide as sky,” naming her a “goddess.” Sadly, we never hear Eve’s response. But the snake urges relentlessly. You can almost see him winking as he says, “Just let me introduce you / to a little nibble. I’m sure God will understand.”

Among the most moving poems in this section is “Auntie.” This poem celebrates a woman’s strength and love. We learn that she “parted coupon seas / at the Kroger.” The speaker and the woman “rode all over segregation’s / feathered carcass.” Finally, in a tender closing, the speaker “snuggled in her side like a rib / returning home.”

I couldn’t help laughing out loud while reading “On Flat Langston’s Escape from Busboys and Poets Plantation.” Here, Thomas writes of an event in the Washington, DC poetry scene where a cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes was stolen from a restaurant. This poem is hymn-like in its four-line stanzas and echoes Hughes with its careful rhymes. Thomas stays true to his justice themes as well. The cutout is, after all, liberated from a “plantation.” One almost wants to shout “Hallelujah!”

In the second section, “Hand Dances at the Well,” Thomas continues with poems that move because of their carefully crafted quality. Echoing the first section’s “Genesis,” this section begins with “Sunday Kind of Love,” which fuses the first miracle in John’s Gospel, the wedding feast at Cana, with a modern woman’s challenging life.

Shayna reads the Word and takes
the story of that first miracle as
serious as unpaid electric bills in
winter—

The poems in this section are replete with New Testament images and language. We get hints of the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel of Mark, Judas’ thirty pieces of silver, the need to born again and more. Thomas uses these images with a light touch. If these poems preach–and they do–they are not preachy.

We are treated to both craft and insight. In “Sermon on the Block,” he tells us:

Blessed are the homeless who find ATM asylum for
their offering kingdom does not sleep nor slumber.

Blessed are those who do not mourn the death of paychecks:
for eviction shall overlook them like the Passover angel.

“The Third World” struck me as a powerfully written poem using the image of Mary standing at the foot of the cross as an entry point to consider the effect of lengthy incarceration on a prisoner’s mother.

Woman behold thy son–thy daughter, eighty-sixed in 8 by 6,
leg iron limp–wait, growling gut–wait, food arms wagging
steel door lips for bread of birdcage shit.

This compelling book closes with three poems that provoke the reader to consider the power of race, memory and art itself. In “Revelation,” we hear the African-American game of the Dozens in a reflection on race.

You so black,
eclipses wear you
for sunglasses.

This clever poem ends with a warning and celebration:

so black–so so so
eggplant, banana black, red-
boned, peanut butter, you can

never be
black
enough.

“We Too, The Foundation” takes us back to Hughes and celebrates other ancestors such as Aristotle, Malcolm X, Whitman and Martin Luther King.

This beautiful book closes with thoughts on the power of poetry and art. “Intersections” recalls a reading series of the same name in Washington, DC.

…on a snowplow rumbling
night, art wanders in off the street
to hold its own hand…

We see an art here that

will not “be good.” It will
interrupt you when you are speaking
and not say “excuse me.” It will duck
inside your door and eat up all your
cookies because it is hungry. It is
always hungry—especially here in
Anacostia’s abandoned mouth—

Thomas has created a strong and beautiful book of poems here. For those who don’t know biblical images, some of his descriptions might not land where he wants. For those who are turned off by biblical images, this might not be their book either. But if one gives these poems a chance, they can do what the best poems do: take us deeper into our own lives and deeper into the world.

In his review, Joseph captures the same contrasting aspects of Truth and his world that I witnessed that August afternoon at my home. But he cannot reproduce Truth’s speaking voice from a print book. Since Truth is a singer-songwriter as well as a poet, he deserves to be heard. Here he is reading his work at our Salon Series event. Listening to the speak water poem “What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear” there was pure pleasure.

Note: You can get more background on speak water from a recent interview. And you can hear Truth read on August 9 at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC.

Audacity, 50s Style: Part 2

(Continued from “Audacity, 50s Style: Part 1”)

Jan Morrison, Carla Mandley, Jo Kellum

Jan Morrison, Carla Mandley and Jo Kellum in 1992, four years before the band retired

I met Jo Kellum of the Roc-A-Jets, Baltimore’s first all-girl band, in January. The Ravens still had hopes of going to the Super Bowl, and Jo’s East Baltimore neighborhood was festooned with purple and black. Jo and Carla Mandley, Roc-A-Jets’ drummer, sat down with me over tea. Although the band had retired in 1996 and two band members, lead singer Jan Morrison and original drummer Edie Lippincott, had died several years ago, Jo and Carla remain close friends.

Jo is straightforward and serious, revealing a bawdy sense of humor once she gets to know you. Carla is quick to laugh and stylish. She wears mascara, and a gold necklace brightens her all-black outfit. Both women occasionally stopped to ask, “You know we’re gay, right?” They were giving me an out as though they couldn’t believe I’d want to hang out, reminiscing about their band. What Jo and Carla expressed above all else was a desire to be treated as human beings. Jo said, “We’re just people. We like a nice home. We like family things. We’re no different from everybody else except we don’t want to sleep with men.”

Jo was 74 when WYPR producer Aaron Henkin profiled the Roc-A-Jets on the public radio show The Signal. She is now 77, her guitar packed away in the row house she shares with her longtime partner. Henkin had told me it baffles them that people outside of their community are interested in the humanity of their story.

When Jo was 14, she adopted her uncle’s old guitar. Though it was missing some strings, she taught herself to play by ear. She wanted to study piano, but there was no money for lessons. She was good enough to be in a band throughout the remainder of her teens, playing at school dances. Athletic and outgoing, she was popular in high school. Girls developed crushes on her, but they never went anywhere. Jo was too busy with sports, music and her duties as senior class president. I asked what it was like having to wear the feminine clothes of the day–full skirts and dresses–and she replied it wasn’t an issue. However, she did institute Dungaree Fridays when she was class president. “I was making sure I was doing something for myself there,” she laughed.

In 1950s Baltimore, it wasn’t unusual for teens to marry before finishing high school, as Jo did. She left the marriage after just a few weeks, returning to school and working at Eastern Venetian Blind Company (the first such producer in the nation) after graduation. There, Jo heard about Jan Morrison, a co-worker who played guitar. Jan was already doing gigs in Baltimore clubs. She approached Jo about starting a group. Jo said that soon after she started playing with Jan in 1956, they became one person. “We never had to say, ‘I’m going to play such and such a song.’ I would hit a note and she’d be there.”

Even though both women played guitar, they hired a male lead. A female lead just wasn’t done. There was no thought of forming a girl band until 1959, when Edie Lippincott joined on drums. Jo took over lead guitar, learning on the fly. She told Jan, “I’ll try it if you get that girl Edie to play drums so she can drown out any mistakes I make.” Carla joined the band later, switching off as drummer with Edie. “Having an all-girl band seemed to be pretty nice,” Jo said. “It was definitely an exclusive thing. There were none around…We [had] liked all the guys that worked with us [but] when you had all girls you felt, I guess, a camaraderie. We had no idea we were making any kind of history.”

There were never any rehearsals since the women couldn’t read music. Jo said, “Elvis would bring out a song in the morning and [by the evening] I would have it.” She opened a case filled with music to show me. Not sheet music but notepads and loose pages with guitar chords and lyrics she had written out by hand. The Roc-A-Jets spent most of their gigs playing requests. “We did it all,” Carla said, referring to everything from the Top 40 and rockabilly to cha-cha-chás and polkas.

Jan sang and served as the tough front woman of the band. “She would get in fights frequently. She wouldn’t back away from a fight,” Jo said. “We were playing at Cicero’s and some guy would come up with a remark of some sort. She would say something back, and before you knew it they’d be fighting.” Tough as she was, Carla said that everyone–especially women–loved Jan. “She got an attitude that she was something special…She had a great personality. She had a terrific style. And what a showman.”

Since there were no female bands to serve as models, the Roc-A-Jets dressed the same way that the male musical acts did. The trio thought that they looked sharp in black pants, white button-down shirts and ties. Their audiences followed suit. On The Signal, Jo and Carla described housewives stashing men’s clothing behind a fence so they could return to change for a show without their husbands’ knowledge. This was one of Henkin’s favorite parts. “This moment of transformation, when they duck out with their jeans and T-shirts and Brylcreem hidden in their handbag and it was this total super hero moment,” he said. “They would emerge as this totally empowered version of themselves.”

Jo saw some truth in Henkin’s view. “When the band started playing is when everybody started coming out,” she said. According to Baltimore Sounds, Jo Vaccarino’s encyclopedia of Charm City music, “As a gay group, the girls created social scenes for gay women, and while doing so were subject to harassment from straight patrons and occasional visits from the police force.”

The band never made professional recordings, but fans brought in hand-held tape recorders. In Henkin’s piece, every audio clip has an added layer of meaning because of the women’s outsider status. When Jan sings, “Dreaming, in all my dreams I dream / That someday I’d find someone like you” from the Kitty Wells song, there is a deep sense of longing. Rahne Alexander, a rocker involved in Baltimore’s current music scene, said of the piece, “The thing that stunned me the most was the recordings…the voice is so amazing…If you really think about this song in a queer context, it’s a devastating song…you’re thinking about the closetedness that people were having to perform.”

In 1960s Baltimore, when being a lesbian meant hiding who you were, the Roc-A-Jets were audaciously out–as a band, if not in their daily lives. They made it easier for gay women to find someone like them. Older friends took teenaged Carla to a Roc-A-Jets show, and Carla became a regular. One night when Edie was sick, Carla filled in. “I must have got up…and just played the cocktail drums,” she said. “Next thing I know, here I am getting paid.” Edie was often ill, so Carla and Edie alternated even though Carla was underage. When cops showed up, Carla was hidden behind the stage or in the bathroom.

Carla had married right out of high school. When the marriage failed, she had to juggle a full-time day job, caring for a young child and playing gigs at night. “We just didn’t do it for the love of music. We were both single mothers raising a child,” she said. Being in the band was an income-booster, but it wasn’t that much. The band worked six nights and a matinée every week in addition to the day jobs. “It was hard,” Jo said about being away from home so much. “My daughter followed me around [at home]. My daughter totally loved me,” she said. “She was proud of me no matter what I did.”

Jo kept quiet about her love life. “As far as the rest of my family, they had to know,” she said. “But it was never discussed.” Carla concurred. “We don’t talk openly about gay sexuality.” She feels that because she had a child and accepted responsibility her family didn’t give her a hard time. “Being gay was not a happy thing for me,” she stressed. She had to deal with “things people would say to my child because of how they perceived me…In those days, children were taken away from you if they could prove you were gay.”

Despite the prejudice against gay women, Jo said no clubs ever turned the group away. “Wherever we played, we were going to draw a crowd. Who wouldn’t want somebody…who would increase their business?” she asked. After playing a variety of bars and lounges, the Roc-A-Jets settled in at the Pepper Hill Show Bar Lounge on Gay Street during 1963, where they stayed for four years.

Baltimore Sounds devotes a page to the Roc-A-Jets in their heyday, noting:

In 1964 at the height of the British Invasion the group was described by Bernie Lit in his weekly ‘Playboy’ entertainment guide as “Baltimore’s answer to the Beatles–the only all-girlie ladybugs in Baltimore’s nightlife.” The Rock-A-Jets played regularly at Hart’s Tavern off Furnace Branch Road during the summer of 1967, and were a house band at the Satellite Lounge in 1968-69.

Audrey Anderson first saw the Roc-A-Jets in 1963. “Just by dumb luck [we] went by this bar and saw something advertised about this all-girl band and I said, ‘Let’s go in there,’” she said. “When I walked in, I didn’t know I was going to meet one of my best friends for life.” She joked that she sang with the Roc-A-Jets so many times that she should have been made an official member. “No matter where they were, we followed them. They played great music, and we had a really good time.”

The band’s fan base went with them even when they worked clubs on The Block, where Jo remembers prostitutes scamming men with endless bottles of champagne. But the Roc-A-Jets had grown up as straight-laced, blue-collar kids and would remain so throughout the band’s 40-year career. “We were square,” Carla said.

Defending themselves was the only real trouble they caused. “A lot of straight women would come in and have a fascination,” Carla said. “They [wanted] to go back to their friends and say, ‘You know that girl, I slept with her.’” Carla would say, “Excuse me, I’m just trying to make a couple of bucks here to feed my kid.” She found their attitude degrading. Jo said that straight couples would come in, and the men would get upset. Their dates “were after us something fierce. They were coming underneath the doors in the bathroom to get to us.” There were also men who’d ask gay women to dance. “As macho as we were,” Jo said, “we’d say, ‘Leave them alone.’ BAM. We’d get smacked around.” A fight would start, sometimes violent. Jo once witnessed a group of men push Jan up against a car and beat her, breaking her ribs.

Jo and Carla both still bristle at the term “lesbian.” They remember being called “lezzies,” “lizzies” or “lizards.” Those slurs, Jo explained to me, “were meant to be a nasty thing and we weren’t nasty people.” Openly gay performers such as Ellen DeGeneres and k.d. lang and television shows such as The L Word have shifted public opinion toward gay women. But it only takes one stranger shouting “Watch where you’re driving, you fuckin’ lesbian” to get Jo’s guard up. “They use it as a slam against you,” she said.

(To be continued in “Audacity, 50s Style: Part 3”)

Audacity, 50s Style: Part 1

Roc-A-Jets

Jan, Jo and Edie as shown in an early press shot of the Roc-A-Jets. (Photo: courtesy of Jo Kellum)

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.

What Audacity Looks Like

The Voina Group

The Voina Group

The other day, I came across photographs of the audacious Russian street-art group Voina. What struck me most was how ordinary the members looked. They could have easily been any undergrads from any American campus. Yet, the Russian government has brought more than a dozen criminal cases against them. The same government that also saw fit to grant them the Ministry of Culture Innovation 2011 award for modern visual arts. Though perhaps not precisely for the giant phallus that they had painted on the Liteyny drawbridge leading to the Bolshoy Dom headquarters of the Federal Security Service in Saint Petersburg.

I took these photos as further evidence for a hypothesis first formed at my father’s knee: that there is no necessary correlation between audacious appearance and audacious acts. The seemingly unremarkable people sitting around my family’s kitchen table, all war refugees, had routinely done things that you and I wouldn’t dream of doing. The others that I later encountered, either directly or indirectly. Rosa Parks, the small woman with the rimless glasses whose singular act sparked the US civil rights movement. The girls in shirtwaist dresses and guys in plaid shirts who adopted the Port Huron Statement, written by the curly-haired Tom Hayden, that launched 50 years of student protest and mass action for a more democratic society. The controversial authors that I read–James Joyce, Vladimir NabokovHenry MillerGeorge Orwell, JD SalingerKurt Vonnegut— who, on looks alone, would have been welcomed at any of the libraries where their books had been banned. The more flamboyant forming the remainder of my world–the Hippies and their successors–seemed to be mere eiphenomena, not the driving force of audacity.

But what about visual artists, who are–well–more visually oriented? Is it easier to spot the most audacious of that sort? Look at a list of the 10 most controversial artists of our time that I located online and judge for yourself. They’re presented below by birth order, together with a brief description, and shown in a slide show with a representative work:

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Picasso repeatedly outraged the public as well as his associates, but no more so than with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. At that time, the work was deemed crude, unfinished and unusually unsettling. Today, it is considered to be seminal in the development of both cubism and modern art.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). In Paris, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2  raised a ruckus. Among the objections was that nudes never descend stairs: they recline. In New York, reactions were no more favorable. It was called “an explosion in a shingle factory” and spawned satirizations for decades. Today, Duchamp is seen as a key player in the surrealist, futurist and Dada movements.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). The abstract imagery of O’Keeffe’s oversized, sensual flowers and similar depictions such as Blue and Green Music caused a stir because they called to mind female genitalia. Even as she was celebrated by feminists, she denied painting private parts. Today, she is credited with revolutionizing modern art through her portrayal of the emotional impact of nature and man-made entities.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). With his huge Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), Pollock abandoned the convention of central motif and established process as paramount. The resulting action painting genre caused considerable disagreement among critics. His wife, Lee Krasner, may well have been the real innovator. Her Cobalt Night is larger than Lavender Mist and exhibits the same heroic ambition.

Christo Javachev (1935-present). Javachev and his late wife were at the forefront of environmental art. The first version of Valley Curtain, a 400 meter length of vivid orange material stretched across Rifle Gap, was torn to shreds by wind and rock while being hung. A second version was successfully erected, only to be torn apart by gale-force winds 28 hours later. While critics searched for meaning in such massive, temporary installations, the two expanded the definition of what constitutes art.

Ai Weiwei (1957-present). Ai was the artistic consultant for the Beijing National Stadium and a dissident arrested by the Chinese government. His 10 tons of hand-painted porcelain sculptures, Sunflower Seeds, reference a staple of the Cultural Revolution and the resulting homogenization. Placing Ai first in the 2011 Power 100, ArtReview noted that his “activities have allowed artists to move away from the idea that they work within a privileged zone limited by the walls of a gallery or museum.”

Damien Hirst (1965-present). Hirst is famous for formaldehyde-fixed animals displayed in glass tanks. His Virgin Mothera 35 foot tall statue recalling Edgar Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Yearsreveals the insides of a pregnant woman. Critics have variously called him one of few late 20th Century artists who will remain more than a footnote and someone responsible for the decline of contemporary art.

David Černý (1967-present). Černý gained international recognition by getting arrested for painting a Soviet tank pink. While he claims that he merely creates art for his friends and to piss people off, he doubtless has something more serious in mind. His Brownnosers allows visitors to climb a 20-foot ladder and peer into a white rear end to view a video of impersonators of President Václav Klaus and art critic Milan Knížák feeding each other slop while “We Are the Champions” plays.

Chris Ofili (1968-present). Ofili gained notoriety when questions were raised regarding his The Holy Virgin Mary and Tate Gallery’s purchase of The Upper Room containing his 13 paintings of macaques. No Woman No Cry, referencing his Nigerian heritage and the Bob Marley song, has been called a modern Pietà but has also raised hackles since it stands on two dried, varnished lumps of elephant dung–a material favored by Ofili–and a third serves as the Virgin’s pendant.

Banksy (1974?-present). “Banksy” is the pseudonym of an anonymous street artist, painter and political activist who may or may not be Robin Gunningham. Known for his contempt of the government in labelling graffiti as vandalism, he displays his art on public surfaces such as walls and sometimes goes as far as building prop pieces. His stencil of the image of Death on the waterline of an entertainment boat in Bristol is based on a 19th Century etching illustrating the pestilence of the Great Stink.

When I consider these artists, I see nothing that makes me think that there is any way to identify the truly audacious other than through their work. So more power to those who don’t want to look bland or boring. But if they want to be genuinely daring, they’ll have to come up with more than a startling appearance. And put more of themselves on the line. Personally, I’d place my money on one of those inconspicuous commuters sitting near me on the subway. Chances are better that the makings of the next fearless [literary, artistic, social, cultural, political] work is stashed in his or her plain portfolio or briefcase.

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Note: For more on audacity, see the “Audacious Ideas” series on this site. And join us for the launch of the Summer 2012 Audacity print issue in late June.