DIY Activist History tips, Part 1

If you want to start recording, writing and celebrating marginalised histories where do you start? What if you have no formal skills and don’t technically ‘know’ what you are doing? I’ve asked some of the amazing people I’ve met working on activist and community history projects their advice.

The following tips come from Annie Berry, who describes herself as not liking ‘school, but somehow completed her PhD in 2008, which looked at British women who lived in colonial East Africa and now live in Britain. This was in a Sociology department, but her research meant that she had to learn the ropes in history. She has since been involved in various oral history projects in Bristol, including working with Bristol’s Museums, and on the research and archiving side of the What’s Your Trinity Story project. She now works at UWE as research assistant on the Rhodesian Forces oral history project. Her main research interests are the representation of ‘race’ in history – and in Bristol’s history, white identity in contemporary Britain, and colonial history in East and Southern Africa.

These are her top tips:

Think about what you want and look into the kind of resources available. Books often have lists of sources authors have consulted, or online searches are obviously much easier now. My simple advice would just be to get stuck in. I suppose it depends a bit on what kind of history you are researching, but if it’s archives, then don’t be afraid to ask. Archivists are there to guide people so let them know it’s your first visit and they should happily show you the ropes. It’s always worth asking for advice, or explaining a little about your research, to see if there’s someone there who might specialise in that area – or there might be someone who is going through new additions that could be useful to you, so it’s always worth trying. There is also some ‘etiquette’ in many archives, like you are not supposed to take pens in, only pencils, and you can ask for book supports for delicate things. It probably looks like everyone else knows what they’re doing, but everyone had to start somewhere.

Before your first visit to an archive, it’s worth trying to find a couple of references for things that you want to see, and contact them in advance to check you will be able to see them on the day of your visit. Sometimes it can take a while to order documents, so get your first order in asap and remember to keep ordering so that you don’t have to wait each time you finish with something.

I think the same applies for interviews. Except here it pays to do a bit more research. Try to think about any sensitive topics or rifts for the group(s) you are going to interview, and start making enquiries. It can take a while to gain people’s trust, so the sooner you start the better.

Make sure you make notes – in archives, keep a note of everything you’ve seen, even if it wasn’t useful. Trust me, if your memory is anything like as bad as mine you will forget that you’ve seen it and you might end up looking at the same stuff over again. Also make a note of page numbers so that you can easily find things again. A lot of archives now let you photograph documents, so check if you are allowed to take a camera – and make sure you rename the files with reference numbers or you wont know what you’ve got. Good luck.

Thanks Annie!

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Frankie Green and Jam Today

Sometimes things just explode, in a good way. That is what it has been like discussing with Frankie Green the possibilities of setting up an archive to document the music made by women in the UK Women’s Liberation Movement.

Frankie playing drums with Jam Today at a women’s festival in Amsterdam in 1977.

After a typically casual, but well informed tip off from WLM activist stalwart Gail Chester, that Frankie was also interested in mapping the history of WLM music, I dropped her an email to see what her plans were. And so it seems, at separate ends of the country, our thoughts and desires were running in parallel lines. In the past weeks we have been getting together a project plan that we want to begin in earnest in September, more news of which will be posted here soon, but expect more of the exciting goodness you have already see here: music, biographies, oral histories, photographs and videos that tell you part of the many lost stories of women’s musical heritage.

Jam Today, 23 July, 1976 at their rehearsal space in Peckham

To tell you a little bit about Frankie:

She was a 60s activist in the anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam war movements, the Gay Liberation Front then the Women’s Liberation Movement. She played drums in two early feminist groups: The London Women’s Rock Band (1972 – 1974) and Jam Today (1976 – 1979.) In the 80s, after working in the Sisterwrite/Bite bookshop/café collective she went on to take a BA in Cultural Studies and an MA in literature, then worked in London Lighthouse, libraries, literacy tutoring and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign before moving to Whitstable, where she lives with her partner, writer/activist Diane Langford.

Jam Today photo from Sounds article, 1976

Frankie has just published her first novel which you can order direct from Perhaps most exciting is that she is now compiling a personal history of her political experience in GLF and WLM called ‘While We’re Still Here.’ Frankly Frankie, I can’t wait to read it.

Frankie playing ukele in Whitstable, 2010

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Kaffe Matthews talking about Street Music

Kaffe Matthews is a great storyteller. During the Dirt Sisters’ busking tours around Europe she kept her band members entertained with vivid recollections of her dreams and stories about her family.

Kaffe Matthews in the late 80s

When I interviewed Kaffe in January 2010 I was enthralled by her ability to spin a tale. In particular I loved hearing her talk about the European busking trips which beautifully captured the audacious way the Dirt Sisters claimed the streets of Europe as their own.

Dorry on the streets. In the right hand corner of the picture you can see the street drums Kaffe talks about in the interview.

In this excerpt Kaffe talks about playing on the street, its influence on the band and her musical career as a whole, and a particularly profitable trip to Zurich in Switzerland.

KaffeMBLOGEDIT by DeborahM

Deb and Dorry wearing the eye catching clothes that Kaffe said was an important part of being successful street musicians.

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The Guest Stars

Many of the bands The Fabulous Dirt Sisters toured with in the UK during the 1980s suffer the same fate of invisibility today. One band, The Guest Stars were, in many ways, the antithesis of the Dirt Sisters: the played polished, professional music within the ‘malestream’ genre of Jazz and had relative success outside of women’s and feminist music circuits.

Album cover for Out At Night, 1985

Kaffe Matthews described The Guest Stars as ‘a very interesting band because to us they were vastly superior musicians and they didn’t like me, turn up with my bass guitar wrapped up in a blanket, and the bass player in the Guest Stars, Alison, had a proper instrument in a proper case.’

Album cover for The Guest Stars, 1984

However dissimilar the bands were in style and appearance, they did share a similarity of spirit. Both were interested in using music to spread joy and lift spirits in a time of impending political doom, ‘it is undeniable that a positive experience can make all the difference at the end of a troubled day,’ the sleeve notes to The Guest Stars’ eponymous album confess. With songs like ‘I Know I Know’, The Guest Stars celebrated defying sexual and gender norms, by stating that ‘I’m gonna live my own way.’

Back cover of The Guest Stars, 1984

The band’s album covers also share a similar aesthetic: the group picture complimented by individual photos of band members playing their instruments are basically the same layout as The Dirt Sisters’ album covers.

Today Deirdre Cartwright (who was a presenter on the hugely successful BBC programme Rockschool in the early 80s) and Alison Rayner continue to work together on the project Blow the Fuse, but The Guests Stars do not yet have a secure place in music history.

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York Street Band

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarha Moore, a lifelong prolific (street) musician and member of the York Street Band. Like the Dirt Sisters, the York Street Band were an all-female band who claimed the streets as a space of communication and musicianship. They consisted of Sarha Moore on saxophone, Ros Davies also on saxophone, Anthea Gomez on accordion and Julia Farringdon on flute.

Illustration of the York Street Band by Baz Ward, 1981

The band played together from 1978-1982 and often performed at feminist events, political actions and were popular with feminists in the Netherlands, travelling there to perform on television. The York Street Band played interpretations of existing songs, such as by the French singer Edith Piaf, but never wrote original material together.

They appeared on the BBC radio programme Women’s Hour but never recorded an album. Sarha does have recordings of the band’s practices that we will be digitizing as part of this project. The remaining recordings highlight the importance of acknowledging the different contexts in which women record(ed) music. This points to a need to shift understandings of the heritage value of this ‘unfinished’ work, or the snap-shots of work-in-process these women, and many others like them, created.

The band playing in York, c. 1982

Seeing the band play at an anti-nuclear protest in 1979 was a major influence on Karunavaca (Dorry) from the Fabulous Dirt Sisters, who saw the political possibilities of women creatively reclaiming public space in a noisy and joyful way.

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The Fall Out Marching Band

A major influence on The Fabulous Dirt Sisters were the many political street bands who existed in the 1970s and 1980s.

Street bands used music to mobilise, educate and protest at a time when British culture was veering more and more to the right with the advent of Thatcherism.

One of the most well known of these bands was the Fall Out Marching band. Taking their name from the widespread fear in the early 1980s of nuclear devastation, the band were a key part of the Street Band movement. They wrote two songs that were a staple part of the protest culture of Greenham Common, ‘Take the toys away from the boys’ and ‘Four Minutes to Midnight’. You can read the lyrics and listen to audio clips of the songs here.

You can watch an audio clip of the band performing on the TV programme Swindon Viewpoint on 21 February 1984 if you follow this link:

The Fall Out Marching Band from Swindon Viewpoint on Vimeo.

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To plaque or not to plaque…..

As part of my research trip I asked Deb to take me on a tour of the Dirt Sisters’ Nottingham. Time ran out, as it often does, but we did manage to visit two important places, the wholefood shop mentioned in the previous post and Karunavaca’s old house where the band used to practise.

Picture of the house in Colville Street where the Dirt Sisters used to practise, May 2010

The band used to practise twice a week from 10-4 in the small room at the back of the house. I said to Deb that we need to get the house plaqued to recognise its historical importance since it is a place where great music was written that deserves to be a permanent part of our cultural heritage.

Deb standing outside the back of Colville Street, May 2010

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Wholefood shops

The late 1970s saw the emergence of wholefood co-operatives such as Suma and Infinity Foods that were premised on the need to have greater contact with and control over the food people bought. The wholefood movement was also linked to an increasing number of people identifying with the political aspects of vegetarianism and veganism.

One particular wholefood shop is central in the history of the Fabulous Dirt Sisters. Ouroborous, named after a symbol of a snake eating its own tale, representing cyclicality and renewal, was a co-operative wholefood shop in Nottingham. Karunavaca (Dorry) was part of setting it up and the shop provided the stage where all the members either met each other, worked or were invited to join the band.

Natural Food Company is where Ouroborous used to be, taken May 2010

Both Stella and Kaffe were invited by Deb to join the band in the shop – Stella just on the basis of the snazzy yellow trousers she was wearing and the fiddle that was slung over her shoulder. Kaffe was invited to play bass despite never having picked up the instrument in her life. That was the spirit of the band that was began to take a solid shape by 1984.

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What is one person’s rubbish is another person’s treasure

You often hear archivists and historians desperately urging people who have lived astonishing lives as activists, artists and culture makers to rummage through their so-called junk and donate it to their nearest archive for posterity.

While that flier or minute book might seem like the clutter you need to cull from your life, it probably contains important information that can help researchers repair the uneven map of history for the future.

So it was when I went to visit three of Fabulous Dirt Sisters. With subtle horror I heard that I was just six months too late to get my hands on that gig book which detailed every performance the group made – an artefact that would have made my job of reconstructing their past significantly easier.

Luckily I was still able to delve into Deb’s tape collection to see if she had any demo tapes or recordings of Dirt Sisters’ practices.

I wasn’t disappointed as I found a 4-Track demo of ‘Wood Song’ and ‘Street Song’ as well as some other treasures.

For me, finding such ‘rough’ or ‘unfinished’ recordings is hugely significant, because women and queers working in low-budget contexts often do not make it into the recording studio to create a ‘final product’.

The Fabulous Dirt Sisters thankfully managed to record two excellent albums of their music, but many bands in their demographic are not so fortunate. Finding a demo, a recording of a practise or live performance could be the only living document of a band’s music. Such items are hugely important and can help convey a different understanding of history – one where women’s achievements are not systematically omitted.

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Welcome to this blog that aims to be an archive in many senses. It will be an archive of The Fabulous Dirt Sisters but it will also be used to tell the story of me conducting research about them.

The story of my interest in The Fabulous Dirt Sisters goes back to 2007. On one of my many trips to the Feminist Archive South in Bristol, then based in the backroom of Trinity Road Library, I happened upon a copy of their first record Flapping Out, which was released in 1986. Of course I was desperate to listen to it being a massive fan of all things feminist and music. Unfortunately there was no record player at the archive so I was disappointed, being left only to handle the object and wonder what noise would emit from the grooves when needle was placed to vinyl. Later at home I scoured the internet looking for references to this band but I was left disappointed. The world seemed empty of the Fabulous Dirt Sisters’ resonances.

Living in Cardiff at the time, I fortuitously mentioned my current interest, passion and frustration to a neighbour of mine, Pat Gregory, who had lived in Nottingham in the 1980s and had been involved in the peace movement there. She eagerly proclaimed ‘The Fabulous Dirt Sisters! of course, I have the record upstairs,’ which she duly went and fetched from her loft. Pat, unfortunately, did not have a record player at the time and was also frustrated that she could not listen to the music. She said, tantalisingly, ‘I can see them, but I can’t remember what they sound like,’ while still relaying how much she enjoyed the vibrancy of their music.

With a curiosity that rose to fever pitch, I left Pat’s house with Flapping Out under my arm and went straight to my room where I placed the record on the table and finally pressed the arm down. The sound emanated and I wasn’t disappointed. The music was quite unlike anything I had heard before. Teeming with personality and bizarre rhythms, it sounded like a Balkan Jewish feminist party from another age which finally I had been allowed to attend. Why do we not have access to this music now? I shuddered angrily to myself.

It was not until January 2010 that I managed to get hold of Kaffe Matthews, who was probably the most visible member of the band in the public eye, for an interview.

Kaffe Matthews in her studio in East London, Jan 2010

Having spun some incredible tales about the Dirt Sisters’ busking tours around Europe, which will be available at a later date on the blog, I was desperate to speak to the other members of the band to hear their part of the story.

In May I went up to Nottingham to meet with Karunavaca (nee Dorry), Stella and Deb where we shared curry and the memories of their lives in The Fabulous Dirt Sisters.

Deb Mawby, Stella Patella and Karunavaca in Deb’s kitchen, May 2010.

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