Who were The Fabulous Dirt Sisters?

The Fabulous Dirt Sisters (1981-1989) were an all women band based in Nottingham, UK. They began in 1981 when Dorry Lake and Deb Mawby came together through a shared interest in street musicianship, feminist/peace politics and using music as a platform for inspiring joy in people.

The band underwent various line up changes in their early life until they were joined by Stella Patella in 1982 on the fiddle. She would stay with the band until they split up in 1989. In 1984 Kaffe Matthews joined as an inexperienced bass player and a more solid line up took shape. As Matthews became more interested in playing percussion they were joined by Jane Griffiths on double bass in 1987.

The band used their music to express political ideas, particularly around feminist and peace activism when mobilisations at Greenham Common were just beginning. In the early days of the camp Deb and Dorry used to take their instruments, the saxophone and accordian respectively, to lift the spirits of the protesting women. The Dirt Sisters were regular visitors to Greenham throughout its existence. Their music is often directly inspired by these experiences. ‘Wood Song’, for example, is based on the process of building a fire at the camp, as the feminist activist cultures are woven into the fabric of their songs.

The mischief of feminist activism abounds in the Dirt Sisters’ music. Later the song ‘T’aint necessarily our fault’ detailed a mass feminist action that stuck curfew posters on the streets of the city saying that men should stay at home following a number of sex attacks that had happened in Nottingham. This, of course, reverses the usual rhetoric that women should stay at home – a rhetoric which reinforces the idea that women are to blame if they are sexually assualted. The police allegedly received a record number of phone calls from men unhappy with the directive.

The band’s artistic inspiration sprang from the everyday experiences of women’s lives. On stage they often played to a backdrop of washing line, a prop they took from show to show. Using domestic imagery was a strategy to create female-centred symbols that are often invisible or denigrated within male-dominated cultures. With this background and the colourful clothes the Dirt Sisters wore on stage, the band used theatricality and performance to communicate their musical messages.

The band standing outside ‘Nee-Naw’, the group’s ambulance-cum van

The Fabulous Dirt Sisters were a collective, inspired by the feminist and left-wing politics of the 1970s. There was an urgency at this time ‘to do things differently’. This meant trying out different forms of decision making, organisation and, within the context of the Dirt Sisters, writing music as well. The music the band created has a very unique sound, described by Matthews as ‘home-made’, a product of them trying new things (including learning their instruments as they went along), experimenting with song structure and rhythm. The absence of electric/ 6-stringed guitars situate the tradition within an emerging culture of ‘women’s music’ that sprang from the women’s movement. This music self-consciously sought to create music which reflected women’s culture in sound as well as lyrical content. Despite being protest music, the Dirt Sisters’ lack of aggression in delivery demonstrate the influence of the peace movement politics on the band.

During their time together the band toured the UK and Europe extensively, playing at activist benefits (including miners’ strikes and Lesbian and Gay activism), arts centres and festivals. Perhaps most interesting are the band’s ‘world tours,’ where they took busking holidays around Europe in the summer months. Playing on the street was a massive part of the Dirt Sisters’ political intervention. They did this to be visible as women on the streets (thus reclaiming a space traditionally defined as male), and as a way of being accessible to their audiences, ‘not hiding behind a barrage of equipment and cool,’ they often attested. They were inspired by other political street bands of the time, such as the York Street Band, the Black Cardigans, the Bristol Ambling Band, the Peace Artists and the Fall Out Marching Band,.

This photo shows the colourful clothes the band wore. When playing on the streets they always made sure they wore eye-catching, smart clothes in order to attract attention.

The band’s collective politics led to setting themselves up as the Catflap collective. From this they would run their label, Spinaround Records. Setting up a label in order to have control over the production and distribution of their material was part of the band’s politics of ‘doing things differently’. On Spinaround they released two full-length records, Flapping Out (1986) and Five Strong Swimmers (1988). The band also had their own PA and woman sound engineer who they took to their events because in-house engineers often didn’t understand their sound.

In 1989 after almost a decade of playing music together the band went their separate ways. They left behind a colourful musical legacy that teems with personality, originality, humour and joy.

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