Wanda Lavonne Jackson was not the first woman to sing rock and roll music; but she very likely was the first white woman to release a rock and roll single, and that was an achievement in and of itself. One barely needs to scratch the surface of 1950s moral panic to recognize that the “danger” of rock and roll was its perceived threat to the moral sanctity of white womanhood. But there was Wanda, in her red fringed dresses and high heels, tearing through racy–and “race-y”–rockabilly songs with the kind of blitzkrieg energy a punk rocker would envy.
Given the time and place in which she originated–Oklahoma City in the mid-’50s–it’s unlikely that Jackson explicitly thought of herself as a feminist trailblazer, much less a transgressor of racial lines. But she didn’t need to: she broke those boundaries simply by existing. Take, for example, her 1961 version of “Hard Headed Woman.” Written by Black Rhythm & Blues songwriter Claude Demetrius and recorded, most famously, by her ex-boyfriend Elvis Presley for the King Creole soundtrack, it’s frankly a sexist song in its original incarnation: little more than a light-hearted rundown of Biblical stories (Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah) presented as evidence that “a hard-headed woman is a thorn in the side of a man.” But Wanda clearly takes a defiant pleasure in identifying with “that evil Jezebel”; and her hellion vocals sound just as raw today as they did 55 years ago.
Unfortunately, due to the prevailing sexist and racist attitudes of the time, Wanda Jackson wouldn’t receive her due until years later. In 2009, after two failed nominations and a campaign led by her fan and collaborator Elvis Costello, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as an “Early Influence”; then, at 73 years old, she finally hit the pop charts with her Jack White-produced 2011 album The Party Ain’t Over. She presumably remains a “hard-headed woman”–and has inspired generations of others, from Cyndi Lauper to Rosanne Cash to Poison Ivy of the Cramps, to follow in her high-heeled footsteps.
Later today, I’ll be posting an interview I was lucky enough to have with Ms. Jackson, back in my past life as a real music blogger rather than a full-time self-indulger. Then, we’ll return to our regularly-scheduled content tomorrow with another post from Callie. In the meantime, here are the Spotify and YouTube playlists: