Each month, Our State senior editor — and resident soundtrack maker — Mark Kemp, a former music editor of Rolling Stone, curates a one-of-a-kind Spotify playlist featuring North Carolina songs
Each month, Our State senior editor — and resident soundtrack maker — Mark Kemp, a former music editor of Rolling Stone, curates a one-of-a-kind Spotify playlist featuring North Carolina songs and musicians.
A trend that I saw emerge as I began compiling songs for Our State’s playlist celebrating Women’s History Month was this: When it comes to popular music, women in North Carolina do not pull punches.
Sure, some of our state’s prominent female musicians have issued their share of fun pop hits — there’s Belhaven-born Little Eva’s “The Locomotion,” a dance sensation that reached the Billboard Top 10 in 1962, and Kinston native Jocelyn Brown’s 1978 disco burner “Keep on Jumpin’,” recorded with the group Musique. But for the most part, North Carolina women sing and perform songs of a more serious nature. Whether it’s Nina Simone contributing to the soundtrack of the 1960s civil rights movement, Roberta Flack’s string of deeply felt love songs that topped charts in the 1970s, or Tori Amos’s confessions of childhood abuse in the 1990s, strong women from North Carolina have played a huge role in serving as uplifting voices for marginalized people.
At the beginning of this playlist, you’ll hear Greensboro native Rhiannon Giddens sing a tune written by the pioneering folk guitarist (and Carrboro native) Elizabeth Cotten — and then, at the end, you’ll hear Cotten’s own version of that same song. In between, Emmylou Harris, who spent her childhood in Cherry Point, covers the old-time standard “Wayfaring Stranger,” Durham gospel legend Shirley Caesar testifies about “The Praying Slave Lady,” and Chapel Hill bluegrass singer Alice Gerrard (along with non-North Carolina singer Hazel Dickens) sings the classic country-music ode to mothers everywhere, “The Sweetest Gift, a Mother’s Smile.” You’ll hear gritty funk (Durham native Betty Davis’s “They Say I’m Different”), modern rock and Americana (“Cello Girl” and “Virginia, No One Can Warn You” by Raleigh residents Caitlin Cary and Tift Merritt, respectively), and even the operatic contralto of Sedalia-born Carol Brice on “Goose Never Be a Peacock,” from the 1959 Broadway play Saratoga.
Body image is a big theme in several tracks. “My skin is black,” Tryon native Simone sings in “Four Women,” her thought-provoking 1966 song in which she explores stereotypes of Black women: “My arms are long. My hair is woolly. My back is strong.” More than five decades later, Snow Hill native Rapsody takes the torch from her musical forebear in “Reyna’s Interlude,” a hip-hop song that begins with the deeply compassionate words, “An ode to the Black woman’s body — she’s been through a lot.”
Not all the songs on this playlist are easy to listen to. But each one is immensely rewarding.