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Review

Cover: Rubymusic: A Popular History of Women’s Music and Culture

Rubymusic: A Popular History of Women’s Music and Culture

By Connie Kuhns

Review By Theresa Warburton

May 21, 2024

Perhaps the most endearing part of Connie Kuhns’ Rubymusic is the handwritten inscription in my copy: in black pen is the author’s signature, the popular circle-cross female symbol, and a short exclamation that reads “join a band!” As an introduction to the book, this inscription holds the enthralling mix of excitement and incitement that Kuhns’ text aims to create. In many of the stories she tells about music festivals, radio shows, and record production, Kuhns emphasizes the networks of relations that got built through a combination of commitment and chance. This emphasis enables her to gesture towards broader questions of not only what it means to attempt to archive some of this history but also to hold space for what has been lost as well. Overall, this is a question that scholars of social movements more broadly and women’s history in particular have struggled with, so it makes sense to orient this regional study within that framework.

In terms of the structure of the text, it’s a collection of Kuhns’ writing that manages to be both eclectic and repetitive. In some sense, it works here because we end up noting the major players in the history of women’s music in BC through the late 20th and early 21st centuries, though, at times, it does feel as if there are repeating lists. This makes sense given that these essays appeared in a variety of publications, which meant needing to reestablish basic information, but in a collection like this where one is reading straight through, the overlap ends up a bit monotonous.

I appreciated most moments where complexities were given room to breathe, like when Kuhns noted the trouble with trying to establish a sense of ‘women’s music’, issues of racism, or managing questions about autonomous women’s spaces versus integration into the mainstream. However, many of these topics are only cursorily noted rather than placed within the landscape of broader conversations that were surely happening during this time on national and international scales. In this, Kuhns has missed the opportunity to really emphasize why this particular milieu in British Columbia is such a significant arena to consider. It also means that some cases of difficult moments, such as Yoko Ono’s use of a racial epithet or Joni Mitchell’s donning of Blackface, are normalized through a historical apologia rather than representing moments of real rupture that we are still reckoning with today.

There are also some curious sweeping generalizations that seem to ironically obscure some of the history that Kuhns is trying to bring forward, as when she describes Ono as one of “just a handful of women in the early 1960s who were expressing themselves outside of acceptable boundaries” (38). Any engagement with the history of women’s artistic expression, political activism, and community organizing would immediately bring up surely more than a ‘handful’ of such women, especially when we consider the important work of women of color and Indigenous women. It would be wonderful, for instance, to see histories like that of Jackie Shane, a Black transgender woman who found commercial success in Canada in the early 1960s with her cover of William Bell’s “Any Other Way.”

The strongest moments of Rubymusic are the interviews that Kuhns has collected with a variety of figures from the scene of which she is a part. She is much more skilled as an interviewer than a music writer, perhaps owing to her incredible experience as an on-air personality and show host. The conversational nature of these interviews allows for the voices of the women in these spaces to come out on their own terms and give us a sense of the range of perspectives that are held in this history. Here, we get a more committed sense of what Kuhns is trying to do throughout—to create space for voices that have been obscured by history and to make room for a messy story that doesn’t need to be tied up neatly with a bow in order to be meaningful.

Publication Information

Kuhns, Connie. Rubymusic: A Popular History of Women’s Music and Culture. Qualicum Beach, BC: Caitlin Press. 2023. 256 pp. $26.00 paper.