I discovered Wanda Jackson through the rock’n’roll tag on Last.FM, where, good as it was, she was one of the few people that stuck out straight away, after only hearing one song, Fujiyama Mama, I was looking to see if I could get hold of an album. I found the ultimate collection, 48 songs, for just £5, old music is awesome.
Known as the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson’s career started in 1954, and she’s still touring now, due to the resurgence on popularity of rockabilly. She toured with Elvis Presley among others, it was him who encouraged her to play rockabilly, and when it declined in popularity she moved to country, having a very successful career, continuing to perform after getting married, unlike some other female artists. She also moved into gospel music in the 1970’s, now she tours occasionally, playing all three genres, and was finally admitted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in April of 2009.
The songs on the Ultimate Collection span a long time, and there is quite a variety of sounds, rock’n’roll, rockabilly, country and gospel, occasionally in the same song, as on I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. Her voice is hard to describe, it’s very distinctive and powerful, on some songs sounding almost slightly masculine as it is quite low and for many of the songs she is presented as having a forceful, even aggressive persona, aided by the fact she covered many songs often associated with male artists, such as Let’s Have a Party, previously recorded by Elvis Presley.
It’s the strength of this personality I especially like, for example The Box It Came In seems to be a typical country song about being done wrong by a man, but the narrators proposed quest to find him, the ‘I’ll have peace of mind’ is because ‘the box he comes home in will be satin lined’, it is clever and slightly disturbing. My Big Iron Skillet also describes revenge on a lover, though in this case with said big iron skillet, though ‘If you live through the fight we’re gonna have when you get home/ You’ll wake up and find yourself alone’ expresses independence the female to male domestic violence is not presented as funny, as it so often is, but almost as necessary, or at least as justified. Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad describes Jackson’s persona’s manipulation of her lover, in this case he seems truly innocent, and she is playing with him for no reason, simply to annoy him. Though this is not an unusual presentation of a woman by a man it is much more unusual to see from a woman about herself, or her persona, and as such is really interesting. The narrator of Fujiyama Mama is also reckless for no reason, a rebel-without-a-cause attitude more common in the music of male artists. These songs of independent, strong, even cruel woman, presented in a positive, first-person manner, are of course only a minority of Jackson’s songs, but they seem to be a fairly significant minority. One song says ‘A hard headed woman is a thorn in the side of man’, and Jackson’s music seems to illustrate this perfectly.
This is not to say there aren’t love songs by her, there are lots, and several duets, yet several of these are atypical, an obvious example is Jackson, previously by Johnny and June Carter Cash, Wanda Jackson duets with Mike Post, this version is very different from the Cash’s. It is a song about an over-hasty marriage, and the dynamics are even more argumentative, the woman’s unconcern over the man’s declarations are enhanced by the fact Mike Post is totally outclassed by Jackson, her voice in fact makes his seem rather weak and bland.
Those that are more traditional are often country songs, rather depressing to say the least, titles such as I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, My Baby Left Me and If I Cried Every Time You Hurt signal many of the themes in these songs, which appear in many others. Other than being left or cheated on one major theme is of the importance of love over material wealth, and also of class difference, Silver Threads and Golden Needles is not only about the end of a relationship, which cannot be mended by money, but an illustration of perceived differing class attitudes to love, ‘I grew up in faded gingham where love is a sacred vow/ You grew up in silks and satins where love is a passing phase’. This is not the only time wealth and the upper classes are presented as cruel and careless, knowingly or not.
Of the ballards the song I find most affecting is You Win Again, originally written by Hank Williams, it goes from telling the tale of a cuckolded man to one of domestic violence when sung by Jackson, or at least that is how I cannot help but read it. The lyrics move from ‘I know that I should leave, but then I just can’t go,You win again’ to the far more chilling ‘I’m sorry for your lover now, ’cause soon her head will bow like mine’, the utter dependence of the narrator on her lover, and his systematic mental abuse of her and others is is compounded by the fact the second-to-last line is ‘I love you still’. The behaviour of the lover is awful in both versions, but simply because the narrator of Jackson’s is female I find it impossible to read it as anything other than domestic abuse, with or without the intimation of physical violence, and unlike several other songs there is nothing exaggerated or amusing about it, it is stark in its simplicity, and I find it genuinely unsettling.
Though most of the songs on the album have to do with romantic love in some way there are very few that are at all positive about it, A Woman Lives For Love is the only obvious example, a touching portrayal of married love, even that implies that the narrator married beneath her, and though happy the couple are struggling financially. Brown Eyed Handsome Man celebrates male beauty, in several of the case studies praising it over the sensible choice, it is an amusing but not a terribly optimistic view of romantic love.
All this would make the Ultimate Collection just a little depressing, if it were not for the presence of several rockabilly songs which celebrate good times, drinking and partying, such as Let’s Have A Party and Jambalaya (On The Bayou). Several of these are songs associated with Little Richard, such as Long Tall Sally, and Jackson’s voice is perfect for them, the strength and range make are not typically feminine, just as Little Richard’s voice is not typically masculine, they are both slightly liminal, in a way that works wonderfully. They’re fun songs, a welcome antidote to the country, good as it is, though my favourite of the rockabilly songs is another song associated with Elvis Presley, Riot In Cell Block Nine. The narrator of course becomes female when sung by Jackson, so that I can’t help but think of all the lesbian pulp fiction tales set in prison, with titles such as Born Innocent, The Wayward Ones and Reformatory Girls, certainly in my mind there is a slight sapphic tinge to the song, intended or not, and I wonder how it could not be.
All this combines so that The Ultimate Collection is a varied, interesting and above all very listenable double album, of all my new found obsession with rockabilly and country this is by far the best album I have bought recently, I’d go so far to say I might prefer Wanda Jackson to Johnny Cash, which hopefully will illustrate just how amazing I think she is, and this album is. It’s cheap and easy to get hold of, and and a perfect way to remember that rockabilly was not just dominated by male artists.