Written by Rich Walter, PhD, Curator for United States / Canada and Europe, Daniel Piper , PhD, Curator for Latin America and the Middle East, and Sarah Johnson, Communications Specialist
In celebration of Black History Month, the Musical Instrument Museum® is proud to recognize the Black women in music represented throughout the museum. Historic instruments, wardrobe items, and live performance footage all help us share the diverse and influential stories of women that have forever changed the history of music.
Legendary singer and pianist Roberta Flack and Celia Cruz—the “Queen of Salsa”—are both prominently featured with dedicated displays in MIM’s Artist Gallery, which showcases the world’s most groundbreaking and beloved musicians. More than 50 years after the release of her debut album, First Take, Roberta Flack remains the only solo artist to win back-to-back Grammy Awards for Record of the Year (1972 and 1973). Cruz became a leading figure in the modern era of Latin music and her longstanding collaborations with major bandleaders helped catapult salsa to global popularity. In the Artist Gallery MIM guests can visit Flack’s treasured 1922 Steinway piano and a favored silk stage outfit and see stylish wardrobe and historic maracas from Cruz’s career.
Universally revered for her contributions to folk music, Elizabeth Cotten (1893–1987) taught herself how to play the guitar at just eight years old. However, by 15, she was married and began a 25-year hiatus from making music. Cotten picked up the guitar again in the mid-1940s, when she started working for the famously musical Seeger family. She recorded her classic songs, including “Freight Train,” in 1957 and 1958 on a guitar borrowed from Mike Seeger—a vintage Martin D-28 guitar that will soon be on display in MIM’s Folk Revival exhibit. Later popularized by Peggy Seeger, Nancy Whiskey, and Rusty Draper, “Freight Train” has endured to become a staple of folk music. A true champion of the genre, Cotten continued to make music and receive recognition into her 90s. She received the Burl Ives Award in 1972, was made a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984, won a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording in 1984, and was one of 75 influential African American women included in the 1989 book I Dream a World.
From the pioneers to today’s dedicated tradition-bearers, MIM’s United States / Canada Gallery includes instruments, stage artifacts, and videos of Black artists that showcase their talents and traditions. In addition to the tremendous women above, guests can enjoy the music of all-time greats such as jazz icon Ella Fitzgerald and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, as well as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated all-women’s band in the United States. Virtuosic trombonist Melba Liston earned status as a jazz soloist in the 1940s, and young star Shardé Thomas keeps the American fife-and-drum blues tradition alive today.
Guests can discover many more examples of Black women in music by visiting the Musical Instrument Museum, which features instruments from every country in the world. The museum is open daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m. For tickets and details, visit MIM.org.