Music

Wild Wanda Jackson

Iain Ellis
Wanda Jackson performing with Elvis Costello, one of the most vocal lobbyists to get Jackson inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The self-described 'Fujiyama Mama' of '50s rockabilly was a hard-headed, bare-knuckled antithesis to the era's prevailing gender expectations.

With its macho poses and locker-room humor, '50s rockabilly was largely a private boys' club. Females, of course, played an important role within the subculture, assigned either as the adoring screamers who bolstered the male performers' egos, or as the mythical dreamy romantics who lay on their beds staring at their rebel-idols staring back at them from the posters on their walls. Thus, when the teenage Oklahoma country singer, Wanda Jackson, at the encouragement of her beau, Elvis Presley, adopted the raging rockabilly style in 1956, she revolutionized not only the musical form, but also the role of women — particularly white women — within the rock 'n' roll world. That she aimed to participate using the same renegade methods as contemporary bad boys, rather than compromising the form to the demure femininity of her gender-peers, makes her contributions all the more shocking and radical.

Like her primary influences, Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent, Jackson forged her sound out of her country roots and merged it to an R&B beat. Her voice, gravel-throated and assertive, had little connection to the Doris Day-type politesse of her contemporaries; it had more in common with loose-cannon shouters like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. However, to describe Jackson as just a maverick female singer is to understate her revolutionary role. Aside from her distinct voice, Jackson also played guitar with competence and swagger, and wrote most of her own material — if only because there were so few songs from the rockabilly genre that posited a female narrative point-of-view.

Her material from 1956 to the end of the decade provides a catalogue of some of the most subversive material of the era — and the funniest. In her book on stand-up comediennes, Performing Marginality: Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique (Humor in Life and Letters Ser) (Wayne State University Press, April 2004), Joanne R. Gilbert discusses a number of female postures and roles within the profession. Among them, "the bawd" and "the bitch" roles are particularly applicable to the work of Jackson. Bawdy female blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters had trailblazed this humor back in the '20s and '30s, but rarely had white women ventured into the sordid world of sexual innuendo. The establishment had deemed such humor to be understandable within the "decadent" black underclass, but it was not a style befitting an upright white lady, particularly one of southern Christian stock. For Jackson to be flirting with such saucy stuff was to challenge norms, subvert the status quo, and turn hierarchies on their heads.

Her first single, "I Gotta Know" (1956), was a case in point. Honing her Elvis-style hiccup vocal, Jackson satirized the prevailing male hits of the day, songs that posited either romantic illusions or "cool" boasting. Rather than passively wallowing in these conceits, or swallowing their deceits, Jackson set to de-bunking them with brutal "response" lyrics. "When you're on that floor, you're cool, man, cool / But when it comes to loving, you need to go to school," snarls Queen Wanda in a scornful put-down. Such in-house humor had long existed in the combative jazz world but it was rare within rock circles — at least, on records. Indeed, such "bitch" insult humor was way ahead of its time for female rockers, prefiguring the punkettes and riot grrrls of decades later.

Besides deflating male self-aggrandizement and ego-driven myths, Jackson's humor also implicitly poured scorn on the prevailing female roles and attitudes of the time. Historian David Halberstam, in his series The Fifties (Ballantine Books; Reprint edition, 1994), spoke of the hypocrisy and repression that lay uncomfortably over gender and sexuality during this decade. Just as men were frustrated with the "grey flannel suit" world that had emasculated them after World War II, so women, too, though subscribing to the official line of contentment and normalcy, felt stifled and suffered an unspoken void. Betty Friedan would soon give the condition a name with The Feminine Mystique.

Likewise, the sexuality of women was a socially repressed topic, but its silence did not mean that sex had disappeared; it had merely been kept under wraps. Hence, just as Grace Metalious's 1956 barn-burner, Peyton Place, had blown the lid off of this socially-subscribed secret (in book form then later on TV), so Jackson did likewise within rock 'n' roll. Her outward demands for sexual fulfillment and outlandish demands for how she wanted it usurped traditional gender expectations, and, as with Peyton Place, scandalized observers. In "Cool Love" (1957) Wanda insults then instructs: "You been playing it cool / I been playing a fool / Now don't you give me that cool love / Give me the kind I need." Long before Madonna, there was Wanda!

"Fujiyama Mama" (1958) was Jackson's signature song. An international hit and enduring cult classic, its lyrical references brought rockabilly to Japan, where it has remained since as a vital genre — for both male and female musicians and fans. "I drink a quart of sake, smoke dynamite / I chase it with tobaccy and then shoot out the light," wails the Fujiyama Mama in her most bawdy of boast songs. Gravitating to "bitch" revenge humor, she then growls, "Well, you can talk about me, say that I'm mean / I'll blow your head off baby with nitroglycerine."

As displayed in her earlier single, "Hot Dog That Made Him Mad" (1956), Jackson was a woman not to be messed with, and should you step on her high-heeled shoes, she would respond by any means necessary. In "Hot Dog" the means is self-assured mockery: "He demanded to know just where I'd been / But I really put him in his place / Instead of an answer, I laughed in his face." Here, the sexual autonomy of Madonna meets the "bitch" assaults of Roseanne, creating an intimidating identity the very antithesis of '50s female conventions.

Considering the constraints of the time on women's images and identity, Jackson must be considered as one of the more subversive and shocking of the '50s rock humorists. Her lyrical themes not only defied the expectations put upon her gender, but within the specific field of humor, few comediennes dared step so brazenly into such inflammatory territory.

As might be expected from her outsider status and audacity, Jackson never attained the mainstream rock prominence of the male contemporaries she so admired. But as with many of the finest and most radical artists, popularity does not define the essence of the art. History has proven to be more accommodating to Jackson's work than was the shell-shocked audience who initially heard her. Critic Nick Tosches recognized her importance — as well as the fact that she was too hot to handle during the '50s — by including her in his Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll book.

The other Elvis (Costello) has also been a tireless advocate on her behalf, writing letters to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame demanding her induction. Contemporary female alt-country figures like Neko Case, Tanya Tucker, and Rosie Flores have often recognized their debt to Wild Wanda, whether through tribute songs or in their own feisty independent styles. A born-again Christian today (the fate of many a '50s rockabilly rebel), Jackson continues to perform on the nostalgia circuit, reminding new generations, through her strident songs, that subversive humor and rock rebellion in the '50s were not the sole preserve of the more celebrated canon of male iconic performers.

* * *

The above essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book about rock-related artists who use(d) humor as a primary instrument of rebellion.

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