Originally posted on historicbrass.org

Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Mississippi hosted the 7th annual Music by Women Festival in March 2024. Held in Kossen Auditorium in the historic Poindexter Music Hall, built in 1905 and home to the Department of Music, this festival featured three days of performances and lectures. The material presented included one common factor, all research centered gender studies, and all of the pieces performed were by female composers.

The Historic Brass Society was well represented at the 2024 Festival by Dr. Joanna Hersey, Membership Secretary. Dr. Hersey presented a session designed to help those working to highlight the work of women in music, including lessons learned from her newest research project, which outlines the life and work of Marie Backstrom. Marie and her tuba toured with the Harlem Playgirls, a twelve piece African-American women’s dance band traveling the nation from 1935 to 1940. Through personal accounts, newspaper articles, concert reviews, advertisements, historical photos, and other genealogical and archival materials, Dr. Hersey pieced together the fascinating life and career of this tuba artist. “She is my tuba heroine,” Dr. Hersey notes, “if we knew more about the lives of women playing tuba in past generations, it can provide role models and mentors for young women today, who often still feel the weight of breaking stereotype. Bringing these players to light can help us understand the true diverse history of brass performance.”

The session Dr. Hersey presented at the Music by Women Festival discussed challenges in researching women of color, including how she overcame missing information and conflicting source material. “My doctoral dissertation committee denied my proposed topic, I wanted to research the lives of women tuba and euphonium players in American twentieth century music, because they said I would not find enough sources,” remembers Dr. Hersey, “they agreed that I could write about all brass instruments instead and I did so. During that work I found many sources which proved my committee wrong. This work is my reply to them. It is possible to find sources about women on a variety of instruments in American musical life, it just requires that you dig more deeply, and don’t give up.” The completed research will be presented at the Historic Brass Society’s 2024 Symposium in New York City, including more than seventy photos showcasing the work of the Harlem Playgirls as well as Marie, their tuba heroine.