Am I that Easy to Forget?: The Sounds and Forms of Black Women’s Labor in the Mid-Twentieth-Century Music Industry

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


African American Studies

First Advisor

Brooks, Daphne


Am I That Easy to Forget?: The Sounds and Forms of Black Women’s Labor in the Mid-Twentieth-Century Music Industry argues that the history of Black popular music’s commodification during the latter half of the twentieth century cannot be adequately understood without accounting for the myriad forms of social and economic labor that Black women undertook. The project excavates historically neglected musicians, managerial figures, and musical institutions within and between key urban sites of Black musical innovation in order to analyze the work of Black women throughout all corners of the music industry—from radio disc jockey to record label executive, talent agent to lead vocalist. Each chapter of the dissertation is organized around the life and career of a different Black woman in the music industry: the record executives Evelyn Johnson and Vivian Carter Bracken, who worked respectively in Houston, Texas and Chicago, Illinois and the musicians Esther Phillips and Marie Adams, who were geographically mobile but at times based in both Texas and Los Angeles. Every chapter relies on an interdisciplinary archive surrounding its central figure’s work; my primary source material includes record labels’ textual archives (which contain documents such as personal correspondence, business ledgers, artists’ contracts, and record logs), music trade magazines and popular press accounts, oral histories conducted by a range of researchers with the women themselves and those who knew them, and the music these women either performed or helped to produce. While scholarly accounts of the music industry tend to separate histories of music itself from histories of music production, Am I That Easy to Forget? intervenes in this cleavage to show that it was precisely the connections between the material and social work of music production that provided the definitive preconditions for the aesthetic power of Black-dominated genres that took root during the mid-to late-twentieth century. The music industry underwent a seismic restructuring during the years immediately following World War II, and local musical institutions emerged throughout the country to meet audiences’ unmet demand for rhythm and blues. In distinctive ways, the careers of Vivian Carter Bracken, Evelyn Johnson, Marie Adams, and Esther Phillips serve as critical frameworks through which to understand the confluence of affective, economic, musical, and administrative work that took place at these institutions. The dissertation contends that from their positions within radio stations and record labels, from the exposed stages of nightclubs to the intimate setting of recording studios, these women enacted crucial forms of socio-economic care, developed strategic artistic and financial networks, and in doing so became indispensable to the intricate functioning of the music industry at mid-century.

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