Mean Mothers

It sure is a shame when really awesome records are in a basement flood or a leaking garage, and they end up destroyed. If you’re a collector you’ve surely seen ’em, gatefold stuck together forever, or jackets so moldy that no amount of scrubbing is going to salvage them.

That’s the story with this crate of cool records someone brought in over the weekend. Some of the records most damaged were from the short, eighteen-album run of Rosetta Records, a label which always has awesome liner notes.

mean mothers

Fortunately, most of them are still read-able, and the albums cleaned up pretty well. We always thought Rosetta Records was named for Sister Rosetta Tharp, the trailblazing gospel singer who we wrote about here back in May. After all, one of its releases was a collection of her songs. We have learned the label was in fact named for its founder, Rosetta Reitz, a feminist writer who had a pretty extraordinary career even before she started making awesome archival records.

Reitz (pronounced “rights”) worked as a stockbroker, ran a book store called the Four Seasons and a greeting card business before she borrowed money for all her friends to start Rosetta Records in 1979. She was already by this time a published author, both of cooking books (she had been a food critic for the Village Voice) and books about women’s issues. She was fifty-five when she started her record label.

Rosetta Records compiled jazz and blues records made by women, mostly from 78s which were in the public domain. These were the same sort of archival albums as the Stash Records collections we posted about a few weeks ago when describing Patty and the Buttons’ vintage smut album. Reitz wrote extensive liner notes with each album, and the gatefold jackets featured a variety of vintage photographs. Some collected single performers, like Ida Cox and Sister Rosetta Tharp, and several had fun themes like Women’s Railroad Blues. Instrumentalists like trumpeter Valaida Snow were also featured with entire LPs.

From the notes to Mean Mothers, the first LP Reitz released in 1979:

“Mean mother” at first sounds like a contradiction. But it isn’t, if you understand its popular meaning. “She’s a mean woman” is really a compliment, meaning this person is serious and will not put up with any nonsense. She is not someone to trifle with or to take lightly. It is a positive view of an independent woman, granting her the regard she deserves as one who will not passively accept unjust or unkind treatment.

Mean women are to be celebrated for being forthright and honest — and for insisting on their dignity. This stance has earned them many epithets however, including one used by some social scientists: matriarch. Matriarch is a dirty word in this culture and its current meaning needs turning around to more accurately convey what the word originally meant — strong woman, a woman with authority who takes responsibility and nutures those she loves and usually anyone else who comes into her orbit.

The label started as a mail order business but eventually found its way into record stores. Reitz estimated that some titles sold as many as 20,000 copies. She remained involved in both jazz music and women’s issues until she passed away in 2008 at the age of eighty-four. Duke University maintains a gigantic archive of her papers, representing the enormous contribution of her career.

And the albums still turn up here in Minneapolis from time to time, thankfully they’re usually in better shape than this one.

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