Women Who Rock | 44 Titles To Build Musical Collections

When looking to update a music collection, librarians should consider works that reflect diversity of identity, genre, and experience. The list below can serve as a starting point to ensure that collections convey the contributions of women, especially women of color and queer women. These materials will help ensure that the artists’ legacies remain intact, that their voices are not silenced, and that future generations will recognize their achievements.

Though women artists may appear to be flourishing—consider the dominance of women artists at the 2021 Grammys—the University of Southern California’s annual Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that there had been no significant improvements for women in the recording industry in the last nine years: Men release more songs, are signed to record labels more frequently, and collaborate more often in music production. Women of color and queer women still face more oppression than their straight, white counterparts, and their contributions are most overlooked.

However, women have always played an important role in the music scene and continue to do so. Country music artist Mickey Guyton was the first Black woman country singer nominated for Grammy’s Best Country Solo Performance for her song “Black Like Me” and the first Black woman to host the American Country Music Awards in 2021. Taylor Swift surprised fans with two new albums, Folklore and Evermore; rerecorded her album Fearless with six new songs; and won Album of the Year at the 2021 Grammys. Dolly Parton donated a million dollars to COVID-19 vaccine development, wrote a book, and won her 11th Grammy. Many women artists also use their talents to draw attention to injustice and inequality, like H.E.R., who won a Grammy for “I Can’t Breathe,” a song inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The books and documentaries listed here serve as tributes to these women and provide insight into their inspirations and obstacles, and the impact their songs have on current and future generations. When looking to update a music collection, librarians should consider works that reflect diversity of identity, genre, and experience.

The list below can serve as a starting point to ensure that collections convey the contributions of women, especially women of color and queer women. These materials will help ensure that the artists’ legacies remain intact, that their voices are not silenced, and that future generations will recognize their achievements. Starred () titles are considered essential for most libraries.


Albertson, Chris. Bessie. Yale Univ. 2005. 334p. ISBN 9780300107562. $24.86.
The definitive biographer of Smith, Albertson addresses the misconceptions about Smith’s life. Considered the greatest blues singer of her era, Smith was influenced by relationships with men and women. A fascinating look at a renowned artist.

Bagieu, Pénélope. California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas. First Second. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9781626725461. $24.99.
Graphic novelist Bagieu’s stunning pencil drawings capture the ebullient personality of young Ellen Cohen and her journey to become Cass Elliot/Mama Cass of the Mamas & the Papas. Bagieu captures the early days of the group, ending her work just before they attained fame.

Brackett, Donald. Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner. Backbeat: Rowman and Littlefield. 2020. 248p. ISBN 9781493055067. $24.95.
Culture journalist Brackett charts Tina Turner’s transformation from young Anna Mae Bullock into the Queen of Rock and Roll. His in-depth work details her abusive relationship with Ike Turner and her subsequent solo career as an acclaimed musician and actress.

Crawford, Robin. A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston. Dutton. 2019. 336p. ISBN 9781524742843. $28.
Longtime friend, sometimes lover, and onetime personal assistant Crawford lays to rest the rumors concerning her relationship with Houston. The two were friends since they were teenagers, and Crawford had a front-row seat to Houston’s meteoric rise and career.

Davis, Stephen. Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks. St. Martin’s. 2018. 352p. ISBN 9781250295620. $18.99.
Davis offers a compelling examination of Stevie Nicks’s life. At 28, the waitress/singer was brought on, with Lindsey Buckingham, to save the struggling Fleetwood Mac, eventually becoming the only woman to be inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

George-Warren, Holly. Janis: Her Life and Music. S. & S. 2019. 400p. ISBN 9781476793108. $28.99.
George-Warren’s meticulously researched biography explores the complicated life and too-brief career of Janis Joplin. Interviews with those who knew her best, along with her personal letters and recordings, paint a picture of a tortured, talented woman whose influence is still felt decades after her death.

Hayes, Elaine M. Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan. Ecco. 2017. 432p. ISBN 9780062364685. $27.99.
Despite this book’s title, Sarah Vaughan spent much of her career expanding the limits of bebop to cross over to pop. Shy and distrusting of the press, Vaughan was something of a mystery, yet Hayes effectively showcases the artist’s influence on jazz, music desegregation, and civil rights.

Joni on Joni: Interviews and Encounters with Joni Mitchell. ed. by Susan Whitall. Chicago Review. 2018. 416p. ISBN 9780914090359. $30.
Over the years, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell has spoken candidly with journalists about her personal life and inspirations. Whitall presents the artist’s most revealing interviews, from 1966 to 2014, giving insight into the woman behind some of the most famous lyrics in history.

Morgan, Joan. She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Atria. 2018. 176p. ISBN 9781501195259. $24.
Morgan analyzes Lauryn Hill’s only solo studio album—1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, one of the best-selling albums of all time—and dissects the response to Hill’s subsequent work. Morgan also examines Black women’s musical contributions, which are often overlooked.

Oney, Tish. Peggy Lee: A Century of Songs. Rowman & Littlefield. 2020. 250p. ISBN 9781538128473. $32.
Singer and composer Peggy Lee embraced a variety of genres, from blues and jazz to contemporary pop, throughout her career. Musician and musicologist Oney’s respect and affection for Lee shine through in this detailed tribute.

Patti Smith on Patti Smith: Interviews and Encounters. ed. by Aidan Levy. Chicago Review. 2020. 544p. ISBN 9780912777009. $30.
Levy selects several of the strongest interviews that Patti Smith has given over the past 50 years. Most moving are the moments when she discusses the impact of AIDS on her life, and her love for her family. Smith’s memoirs Just Kids and M Train are not to be missed, either.

Queen Bey: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. ed. by Veronica Chambers. St. Martin’s. 2019. ISBN 9781250200525. $27.99.
Chambers kicks off this collection of essays about Beyoncé with a reflection on how the superstar’s achievements are paving the way for future generations. In these deeply personal pieces, contributors express their admiration for the singer’s talent and impact on society.

Warner, Andrea. Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography. Greystone. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9781771643580. $28.
Cree folk and protest musician Buffy Sainte-Marie has often watched other artists take credit for her extensive work, a wrong that Warner rights in this moving biography. Warner considers Sainte-Marie’s contributions to folk and pop music, and advocacy for Indigenous people.

Winehouse, Janis. Loving Amy: A Mother’s Story. Thomas Dunne. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781250078490. $35.99.
Before her death at 27, Amy Winehouse was a powerhouse singer with a unique voice and a style that crossed genres. Her story is one of addiction, self-sabotage, and musical genius, told here by a woman who knew her intimately: her mother. 

Zack, Ian. Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest. Beacon. 2020. ISBN 9780807035320. $28.95.
Zack examines the life of opera-trained folk singer Odetta, who channeled her anger at society’s oppression of Black people into powerful music, influencing a generation of civil rights activists and forever changing the music scene.


Carey, Mariah, with Michaela Angela Davis. The Meaning of Mariah Carey. Andy Cohen: Holt. 2020. 349p. ISBN 9781250164681. $29.99.
In this candid memoir, superstar Carey describes a childhood of neglect, emotional abuse, and poverty. She turned to music for escape, eventually becoming the best-selling music artist of the 1990s. Her writing is fascinating, and her stories are often humorous and heartbreaking.

Carlile, Brandi. Broken Horses. Crown. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9780593237243. $28.
Before becoming a six-time Grammy winner, Carlile came out as a lesbian in her teens and was shunned by the church she loved. This beautiful memoir describes how she created a chosen family and strives to spread awareness of injustice. 

Gordon, Kim. Girl in a Band. Dey St. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9780062295897. pap. $16.99.
Gordon, founding member of the band Sonic Youth, brings to life in gritty detail the New York art and music scenes of the 1980s-90s. In this tribute to a fleeting moment in time, Gordon discusses the inspiration for many of the group’s songs.

Green, Robin. The Only Girl: My Life and Times on the Masthead of Rolling Stone. Little, Brown. 2018. ISBN 9780316440028. $28.
The first woman writer on the masthead of Rolling Stone, Green made the most of assignments to interview artists deemed less important (the Bee Gees, David Cassidy). Green is unfiltered as she describes experimenting with sex and drugs and being one of the few women in a male-dominated industry.

Harry, Debbie. Face It. Dey St. 2019. 368p. ISBN 9780060749583. $32.50.
Pop culture icon Harry unapologetically reflects on her role as the lead singer of Blondie; her friendships with David Bowie, Andy Warhol, and John Waters; and her lifelong fascination with fashion. An absorbing look at the punk rock scene.

Holiday, Billie, with William Dufty. Lady Sings the Blues: The 50th-Anniversary Edition. Crown. 2006. 203p. ISBN 9780767923866. pap. $17.
With journalist Dufty, legendary jazz singer Holiday reflects on a childhood of abuse, her later career among Harlem’s club scene, her performances with the Count Basie Orchestra, and the rampant racism she faced throughout her life.

Keys, Alicia. More Myself: A Journey. Flatiron. 2020. 272p. ISBN 9781250153296. $29.99.
Readers of Keys’s memoir will be inspired by the singer’s achievements: She began writing music at 12, signed with Columbia Records at 15, and went on to win 15 Grammys. But her voice truly comes alive when she discusses the power of music as both a form of protest and a unifying art.

King, Carole. A Natural Woman. Grand Central. 2012. 496p. ISBN 9781455512621. $17.99.
Singer-songwriter King details her lifelong search for love and family, her songwriting collaborations, her brushes with other famous artists, and her civil rights and environmental activism. Her story is as memorable as her songs.

Lynn, Loretta. Me and Patsy Kickin’ Up Dust: My Friendship with Patsy Cline. Grand Central. 2021. 240p. ISBN 9781538701683. $16.99.
Country superstar Lynn lovingly describes her friendship with Patsy Cline, who taught her how to dress, how to stand up for herself, how to fight for what’s right, and how to spice up her love life. An honest, compelling window into the world of country music in the 1960s.

Parton, Dolly, with Robert K. Oermann. Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. Chronicle. 2020. ISBN 9781797205090. $50.
With journalist Oermann, Parton has compiled a treasure trove of rare photos, lyrics, and stories behind her songs that serves as a time capsule of country music. Even Parton’s publicity-shy husband makes an appearance, and the peek at their life together is heartwarming.

Phair, Liz. Horror Stories. Random. 2019. 272p. ISBN 9780525511984. $28.
For indie rocker Phair, horror stories are the mundane experiences that keep you awake at night thinking “What if?” As intimate and heartbreaking as her songs, her stories tackle everything from childbirth to the predatory behaviors of men in the music industry.

Ross, Diana. Secrets of a Sparrow. Villard. 1993. 299p. ISBN 9780679428749. $22.
Taking stock of her life at 50, Ross examines her early struggles, the rise and fall of the Supremes, her complicated relationships with the biggest names in music, and her immense love for the music industry. A must for fans of Ross and Motown.

Simone, Nina, with Stephen Cleary. I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone. Da Capo. 1991. 192p. ISBN 9780306813276. pap. $15.99.
With musician Cleary, singer-songwriter Simone offers a restrained glimpse into her life and love of music. She found fame singing popular songs of the day and used her voice for activism, with protest songs that moved a generation to action.

Simpson, Jessica. Open Book. Dey St. 2020. 416p. ISBN 9780062899965. $28.99.
Pop star Simpson uses the journals she has kept since the age of 15 to explore trauma, anxiety, addiction, and struggles with self-confidence—and, ultimately, to uplift her fans. This is a revealing memoir, told with humor and heart.

Turner, Tina. My Love Story. Atria. 2018. 272p. ISBN 9781501198243. $28.
Already a best-selling author (I, Tina), Turner reflects on her lifelong journey to find the love that eluded her for so long. She offers hope to those who feel unlovable and expresses gratitude to the fans who have supported her for so long.

Turner, Tina. Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good. Atria. 2020. 240p. ISBN 9781982152154. $26.
Turner shares wisdom based on her practice of Nichiren Buddhism, along with stories from her life and career. 

Twain, Shania. From This Moment On. Atria. 2012. 448p. ISBN 9781451620757. $17.
With honesty and self-awareness, Twain chronicles her journey from living in poverty in rural Canada as a child to becoming the best-selling female artist in country music history. Music lovers will be inspired, and would-be artists will learn much from her experiences.


Allred, Kevin. Ain’t I a Diva: Beyoncé and the Power of Pop Culture Pedagogy. Feminist Pr. 2019. 392p. ISBN 9781936932603. $18.95.
Allred reflects on what he learned after years of teaching a university course he created about Beyoncé and her place in pop culture. This fun, thought-provoking work speaks to music’s ability to heal.

Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. Vintage. 1999. 427p. ISBN 9780679771265. $17.
Activist Davis explores the expressions of protest conveyed by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, each of whom merits individual attention in collections. An insightful, important look at three women blues singers.

Ewens, Hannah. Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture. Univ. of Texas. 2020. 256p. ISBN 9781477322093. $17.95.
Ewens has written a love letter to girls and young queer people who love music and express their passion for their favorite musicians. Though fangirls are often mocked, Ewens notes that they wield enormous power, and she celebrates their devotion through respectful interviews.

Goldman, Vivien. Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot. Univ. of Texas. 2019. 216p. ISBN 9781477316542. $17.95.
Music journalist and former punk rock musician Goldman’s entertaining, edifying volume documents the history of women in punk. An enjoyable introduction to an often misunderstood genre.

Smarsh, Sarah. She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs. Scribner. 2020. 208p. ISBN 9781982157289. $22.
This dynamic mix of memoir and biography beautifully interweaves Parton’s life and lyrics with Smarsh’s stories of strong women relatives coping with rural poverty and abusive relationships.


Amazing Grace. 89 min. Universal Pictures. 2018. DVD UPC NA. Available to stream.
In 1972, Sydney Pollack oversaw the filming of Aretha Franklin recording the live album Amazing Grace in a Watts, CA, Baptist church. A haunting, beautiful testament to Franklin’s power to unify.

Amy. 128 min. Asif Kapadia, Lionsgate. 2015. DVD UPC 602547605009. Available to stream.
This 2015 British documentary on six-time Grammy Winner Amy Winehouse offers home movies, interviews, and previously unheard tracks from live sessions.

Bad Reputation. 95 mins. Kevin Kerslake, Magnolia Pictures. 2018. DVD UPC NA. Available to stream.
This entertaining tribute follows Joan Jett’s career from her first group, the Runaways, to Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and the creation of Blackheart Records.

Janis: Little Girl Blue. 103 min. Amy J. Berg, PBS. 2015. DVD UPC 760137830429. Available to stream.
Documenting Janis Joplin’s career, this film features original interviews with her friends, family, and fellow musicians, as well as excerpts from her own letters.

The Ladies Sing the Blues. 60 mins. Minnesota Studio. 1989. DVD UPC 0803023138.
A glorious tribute to the greatest women blues singers of all time, this film highlights Dinah Washington, Lena Horne, and Sarah Vaughan, among others.

20 Feet from Stardom. 91 mins. Morgan Neville, Anchor Bay Entertainment. DVD UPC 013132609041. Available to stream.
This Academy Award–winning documentary explores the experiences of backup singers, including Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, who have been in the shadows for far too long.

What Happened, Miss Simone? 101 mins. Liz Garbus, Netflix. DVD UPC 801213076895. Available to stream.
Garbus pays tribute to Nina Simone through concert footage, interviews, and discussions with those who knew her best. Much like its subject, this documentary is both uplifting and sad.

Lisa Henry is the Director of Operations at Kirkwood Public Library in St. Louis, MO. She has been writing performing arts reviews for LJ since 2020.  

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing