Jen Benka

Edith Piaf, "Piaf," Capital Records, Vinyl, 1959



My great-grandmother Phoebe was French-Canadian. My mother, who was named for her, studied in Quebec for a spell, and eventually became a French teacher. She had several albums by Edith Piaf that she acquired in the 1950s and 1960s, and certain Piaf songs—like the plaintive yet commanding "Mon Dieu" and "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien"— are part of the soundtrack of my childhood. Since my mom passed away unexpectedly in 2008 there have been a few times that I have heard Piaf playing in seemingly random places—at a truck stop in rural Wisconsin, on a NYC subway platform, at a sports bar in San Francisco. I know in those moments that my mom is impossibly close.

 

Odetta, "Odetta At Carnegie Hall," a live album, Vanguard, Vinyl, 1960



A contemporary of Piaf's, Odetta's voice is equally arresting, but uniquely American. Hearing her sing live, which I was fortunate to do once, was like going to church. And, as I was working in a homeless shelter and losing friends to AIDS at that time, that church helped. Her repertoire of traditional spirituals and folk songs spoke truth to power and inspired action. Social change in the U.S. has a soundtrack and Odetta is one of my favorite women on it.

 

Eurythmics, "Touch," Cassette, 1983



Many years before I went to work at the shelter, I was bleaching my bangs different shades of blond and icing my earlobes so I could pierce yet another post through.  When I saw pictures of Annie Lennox in Interview Magazine with her bright orange crew cut and then saw the video for her song "Here Comes the Rain Again" on Friday Night Videos, I found my first music hero. I didn't cut my hair off (then), but I did start wearing a lot of men's suit jackets. Sweet dreams were made of this.

 

Le Tigre, "Le Tigre," Mr. Lady Records, CD, 1999


In the early 1990s, I was in a feminist multimedia performance art rock band that was situated somewhere on the Riot Grrrl spectrum. Mostly, though, it was situated in Milwaukee. We eventually hung up our guitars, but there will always be something energizing about music from that scene. And, for me, no other album captures how we, as young political women, discovered our own ferocity, than this one.

 

Warsaw Village Band (or Kapela ze wsi Warszawa), "People's Spring" (or "Wiosna Ludu"),  Jaro Records, CD, 2001

On my father's side I am Polish. And from my Grandma Benka I learned several Polish words, including those for "thank you" (dziękuję) and "dish rag" (scierka). At some point not long after September 11, I robotically walked into the Tower Records in the Village in NYC, where I was living at the time, and picked up a copy of this record by the Warsaw Village Band. I think I wanted to remind myself of my roots. To feel closer, in the face of tragedy, to my lineage. The album, with its pounding, rollicking, modernized covers of traditional Polish folk songs was a complete and upbeat surprise.

 

 

 
 

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