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Virginia Women in History Honors Musician, Educator and Activist Gaye Todd Adegbalola

Award-winning musician, educator and activist Gaye Todd Adegbalola is one of the 2018 Virginia Women in History, an annual event honoring significant contributions from Virginians.
Award-winning musician, educator and activist Gaye Todd Adegbalola is one of the 2018 Virginia Women in History, an annual event honoring significant contributions from Virginians. (Photo: Sylvia De Voss) Sylvia De Voss

One of the women being honored by the Library of Virginia this month is a founding member of the seminal all female group, Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women. This “Virginia Woman In History” is also a longtime educator and activist. WCVE’s John Porter has more in this edition of Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find details about this year's 2018 Virginia Women in History. Gaye Todd Adegbalola and seven others will be honored at the Library of Virginia Thursday March 22, 5:30-8:00 p.m


Gaye Todd Adegbalola picked up the guitar in her twenties. After learning a few chords began to make her way into bars and coffeehouses around her native Fredericksburg.

(Song: Middle Aged Blues Boogie)

Gaye Todd Adegbalola: A brief definition of the blues, it’s like the poor person’s psychiatrist. And the blues, it’s not sad music but it’s a liberating music. Either you get the pain out by singing about the pain like stormy Monday or it’s a song where you can dance on Saturday night, but either way you’re liberating yourself of painful feelings.

She rose to fame as a member of Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women. Her bandbates included Ann Rabson, Earlene Lewis, and later Audra Faye.

Adegbalola: With the three of us, we didn’t set out to be all women, it just happened like that. A lot of times we’d go to sound check and the sound techs would go, Where’s the band?

The group was entertaining but also empowering as they wrote and sang about issues few other artists were tackling like body and age acceptance, even cancer.

Adegbalola: A couple of my friends told me, Gaye it was just so bad, I knew I was going to lose my hair, but I didn’t know I was going to lose it everywhere! So that was the starting point [for the song].

(Song: Bald Headed Blues)

Adegbalola’s material deals with issues rarely celebrated in popular art forms. Recently she was asked if she was a feminist.

Adegbalola: I said yeah, but I was never a bra burner and I’m not going to be on the front lines with a little pink hat on, but my life is an example of feminism.

Adegbalola’s upcoming album, tentatively titled “Griot,” will focus on current events and how she sees her life now at the age of 74.

(Live recording of It’s So Hard To Find A Love)

Adegbalola: I think all art, you’re just holding a mirror. And number one, you have to be pompous enough to think you have something to say to other people. Number two, you hope your philosophy that comes across in your art, whether it’s dance or painting or poetry, you’re just hoping your creation touches somebody else. With me, a lot of times it’s about I hope my creation makes people laugh and makes it easier for them to deal with the painful situation.

Adegbalola taught science in Fredericksburg public schools for years, earning Teacher of the Year honors in 1982. Shortly after she left the classroom to concentrate on music. She realized there was an educational component to the blues after watching Martin Scorsese's 2003 documentary.

Adegbalola:Two hours a night, for seven days, that’s 14 hours. He didn’t have 14 minutes for women.

She partnered with pianist Roddy Barnes to create a multimedia presentation that highlights women and the blues. Working with the initiative American Music Educators, she shares this history in schools and other organizations.

(Song: I Ain’t Ashamed)

Adegbalola is also a longtime champion of diversity. On her 2008 album Gaye Without Shame, she writes she wants the LGBTQ community “to experience the universal healing power of the Blues.”

Adegbalola: It’s my purpose in life to try to give people a good time. That’s one of my catch phrases, Joy is My Religion!

(Song: Is It Still Good to Ya?)

The Library of Virginia is honoring Gaye Todd Adegbalola for her lifetime of service to the arts and humanities. Other awardees include: novelist Barbara Kingslover and former poet laureate Rita Dove. For Virginia Currents, I’m John Porter, WCVE News.