DOI: 10.1525/jpms.2024.36.1.106 ISSN: 1533-1598

“A gold mine in bobby sox”

Emmalouise St. Amand
  • Music

Twelve-year-old Annette Swinson burst onto New York’s Black music scene in 1953. A darling of the local Black press, Swinson worked as a solo singer throughout her adolescence before replacing Arlene Smith as lead singer of the Chantels. During her career, Swinson’s girlhood evoked connotations of malleability and naïveté that were attractive to music industry men searching for salable sounds. Swinson exploited these assumptions using her extraordinary ability to transform her vocal timbre, but this strategy also complicated the record of her career. This article examines journalistic coverage of Swinson’s career alongside her recorded performances to consider the possibilities afforded by her vocal shapeshifting. Beginning with Swinson’s early period as a child singer, this article argues that Swinson’s legibility as a child highlights the impact of legal minority as a status that denies Black girls’ capacity for rational consent, prevents them from representing their own work, and leaves them vulnerable to abuse. This article also analyzes Swinson’s recorded voice to demonstrate that girls like Swinson used unstable vocal identity as a choreographic technique to work around their legal disempowerment and gain access to professional opportunities. Ultimately, this article suggests that listening to vocal timbre in this way presents a method by which scholars might recognize Black girls’ agency within archival silences and obfuscations.

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