Last month, I packed up my car and drove from Salt Lake City to Portland to find out what happens when girls plug in, make noise and rock out at the Rock & Roll Camp For Girls.
Misty McElroy started the nonprofit camp in 2000 for her final women’s studies project at Portland State University. She wanted to get instruments into the hands of girls 8 to 17. While RCFG aims to encourage self-esteem and empowerment, you won’t find campers singing Kumbaya or tackling rope courses. Instead, the girls draw inspiration from the likes of Bikini Kill and The Slits.
RCFG teachers are experienced musicians volunteering to encourage the future PJ Harveys and Kathleen Hannas of the world; they come from all over: California, New York, England and, yes, Utah. I’d volunteered as a drum instructor and a band coach, spending eight-hour days teaching the basics of rock. The camp theme song said it all: “It’s My Turn, It’s My Time,” and I couldn’t wait.
As the campers walked into the 17-room building in northeast Portland, they were surrounded by women'teachers, peers and idols. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with posters of Sleater-Kinney, The Donnas, Joan Jett, Le Tigre, Lauryn Hill and Blondie. Each room is crowded with guitars, drums, microphones and keyboards. Over the course of a week, students learned how to play an instrument, perform in a band and write an original song. The girls’ hard work would culminate in a show where they’d play onstage for an audience of 700.
On Day 1, timid campers stood in the “rock room,” where assemblies and concerts are held. Just like the first day of school, there was nervousness in the air (albeit a lack of testosterone), but it didn’t take long for students to find their bands according to what instrument they play and what kind of music they like'punk, rock & roll, pop, hip-hop or metal.
As a mandatory right of passage, the little rockers named their bands: Otter Pops, Red Hot Vampires and The Fire Breathing Llamas are born. I worked with Music Mania. The girls’ ages ranged from 9 to 11. My job involved keeping them on task, making sure they got along and, most importantly, had fun. By the second day, we had an original song: A two-chord masterpiece about a boy named Billy, a rockin’ turtle and plenty of oh, oh, ohs and yeah, yeah, yeahs. The song ended with them shouting, “Girls rule!” I couldn’t agree more.
For a week, the entire building was a cacophony of giggles and guitars. The girls were encouraged to take up space, make as much noise as possible and find their voices. There’s no room for demure, nice or quiet demeanors. Bang on the drums, play through distortion, belt out some tunes, make mistakes and try again.
Each day, the campers also participated in workshops, including how to make a ’zine (in which rockers express their experience through drawings, collages, song lyrics and prose), self-defense classes (when they learn to say ‘No!’ meaner than Sid Vicious, assert themselves more aggressively than Peaches, and learn how to ward off groupies), and a discussion on image and identity, after which they concluded that Sleater-Kinney trumps Britney Spears any day.
One of the Rock & Roll Camp For Girls’ highlights is a notable female rocker playing for the girls. This year, The Gossip, Peaches and Kaia Wilson wrapped up the week with empowering performances. Of all the lessons learned, The Gossip’s Beth Ditto summed it up best: “It ain’t the end of the world girl/ You’ll find your place in the world girl/ All you gotta do is stand up and fight fire with fire.”
Cathy Foy has been playing drums in Salt Lake City rock bands for 12 years, including The Downers and Cathy & I. Currently she pounds the skins for Stiletto and Beard of Solitude.