For better or worse, rock music’s reputation has gone from the reprehensible outsider music of juvenile delinquents in the 1950s to a means of building self-esteem in young people today. One way to argue that is to point to this year’s Women of Achievement Awards and see that Cranston’s Hilary Jones is about to get one. The YWCA awards bring attention to the accomplishments of women promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity. Jones is being recognized as a founder and director of Girls Rock! Rhode Island.
The parents of the 1950s would have a hard time understanding how one of the dangers to the souls of young people back then has come to be recognized as a way of better integrating kids into the larger society that surrounds them. Jones suspected that learning to rock had therapeutic value as she herself moved through both worlds as she grew up.
“I played piano and clarinet when I was young but when I was around 14, I discovered the grunge rock scene of Nirvana and I was drawn to it,” said Jones.
About the same time, there was the Riot Grrl movement and acts like Bikini Kill and Joan Jett that really gave voice to what women felt and did and Jones found it all personally liberating and exhilarating. She put down the clarinet and picked up a guitar. She got up from the piano and sat behind a drum kit and learned how to rock. Aside from being just plain fun, Jones found that playing the music made her feel more confident and assured.
“They were addressing social issues like racism and sexism,” said Jones, who grew up in Fargo, N.D. “When bands like Babes in Toyland came through town, I could hear women express themselves.”
When Jones started studying behavioral psychology in college, the sense of empowerment she experienced playing in a band and creating music became a part of a core belief that helping other women, especially girls, have similar experiences playing in groups would work toward making them feel better and do better by themselves.
She studied behavioral psychology in college and has worked for years to end violence and increase healthy relationships and behavior as a research and education specialist. She has been a violence prevention coordinator at the Rhode Island Department of Health, and a project coordinator at Healthy Kids Rhode Island. In 2008, Jones received her doctorate in Behavioral Science Psychology and she is a part-time faculty member in URI's Psychology and Women's Studies departments.
But she still rocks and, as a visit to her Pawtuxet home would reveal, she is an eclectic and far ranging musician. She has rows of electric guitars standing at attention in front of her drum kit, with a Martin acoustic just to the right of the drums. A hammer dulcimer she recently acquired dominates the table in the dining area of her slightly cluttered home. She regards it with a mixture of pleasure and anxiety and admits she knew far less about it than she should have before she brought it home. It resembles the inside of a very small piano and sounds like a harpsichord.
“Look,” she said, and picked up a pair of mallets as if they were alien artifacts. “You play it with these.”
Her own band, Arcing, has a CD out called “Doubt” on Corleone Records and the band plays regularly around Providence. But don’t expect to hear some “tribute” to more successful bands or even rock and roll as you knew it growing up. These guys are loud and raw, with songs called “Industrial Trust” and “Life Full of [Expletive]”; its not Simon and Garfinkel in Central Park time and more like Johnny Rotten on the Subway.
But Jones is no missionary of noise and chaos. She wants to see women make up their own minds about what kind of sounds they want to produce. There is no doubt that her belief in rock music to encompass all sorts of women.
“The kids come from all over the state, from all sorts of backgrounds,” said Jones. “Some are excited to be there and some of them are a little shy. Some of them have played instruments and some have never had an instrument in their hands before.”
That’s not the point, according to Jones. She said the biggest boost the girls get is to realize they don’t have to play perfectly and that they have the capacity and the right to play rock even if they have never played with people before.
“It’s very scary for some of them, but by the second day they are playing and by the third day they are writing outlines of songs,” said Jones.
For women who feel that they may have wasted their youth by never having toured with a wasted rock band, Jones offers older women a chance at being good or bad at playing rock and the fun of working with other people to have a rollicking good time.
“One of the first things I try to tell the girls is that, ‘Rock is a verb and not a noun,’” said Jones.
Rock on, girl.
YWCA Rhode Island will also honor 10 other women at the eighth annual awards luncheon on Thursday, Sept. 27 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Kirkbrae Country Club in Lincoln. For more details or to purchase tickets, visit www.womenofachievementRI.org or contact YWCA Rhode Island at 769-7450. For more about Girls Rock! Rhode Island, visit www.girlsrockri.org.