Marching for Women #1: Delta Rae’s “Hands Dirty”

by Jada E. Watson

As we prepare for the third annual Women’s March on Saturday, January 19, 2019, SongData wanted to take a moment to highlight two important musical moments by country artists that really advanced the #TimesUp and #MeToo movement in 2018. These artists were honest, bold, and critical of the patriarchal institutional structures in which women are made to work. In a three-part blog, we will take a closer look at these songs and conclude with a blog sharing, the first study to come from the project data.

Let’s dig in and get our “Hands Dirty.”

I will stand beside my sisters
And all persistent resistors

Silence is one of the most powerful means of communication in music. Carefully placed space between musical notes can create the most crushing, pounding, deafening sound in our ears, our hearts, and our minds. No silence this year was more poignant than that which emerges following the Bridge in Delta Rae’s “Hands Dirty”. An anthem for social equality, Delta Rae’s song became an important call to action as Americans headed to the polls in November 2018. 

On October 19, 2018 Delta Rae’s label Big Machine issued a press release for the song on their website. The band, comprised of Hölljes siblings Brittany (vocals), Ian (vocals, guitar), and Eric (vocals, piano) with Liz Hopkins (vocals), Mike McKee (drums), and Grant Emerson (bass), has “never shied away from speaking their minds, especially on tough subjects,” Big Machine states. “As political tensions rise, the #MeToo movement unfolds and new generations head to the polls, the six-piece knows the importance of getting your ‘Hands Dirty’.”

“Like most women who say ‘Me Too,’ [I] didn’t quit on myself after the first assault or after countless other times experiencing misogyny, harassment or violence since. We just keep working.’- Brittany Hölljes

The release included a personal essay from one of Delta Rae’s two female lead singers, Brittany Hölljes, which explained the genesis of the song and encouraged her readers to get out and vote in the (then) upcoming November midterm elections. She also revealed her own #MeToo story, sharing with her fans that she was sexually assaulted at the age of 13 and describing the daily pain of living with that trauma. Yet, as she states, “like most women who say ‘Me Too,’ [I] didn’t quit on myself after the first assault or after countless other times experiencing misogyny, harassment or violence since. We just keep working.” This mantra, to keep working, inspired Brittany and her brother Ian to write a song about all of the work that women do despite being treated like objects, being denied career advancement, and enduring discrimination and harassment. And even though there are personal references throughout the song narrative (especially opening references to the Hölljes family’s farming origins), the song is written in a universal way that provides space for women to take their claim to this empowering narrative.

The narrative strategy of the Verses juxtaposes the remarkable and powerful roles that women occupy in society – including those that are often hidden or unrecognized, with the challenges they face in the workforce. Women are immediately described and defined as caretakers of the land and of children (and, in the next Verse, of spouses) – but as individuals who are routinely passed over for jobs, discredited, and ridiculed by those in positions of power. Yet, they are not victims in this narrative. They are fierce warriors that raise crops, bear children, occupy important positions through the Verses, who (despite institutional barriers) continually arrive early, work hard, and show no mercy in the Choruses. The Bridge looks ahead to the day when all humans can look to each other and say “we’re equal” concluding on and changing the meaning of the words “me too” to a statement of equality (as revealed in their interview with Elaina Doré Smith for her Women Want to Hear Women podcast in October 2018).

The musical setting has a swampy, gospel/field holler sound with a heavy, plodding beat that creates the feel of working in the field. This is musicalized work. Unlike most popular music which emphasizes beats 2 and 4, “Hands Dirty” emphasizes beats 1 and 3 through a dry thump on the kick drum followed by the sound of dragging chains on 2 and 4. In this way, they create a musical sound associated with slaves working in the field, tilling the earth as they drag chains behind them. This musical work is further emphasized by the use of field holler-inspired vocals accompanying Brittany on Verses 2, 3 and 4. The climactic moment of equality achieved is set musically through the use of gospel-inspired backing vocals in the Bridge – a moment of brilliant salvation.

The associated video centres on Brittany, tearing through newspapers to look through headlines for the critical text needed to create a protest poster. It opens with her sitting on the floor of an empty living room with a stack of newspapers in front of her. With the start of the first Verse, she begins aggressively going through the newspapers, searching for stories of abuse, harassment, and gender and racial discrimination from current events through headlines about men abusing their positions of power (pointing critically to Trump, Weinstein, and music moguls), unfair treatment of women in the workplace (notably Serena Williams), voting (the record number of women running for office), and more. As she tears through these newspapers, she cuts out the lyrics of her song in a ransom-note style. Her bandmates bring in more newspapers, offering her support and join her in searching through them for stories of social injustices. There’s even a reference to the country music industry through Liz’s t-shirt, which displays the message “Mama wants to change that Nashville sound” – a lyric from Jason Isbell’s “White Man’s World” that Amanda Shires made into a t-shirt

At the Instrumental Interlude, images of Brittany and newspaper headlines alternate with black and white images of individuals of different ages, races, and sexual/gender identities staring into the camera. This continues through the Bridge, as Brittany lies in the newspapers, while some swirl around her. The music stops for 14 seconds after the final lyric, and each of those individuals has their moment to mouth the words “me too”. A range of emotions can be seen on their face, from pain and suffering, to anger, strength, determination, and resilience. These seconds represent the silent suffering and the hidden/unacknowledged work of women and other victims of discriminatory practices and abuse. The final image of this sequence is in colour: a young girl that doesn’t mouth the words “me too”. She doesn’t have to. Because of the hard work of all the women before her, she is able to enter a new world, one in which all women have the same basic human rights as men. 

Those 14 seconds of silence are deafening.