From 1972 to 1979, Donna Jean Godchaux executed herself as an integral part of the Grateful Dead, and still, more than forty years later, she remains an important symbol of the band during their most prominent (and perhaps louded) touring period. As an outstanding vocalist and the only female member to ever play in the Grateful Dead, Donna has proved her legacy and impact on both the band and the entire culture of jam-band rocking itself. However, as with any well-known woman in the music industry, Donna’s place in the Grateful Dead has not come without its criticism. So, why is that?
The short answer: misogyny.
The long answer: You can have whatever opinion you choose to have about Donna Jean Godchaux. Like her or hate her, she’s doing just fine in 2020. And truly, when you strip back all of the excuses and weak-boned reasonings for why Donna is disliked the most, you discover that you can apply almost any of that criticism to the other members. For example, let’s take the age-old excuse that Donna “ruined” the music with her off-pitch vocals. Donna herself understands where the criticism comes from, but she’s more than willing to offer another perspective.
“I was a studio singer, never singing off-key. I was used to having headphones and being in a controlled environment,” Donna stated in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone.“…I’ve seen on Facebook people say, ‘Well, they didn’t always sing so great themselves!’
It’s no secret that being a woman in the music industry comes with a unique set of challenges and animosity- predominantly, in the form of an outpouring from the media. Rock ‘n’ roll in America has seemingly had a longstanding “no girls allowed” attitude, undeniably lends itself to the sexism Donna faced while serving as a vocalist for the band. Even before Donna’s career in the band, other budding female rock stars, most notably Janis Joplin, were already receiving flack for going against what was expected. After all, Janis Joplin was no soft, delicate 1960s housewife. She challenged both standards of beauty and standards of womanity- a path which may have paved the way for future singers, such as Donna.
Throughout her successful seven-year career with the Grateful Dead, Donna Jean proved herself as a force to be reckoned with, and a strong woman who refused to be “lumped in” or molded to fit the box of what was expected of a woman at that time. She proved that the word “woman” itself didn’t have to be a music genre itself- that she could bring flavor and creativity to the band and still feel original. Regardless of how you feel about her, her vocals are here to stay on some of the Dead’s most celebrated albums, such as Europe ‘72 and Terrapin Station.
I want to conclude by saying this: you don’t have to love Donna or her unique vocals, but you cannot deny her long lasting impact of success on the band and her role in some of the Dead’s most remembered touring days. Donna, we’re so proud of you for playin’ with the band.