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Folk singer Rachel Sumner’s ballad 'Radium Girls' recalls the plight of women factory workers

Rachel Sumner
Hannah Cohen
/
Rachel Sumner
Boston-based folk singer Rachel Sumner

Folk singer Rachel Sumner, who came to Connecticut for a performance Saturday night, is riding high after winning the John Lennon Songwriting Contest earlier this year for her song “Radium Girls.”

It tells the tragic story of women factory workers in the early 20th century who painted “glow in the dark” watch and clock dials using powdered radium. They were told to use their mouth to make a fine point on the tip of the brush, and then dip the brush in the radium vial. The workers were all exposed to massive amounts of radiation poisoning, which led to various forms of cancer and a host of other ailments. Factories in Thomaston, New Haven and Waterbury employed radium girls.

Employees of the U.S. Radium Corp. paint numbers on the faces of wristwatches using dangerous radioactive paint. Dozens of women, known as "radium girls," later died of radium poisoning. One of the last radium girls died this year at 107.
Employees of the U.S. Radium Corp. paint numbers on the faces of wristwatches using dangerous radioactive paint. Dozens of women, known as "radium girls," later died of radium poisoning.

For her song “Radium Girls,” the Boston-based Sumner adopted an old folk style: the ballad.

“Once I heard about the radium girls, I wanted to try to tell everybody I could about their story because I think that there is something eerily familiar to it that we see even today,” Sumner said. “And I wanted to build on that, that old folk tradition of telling a story and giving a warning.”

Sumner says that when she was writing the song, she agonized over how to properly honor these women in a six-minute song.

“I honestly lost sleep over this,” Sumner said. “I wanted to show the radium girls and what they went through, the specific things that happened to them — how their bosses didn’t believe them when they said that they were getting sick and how they were treating them. I wanted to outline that. So often, women aren’t believed about many things until it’s way too late unfortunately.”

In September, “Radium Girls” won the grand prize in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest’s folk category. Sumner and her band Traveling Light performed Saturday night at Cafe Nine in New Haven with local favorites Lys Guillorn and Mercy Choir.

Rachel Sumner and Traveling Light
Lisa Pinals
Rachel Sumner and her band Traveling Light performed Saturday night at Cafe Nine in New Haven.

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