NEW YORK—September 1, 2023— In case it’s a lesson you’re not familiar with, the Radium Girls of the 1920s changed history: after radium dial companies knowingly exposed the young factory workers to radium poisoning, the women’s cases led to landmark labor laws and standards, and can even be said to have led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Featured this week in a Library of Congress exhibit focusing on Labor Day and released today, Rachel Sumner’s “Radium Girls (Curie Eleison)” tells the story of these brave women, often absent from most history books. It’s a story the larger public is clearly ready to hear: the song has amassed nearly 100,000 views on TikTok this week.
“To this day it boils my blood to think about what happened to these women, but the day I first read about them I was absolutely livid,” Sumner says. “It had been nearly a hunded years since radium dial companies started cropping up. I took my urge to shout their story from rooftops and focused it into crafting a ballad to honor and share their plight. In a time where major US companies and warehouses continue to exploit workers and risk their health for profit, the story of the Radium Girls is one we cannot afford to forget.”
Sumner wrote the song, which won a Lennon Award in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in 2021, after hearing Joanna Newsom’s “Time (As A Symptom),” Sumner encountered a word she’d never heard before, one that stood out among a list of words written in a stream-of-consciousness style: undarked. A quick search pointed toward a luminous paint containing radium that was called Undark. Originally used on watch faces, it was intended to help WWI soldiers tell time in the dark without having to strike a match that could give away their position in the trenches.
After the war, an appetite for glow-in-the-dark watches spilled over into the civilian market and radium dial companies met the demand by hiring young women for their nimble hands, instructing them to take their paintbrushes and “lip, dip, paint.” This technique kept the brush tips pointed so workers would not waste the Undark paint.
The companies knew how dangerous radium was and made a killing—literally and figuratively—in this lucrative business; they then worked to discredit and silence women who spoke out by blaming their mysterious illnesses and deaths on sexually transmitted infections. It took years of legal battles for the truths of these women to be acknowledged and for the life-threatening dangers they faced to be addressed. Their case shaped United States labor laws and led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Watch the video for “Radium Girls (Curie Eleison):
Sumner’s life has been defined by dichotomies; born and raised in the deserts outside Los Angeles, she has lived nearly as long now on the east coast. After moving to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music, she found a musical community and planted roots. She began her training as a classical flutist and enrolled at Berklee to study Composition and Film Scoring; once there, though, she found a community of bluegrass musicians and, with their encouragement, picked up the guitar for the first time.
Sumner co-founded the band Twisted Pine and, with them, explored the traditions of bluegrass while pushing against those traditions’ constraints. Her love of roots music inspired her to pursue songwriting, then her love of songwriting inspired her to push beyond roots music. Her innate melodic sensibility infused itself into ever more harmonically striking songs, while her lyrical abilities grew by leaps and bounds to create sensitive stories, poetically impressionistic verses, and perfectly catchy choruses. Her songs are complex yet direct, complicated yet always a straight line from her heart to her listeners’.
Last year, Sumner released her solo debut, Rachel Sumner & Traveling Light, featuring Kat Wallace on fiddle and Mike Siegel on bass; the band won the annual showcase competition at this year’s Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival and was selected as an official showcase band at the 2023 IBMA Bluegrass Ramble.
Sumner will continue to push the boundaries of roots music with a new album in 2024, establishing herself as one of the brightest lyricists and melodists working today. She’ll add these new songs to her live repertoire with Traveling Light, seamlessly transitioning from lush studio soundscapes to fiery string band on stages across the country.