Hot Wire & Ladyslipper

December got away from me, as it often does, but I’m back! My last few posts have focused on music, and this one does too.

I was down to the last two music-related T-shirts from my D.C. days and couldn’t figure out how to tie them together. Should each one maybe get its own short post?

Me in my Ladyslipper T in 2021. This design was “vintage” by the time I acquired it, probably after I started working at Lammas.. It’s unusual in my collection both for its long sleeves and its French cut. The long sleeves mean it gets worn regularly in spring and fall.

Then I got it: These two Ts, one from Ladyslipper Music and one from Hot Wire: The Journal of Women’s Music & Culture, both represent the national and international aspect of women’s music, but I had an up-close-and-personal relationship with both of them. I contributed a couple of articles to Hot Wire, including the one about the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus. At Lammas, I shared the upstairs office with Flo Hollis, a full-time Ladyslipper staffer, Lammas owner-manager Mary Farmer was a Ladyslipper distributor, and the code for the Lammas alarm system was Ladyslipper’s PO box number: 3124.

Turns out there was another close connection. Hot Wire has made all 30 of the issues it published between November 1984 and September 1995 available for free as downloadable PDFs, but rather than search each one for articles about Ladyslipper — I was 100% certain they had to have published at least one — I Googled. Imagine my surprise when the story I turned up had been written by me.

OMG. Turned out the date in that citation, May 1985, was wrong — Hot Wire didn’t publish an issue that month — but another reference to the same article had the correct date, March 1985. I downloaded the whole issue and read my own words from almost 37 years ago.

From Hot Wire, vol. 1, no. 2 (March 1985)

No question, it sounds like me. Many of the details came roaring back from my memory; others I’d never forgotten. Some of it I had no recollection of at all. What impresses me the most going on four decades later is the account of how the Ladyslippers dealt with a complete communications breakdown among the three full-time staff members in the winter of 1982–83. “What often happens in such situations,” I wrote, “is that one person leaves, and the level of tension drops for a while.” But at Ladyslipper, as staffer Sue Brown noted, “everyone was too stubborn to leave.”

So they went into counseling as a group. As I wrote, “They were not prepared for the speed and intensity with which issues came to the surface.” In retrospect, Liz Snow described the experience as “shocking.” They continued in counseling for “about ten months.” No one abandoned ship. Ladyslipper did not fall apart; it continued to develop as a major force in the women’s music and culture scene for as long as there was one.

By then I’d had plenty of experience with groups that foundered on their inability and/or unwillingness to work things through. I’d left the Women’s Center collective because the group dynamics were driving me crazy and I had no idea what to do about it. So Ladyslipper’s example was an inspiration: with hard work and, most likely, some help from the outside, we could get through the rough places.*

Fans of Dykes To Watch Out For will immediately recognize the image as the work of Alison Bechdel, who went on to international fame as the author of the graphic memoir Fun Home and other works. We really did know her when.

Which brings me back to those 30 issues of Hot Wire, all available for free download. What a treasure! They’re indispensable, sure, for anyone interested in the stars and rising stars of the women’s music scene of the 1980s and ’90s, but note how many articles are devoted to how-tos and behind-the-scenes movement building. We were starting from scratch in those days, pretty much building the plane as we were flying it, because there were so few experts to learn from.

At the same time, we knew we hadn’t come out of nowhere. Enough others had tended enough fires to leave sparks. It’s a relief to know that the fires are still being tended, and the sparks are still out there, like fireflies on a summer night.

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notes

* I don’t need to say (do I?) that these problems are not unique to feminist groups. After I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, I found no shortage of examples of groups that either fell apart or drove some of their most valuable members out. Not infrequently those who left would start a new group whose purpose duplicated or overlapped with the old. When the Vineyard finally discovered AIDS, around 1990, it became apparent that various complementary organizations either weren’t aware of or weren’t on speaking terms with each other. More about that later.

1984–85: D.C. Area Feminist Chorus

The story behind this one starts way, way back, long before I moved to D.C. the first time.

My family wasn’t especially musical. My maternal grandmother played the piano by ear, which I thought was cool, but unless Granmummie was visiting,[1] what music there was in our household came via records and the radio.

Not to discount the importance of records, however: When I left for college, I absconded with my father’s Joan Baez album, her first. I didn’t need to take his Tom Lehrer LPs — Lehrer’s first, the one whose cover featured a caricature of the pianist as the devil surrounded by the red flames of hell (see below), and That Was the Year That Was — because most of the songs were embedded in my memory.

I’ve still got that Joan album, and the 10 or so of its successors that I acquired legitimately in the following years, and I still know a ridiculous number of Tom Lehrer songs by heart.[2]

See what I mean? Originally released in 1953, when I was 2.

Like many middle-class-and-up suburban kids my siblings and I took piano lessons with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The teacher wasn’t especially inspired or inspiring. I did learn to read music, but I didn’t learn to pick songs out of the air the way my grandmother did. That was disappointing, but what I didn’t really understand was what all that tedious practice could lead to. If I had, maybe I would have persisted.

Or maybe not.

I did, however, like to sing. Singing was the best part of church, where we went almost every Sunday morning as a family: St. Peter’s Episcopal in Weston, Mass. From fifth grade through eighth I sang alto in the junior choir. After eighth grade, when we aged out of both the junior choir and Sunday school, we could join the adult choir, but the adult choir sang at the 11 a.m. service and my family went to the 9:15. That’s when I left the church.

In my eighth-grade year, Becky B., also an eighth-grader, a soprano who’d been in the choir as long as I had, told me that I always sang off-key. To avoid ruining the anthem, she said, I should just pretend to sing.

No one else — not the choir director/organist, not any other member of the choir, not any of my music teachers in school — had ever told me any such thing. Becky B. didn’t like me and I didn’t like her; she was a goody-two-shoes who was always playing up to the adults. But I feared she was right, that I had been found out.

Somehow I made it through the year. Then I stopped singing. Period. When I entered high school in the fall, the music teacher encouraged me more than once to try out for Glee Club. Since she directed the Glee Club, this should have given me confidence, but it didn’t. I was sure I’d fail and confirm beyond any doubt that Becky B. was right: I couldn’t sing.

It was years before I recognized the pattern: I’d pursue a skill, an instrument, a foreign language — then abandon it when I was on the verge of being able to actually use it. At that point you’re bound to make mistakes. In my family making mistakes got you creamed. My very intelligent and well-read father regularly ridiculed my mother for getting the wrong answer or saying anything he considered stupid. I learned to get my facts straight before I opened my mouth. From an early age I’d been good at words, anything to do with words. I stuck to words, spoken and written, but never sung.

I never stopped listening to music, though, or hanging around people who made music or were somehow in the music biz. Gradually, and usually in fits and starts, I got braver, venturing into territories where I didn’t have all the answers and was bound to make mistakes: taking that first editorial job at the American Red Cross, for instance, or becoming the book buyer at Lammas Bookstore. I did well at both, but note that they both had to do with words: in some ways I was pushing the boundaries of what I was already good at.

The D.C. Area Feminist Chorus was founded in 1978, prompted by a singing workshop led by Holly Near during that year’s Gay Pride celebration. In its early months it was leaderless, with members leading warm-ups and teaching each other songs.

At some point, they decided to engage a director/conductor, and after interviewing several candidates, they hired Deb Weiner. Deb either was already or was soon to become one of my housemates, but this did not prompt me to join the chorus. If anything, it was a deterrent: What if it was your housemate who had to tell you that you couldn’t sing on key and were dragging the group down?

I have an indelible memory of Deb conducting the combined D.C. Area Feminist Chorus and Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington at a holiday concert, in either 1981 or 1982. To be the conductor channeling all that massive sound! I was awed.

How did I come to finally join the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus? Well, I have it on good authority — my own words from 36 years ago — that I set out to write a story about the chorus for Hot Wire: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture “and almost immediately found [my]self singing in the second soprano section.” By then Deb had moved on after several very successful years, Caroline Foty was the chorus director, and I was living on the far northeast fringe of Capitol Hill, subletting a large room from and sharing a kitchen with photographer Joan E. Biren (JEB).

By then, probably in 1984, I had joined the brand-new Gay and Lesbian Chorus of Washington (GLCW). How did I hear about it? I don’t remember. This was a small group, conducted by Tess Garcia, and my most vivid memory was of a performance we gave where Congressman Barney Frank, dressed in a leisure suit, reclined across several chairs in the front row. Most of the homemade cassette tape I have from a June 1985 performance is unplayable, but on the one audible cut, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye,” we sound pretty good. According to the label, the program also included some P.D.Q. Bach, the spiritual “Soon Ah Will Be Done,” and selections from Annie.

I noted the most striking contrast between my two choruses in that Hot Wire story: “Because the GLCW did not choose to specialize in works by gay or lesbian composers, a chorus member could walk into any music store and be overwhelmed by the available selection.” Not so any Feminist Chorus member: all our music consisted of handwritten scores photocopied or similarly duplicated, because none of it had been published. Director Foty did some of the arranging, and fortunately feminist choruses were thriving at the time, and lots of sharing went on among them through the Sistersingers network. We were breaking ground, pioneers, in the forefront, and very aware of it.

We sang at least two songs from the Balkan women’s singing tradition. I can still fake the second soprano part of “Shto Mi e Milo,” which has been widely recorded.

One of my favorites from the chorus repertoire was a four-part setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Conscientious Objector.” I didn’t realize till about an hour ago not only that Mary Travers had performed it spectacularly, but that she wrote the solo setting and recorded it on her 1972 album Morning Glory.[3] I have a copy of the poem on my fridge: “I shall die / but that is all I shall do for Death . . .” It reminds me of the song.

The chorus made decisions collectively, including decisions about repertoire. “Conscientious Objector” almost didn’t make the cut; that was before I joined, so I don’t know what the objections were. As I recall, a couple of chorus members thought Malvina Reynolds’s “We Don’t Need the Men” was too anti-male. For others among us, this was a plus, not least because it was so tongue-in-cheekily Malvina. It was fun to remind people that Malvina wrote it in 1959.

The most controversial song I remember from my time in the chorus was “Sisters, Spring of Vietnam”; it clearly favored the Vietnamese liberation struggle against the French and the Americans, and that did not sit well with some members. Singing along with Lucha’s version I remember the tune, the harmony, and many of the words, so I’m pretty sure we sang it anyway, but some choristers chose to sit it out.

The back of the 1985 Sisterfire T. The D.C. Area Feminist Chorus is about halfway down.

My last gig with the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus was at Sisterfire, June 22 & 23, 1985. By the end of that summer I was semi-settled on Martha’s Vineyard. Music was much easier to find than feminism, and find it I did, volunteering at Wintertide Coffeehouse starting in 1986.

It took a while to find a way to start singing again. My way in turned out to be the annual Christmas performance of Messiah, sung by a large (and ever growing) pickup chorus of Vineyarders, many of whom sang regularly in various church choirs.

I’d never sung Messiah before, and most of the chorus seemed to know it by heart. More, although I could read music, I couldn’t “sight-sing,” sing from a score on first acquaintance. I still regret not having the nerve to audition for Glee Club in high school, where everybody learned to do stuff like that. I worked hard, I learned, and when, in my third year, I made it through the glorious “Amen” without losing my place, I thought I’d arrived.

The annual Messiah sings eventually grew into the Island Community Chorus, which did several concerts a year and with which I stayed until around 2005. I’ve managed to keep singing since then. In the age of Covid-19, I’ve participated almost weekly in Zoom sings (Zings?) with Susan Robbins of Libana, a women’s ensemble whose music I’ve loved since at least 1980, and a bunch of whose recordings I’ve got.

But it was the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus that got me singing again, and though I didn’t sing with it for much more than a year, this shirt is about how I found my (singing) voice again.

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notes

[1] Which was fairly often, because she lived only eight miles away.

[2] This is so common among the political circles I’ve moved in over the decades that if I sing or even hum a line, often someone in the vicinity will sing the next one back to me. A favorite memory from my freshman year at Georgetown U.: As a marshal for the huge Mobe (Mobilization Against the War) march on Washington on November 15, 1969, I was stationed on Pennsylvania Ave. between 6th and 7th. We were close enough together that we could reach out and touch our neighbors on either side. It was sunny but bloody cold, and my winter gear was still back in Massachusetts: I had this idea that since D.C. was a southern city I wouldn’t need it till after Thanksgiving. Wrong. Anyway, while waiting for the sun to get fully up and the march to start, we did a lot of jogging in place and making coffee runs to the nearest drugstore. Eventually one of us — maybe me, maybe not — started in on a Tom Lehrer song. No idea which one, so many of them would have been appropriate — maybe “The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be,” with its lines “I’ll watch the guided missiles / while the old FBI watches me”? We were sure the FBI and who knew what other intelligence agencies were around.

[3] My source for this is a detailed bio of Edna St. Vincent Millay on, of all things, the website for the ABC Oriental Rug & Cleaning Company in Ithaca, N.Y. There has to be an interesting story here, but I’ll have to save that rabbit hole for another time. The page seems to be updated regularly: it includes a reference to the ongoing pandemic and other events.

1980s: Sisterfire, Equinox & Sophie’s Parlor

Me looking stern in my 1983 Sisterfire T. The blue hat doesn’t quite work with the shirt and shorts, IMO. 2018 selfie.

Sisterfire is the only women’s music festival I ever attended. Both my T-shirts call it “an open-air celebration of women artists,” so it wasn’t just about music, but music was the main event. I was never seriously tempted by other music festivals, which were proliferating in all parts of the country in the 1980s. Partly it was that, working in a feminist bookstore and living in a lesbian community as I did, I didn’t need to travel to hang out with other dykes. Mostly I wasn’t and never have been comfortable in crowds of people I don’t know.

Even crowds of all women.

Back of the 1985 Sisterfire shirt. Pretty impressive lineup, no? The D.C. Area Feminist Chorus is in the middle, right above Diane Lindsay & Sue Fink.

I have, however, been known to enjoy myself in very large groups if I have a role to play. At Sisterfire I was part of the Lammas/Ladyslipper team, selling mostly records but some books as well. In 1985, the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus, in which I was then singing, was one of the street performers, so you’ll find its name on the back of the Sisterfire shirt for that year. Chorus members performed wearing the chorus’s own shirt, and you bet I’ve still got mine. It’s got its own story to tell and will get to tell it soon.

Me looking less stern and more color-coordinated in my 1985 Sisterfire T. 2018 selfie.

Sisterfire’s other compelling attraction was location: it took place in the close-in D.C. suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland. It was founded in 1982 by Amy Horowitz and the D.C.-based production company Roadwork, and the T-shirts testify that I was there in 1983 and 1985.

I left town in a U-Haul truck not long after that year’s Sisterfire, which my T-shirt says was on June 22 & 23, but Sisterfire continued into the late ’80s, not without controversy, not least because men could attend. I don’t remember the male presence being distracting or disruptive. On one hot afternoon, I do remember the announcer asking men to keep their shirts on because thanks to local ordinances and conventions women couldn’t take ours off.*

By the early 1980s, Roadwork was, in community terms, a powerhouse, booking national tours for the likes of Sweet Honey in the Rock and Holly Near and producing such standout concerts as the Varied Voices of Black Women (1978) and Cris Williamson’s appearance at Constitution Hall (1980). Naturally we sometimes snarkily referred to it as Roadhog, and a local graphic artist sported a brilliant parody of the 1983 Sisterfire shirt: it looked just like the official one till you realized the letters spelled out SISTERBLITZ.

Equinox Productions was a grassroots women’s production company — “group” is probably a better word, because they were all volunteers — formed to produce gigs too modest to get Roadwork’s attention.

One major benefit of Equinox and similar groups was the opportunity they gave women to develop skills in areas we’d been generally shut out of, like concert production and sound tech. D.C.-based Woman Sound, owned and managed by audio engineer Boden Sandstrom,[1] was a pioneer in the field and highly professional by the time this article appeared in the June 22, 1981, Washington Post.

By the time I moved back to D.C. in 1977, women’s music’s center of gravity — Olivia Records and the recording artists associated with it — had moved to the West Coast, but D.C. still had a thriving local music scene. Food for Thought, a popular vegetarian restaurant on Connecticut Ave., frequently featured live music; performers got paid by passing the hat. At least once singer-songwriter Casse Culver came down from the upstairs dressing room after her set, bandana masking her face like a Wild West bandit, and conducted pass-the-hat as a stickup. You probably couldn’t get away with that now, but at the time it was hilarious.

My favorite local musicians at the time included singer-songwriter Judy Reagan and the blues duo of Abbe Lyons and Cheryl Jacobs. Church basements and college classrooms[2] were popular year-round venues, and music could regularly be heard at rallies, demonstrations, and Gay & Lesbian Pride Day every June.

Sophie’s Parlor, the women’s radio collective’s show on WPFW-FM, was part of the mix, featuring interviews, books, and more as well as music. I’m pretty sure that this shirt was given to me by my Lammas colleague Deb Morris, who continued in the book biz long after I left and with whom (thanks to Facebook) I’m back in touch.

Sophie’s Parlor still has a weekly show on WPFW-FM. Wow. Its Facebook page says it’s “the oldest continuously running women’s music radio collective in the United States,” which is more than remarkable. The FB page also notes that it was founded at Georgetown University in 1972. I dropped out of GU halfway through my junior year, in December 1971; I remained in D.C. for the next few months, but I wasn’t aware of Sophie’s at that time. Next step is to see if I can livestream their weekly show: Wednesdays @ 3 p.m. EST.

I’ve long had a mild hankering to do a radio show — mild enough that I never sought out an opportunity to actually do it, and no opportunity ever presented itself. The closest I ever came was getting to pick what got played on the Lammas record player whenever I was working the floor. (Often I worked upstairs, keeping inventory on 5×8 file cards, one for each title, and placing orders. This was in the pre-digital age.) This was often how customers first heard the latest Cris Williamson or Holly Near, since they weren’t getting airplay in radioland, and of course we took requests. On Valentine’s Day every year I’d play all the shit-kicking anti-love songs I knew of. Favorites included Therese Edell’s “Winter of ’76,” Judy Reagan’s “Dispose of Properly,” and a whole bunch of Willie Tyson songs. Sample:

You go out to the kitchen
to get somethin' to eat
I watch you pick your bay leaves from a poison ivy tree
I got a feelin' you're gonna starve to death when I'm gone
Here's a brand new dime
Now you call me if I'm wrong
     © 1977 Willola Calloway Tyson

I’ve got a coda to this post but it involves a photo and I’m waiting to hear if I’ve got the photographer’s OK to use it. For the moment, that’s all, folks!

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Notes

Curious fact: These four music shirts, all from the first half of the 1980s, are all muscle shirts, i.e., sleeveless. What makes this noteworthy is that I have maybe ten muscle shirts total in my extensive collection, and the others vary in subject: one’s goddess-related (you can see it at the bottom of the pagans post), one’s a dragon, and one’s from Smedley’s bookshop in Ithaca, N.Y. (that one will be along shortly), etc. So why (1) are so many of my muscle shirts music-related? and (2) did they go out of fashion?

* For more about Sisterfire’s early years, and why it didn’t happen in 1986, see Nancy Seeger, “Sisterfire: Why Did Roadwork Skip 1986,” Hot Wire: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture, vol. 2, no. 4 (November 1986), p. 28. All of Hot Wire‘s 30 issues are available online as downloadable PDFs. You can find this one here. The story notes that in 1985 a petition opposing Sisterfire circulated in Takoma Park. Reasons included traffic and parking, noise, “the smell of marijuana smoke,” and “some women attending the festival wore no shirts.”

[1] Boden, then going by Barbara, is credited as engineering assistant, to veteran engineer Marilyn Ries, on Casse Culver’s 1976 LP Three Gypsies (Urana Records, founded by Marilyn Ries and K Gardner). The June 1981 WaPo story says that Woman Sound was then coming up on its sixth anniversary, which would have put its founding around the time Three Gypsies was being recorded.

While poking around online (I’ve been doing a lot of that while working on The T-Shirt Chronicles), I came across this tribute by Boden for her friend and mentor Tommy Linthicum, who passed away in 2007. In it she explains how she got into biz: Casse was looking for someone to train to run her sound. They eventually became partners.

[2] Particularly at George Washington University, where Lisa C., the office manager for the Women’s Studies department, was a frequent collaborator for both musical and literary events.

Musical Heritage Society

When I wrote in my Sweet Honey” post that I had “at least 10 T-shirts directly related to music,” I was thinking strictly of my D.C. days. I’ve got a bunch more from after I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, but I haven’t counted them yet.

Anyway, this is an odd-shirt-out from my years in Washington: it has nothing to do with women’s music. Well, almost nothing: At the moment I’m playing a Musical Heritage record: A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, which features soprano Emma Kirkby and the ensemble Gothic Voices, directed by Christopher Page.

I didn’t learn much about classical music growing up, but I liked it. A friend of the family introduced me to the Musical Heritage Society, a subscription service that operated like the Book-of-the-Month Club. Each month a new recording was featured, which you could take or waive, and you could also order from their extensive catalogue. This spared me the angst of browsing the offerings at local shops without knowing what I was doing — although there was a sales clerk at a record shop on Connecticut Ave. who knew I liked early music and usually had a recommendation for me whenever I walked in.1

My tastes were fairly eclectic but I was particularly drawn to music of the medieval period, the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and anything choral. While living in England (1974–75), I even came to enjoy opera. It wasn’t hard to find full-length performances on TV, and all things classical could be found on the radio.2

Back in the States, I became a regular listener of Robert J. Lurtsema’s Morning pro Musica show on public radio. Based in Boston, it was carried by one of the D.C. stations, but I can’t remember which one. WETA-FM? WGMS-FM? I vividly recall waking one morning in the early 1980s to a eureka! moment: Robert J. was playing Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance.” Oh my God, thought I. Someone’s put Jesus in the pagan tradition from whence he came, of the dying god who rises again in the dance.

The singer (you may have guessed this already) was John Langstaff and the recording was from the Christmas Revels, of which up to that moment I knew nothing. This was long before search engines could tell you anything you wanted to know in seconds — I was several years away from even owning my own PC — so it took me a while to put it all together, but Robert J. was crucial: year after year he was a regular performer at the Revels in Cambridge. Before I left town, I managed to see the D.C. Revels company at (IIRC) George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium and to dance with the rest of the sell-out crowd to “Lord of the Dance.”

At the end of the decade, on Martha’s Vineyard, I got to perform in a local version of the Revels, directed by Mary Payne — to sing those songs and dance the sword dance. Serious thrill, and a connection between my various worlds.

No, the Revels never appeared on a Musical Heritage Society recording, but my Revels collection spans several media, from LP to cassette to CD to MP3. Feel free to blame this digression on Robert J. Lurtsema (1931–2000).

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notes

1. Memory tells me this record shop was part of Kramerbooks, but I can’t find any confirmation that Kramerbooks ever carried LPs, so it might have been a separate shop in the same block of Conn. Ave., below Dupont Circle.

2. I may have discovered Steeleye Span and the Chieftains during my time in the UK, or I may have been aware of them earlier. What I know for sure is that their earliest LPs in my collection came back with me from England.

1982 & 1983: Sweet Honey in the Rock

I have at least 10 T-shirts directly related to music, but they have different roots and take off in different directions. No surprise that my attempts to corral them into one blog post led to procrastination, so I’m going to do what a long-ago mentor advised: “chunk them down.” Here’s the first chunk.

I like to think that by 2021 everyone knows Sweet Honey in the Rock, but if you don’t, or even if you do, head on over to YouTube and cue up Sweet Honey — All Tracks. That’ll give you a great soundtrack to read this post by and go about the rest of your day.

Sweet Honey was founded in D.C. in 1973 by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a lifelong activist, cultural historian, and composer as well as Sweet Honey’s leader for three decades until she retired in 2004. (For an intro to her accomplishments, check out her Wikipedia entry and her own website.)

Just about every year I was in D.C., Sweet Honey did an anniversary concert. I went to most of them. The T-shirt on the left in the photo is from the 1983 one and the one next to it is from 1982.

I was definitely at the 1980 edition at All Souls Church, at which the Good News album was recorded. Good News, released in 1981, was Sweet Honey’s third album. The other one in the photo, B’lieve I’ll Run On . . . See What the End’s Gonna Be, was #2; it came out in 1978 on Holly Near’s Redwood label.1 I’m relieved to report that both are in remarkably good shape.

I’ve often said over the decades that I’ve learned plenty of history from music. When I was a young antiwar activist, songs from the civil rights and labor movements started conversations and gave me clues to follow up on. Decades later the songs of Stan Rogers and James Keelaghan, among others, taught me lots about Canadian history and current events that weren’t well covered south of the border. Sweet Honey’s songs often pulled people and events out of the history books or off the front pages and embedded them in mind and heart in ways that the printed page often can’t.

The songs make connections.2

Chile your waters run red through Soweto
If you heard about Chile
then you heard about Soweto . . .
     © Bernice Johnson Reagon

The sounds from the jail cells
of the Wilmington 10
Are echoes of a massacre
keeping Black freedom locked in . . .
     “Echoes,” ©Bernice Johnson Reagon

They call to action.

If you had lived with Denmark Vesey
would you take his stand . . .
If you had lived with Harriet Tubman
would you wade in the water . . .
If you had lived with Sacco & Vanzetti
would you know their names . . .
Do you hear them calling?
Are you living today?
Are you fighting today?
Do you know our names?
Do you know our names?
Do you hear our cries?
     © Bernice Johnson Reagon

That’s not all they do, of course. These albums, and Sweet Honey concerts, included love songs, songs of celebration, and songs that remind us of the generations that precede us and those that follow, like Ysaye Barnwell’s settings of “Breaths” by Birago Diop and “On Children,” lines from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

At the concert that became Good News Bernice Johnson Reagon interrupts the singing of the title song to say a few words:

It’s good news when you reject things as they are,
when you lay down the world as it is
and you take on the responsibility of shaping your own way —
that’s good news.

Everybody talk about spirituals and they say,
Oh lord, black folks singing about going to heaven!
No, this message is for you tonight November the 8th, 1980, in All Souls Church:
Lay down the world, pick up my cross
They don’t say it’s good times, they say good NEWS
It’s hard times when you decide to pick up your own cross
you gon’ catch hell if you don’t do it the way they say do it
but when you lay down the world and shoulder up your cross that’s —
GOOD NEWS
     © Bernice Johnson Reagon

I do believe I remember myself well enough from that time to suspect that this message was aimed at me — not me alone, of course, but me among the white women who looked askance at Christianity and God-talk of any kind. My antiwar years had introduced me to Christian traditions that opposed war and fought for justice, to the role of Jews in every progressive movement I ever heard of, and of course to the importance of the Black church in the civil rights movement. But feminism had given me another take on “God the Father” — hell, Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology had come out only two years before and I was very much under the influence.

Bernice’s words gave me a whole other take on it. Decades later, on Martha’s Vineyard, I wound up singing in a spirituals choir and learning more about the spirituals, or slave songs. Many of them had double meanings, one for the white masters, one for the Black enslaved people. They were songs of survival and, often, resistance.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, lawyer, scholar, and activist, coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989.3 It refers to the way that the various aspects of our individual identities — race, sex, class, age, sexuality, etc. — intersect synergistically. These days, I have a hard time explaining to people how intersectional grassroots feminism was in the 1970s and ’80s. Listening to the songs on B’lieve I’ll Run On and Good News gets the point across better than I can, and it takes less time than locating and reading the anthologies that broadened and deepened our understanding of how some of those aspects intersect.

From “Every Woman”:

Every woman who ever loved a woman
You oughta stand up and call her name:
Mama — Sister — Daughter — Lover
     © Bernice Johnson Reagon

Mama, sister, daughter, lover.4 This song was recorded, and being sung in concert, in 1978, people. Keep that in your mind and heart.

Notes

1. All the songs on Good News, and several more, are on Breaths, released in 1988 on Rounder Records. The track for “Good News” includes the Bernice rap that I quoted above, so I’m guessing the whole thing is from that concert. It’s in the iTunes store, so it’s definitely available. No such luck with B’lieve I’ll Run On. Redwood Records went out of business in the 1990s, before the digital music biz got going, but used copies of the vinyl LP and, apparently, a CD can be found by Googling.

2. The references in these two excerpts: “Chile” refers to the overthrow and death by suicide of Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973. The military coup was supported by the CIA. “Soweto,” a township near (and now part of) Johannesburg, South Africa, refers to the uprising of Black students in June 1976 who were protesting the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in the schools. They were met by violent police repression. Official statistics set the number of dead at 176; estimates range as high as 700, and at least 4,000 were injured. The Wilmington 10 were 9 young men and 1 woman wrongfully convicted of arson and conspiracy in 1971. Their convictions were overturned in 1980, after all 10 had served almost a decade in prison. They were not retried, and they were pardoned in 2012, by which time 4 of them had died. Their case was a major rallying point through the 1970s.

3. I’m a serious fan of Kimberlé Crenshaw. Check out her African American Policy Forum. Among others things, it organizes excellent panel discussions on a variety of topics. Important podcasts too. Crenshaw helps keep the focus on Black girls and women with #SayHerName, which refuses to let the Black women killed by police be forgotten, and #BlackGirlsMatter. She’s also an early exponent of Critical Race Theory, which isn’t what Fox News thinks it is — but you already knew that, right? 😉

4. Mother, Sister, Daughter, Lover was the title of a story collection by Jan Clausen, published by Crossing Press in 1980.

1978? 1980? Women’s Music Lives

Here’s how I remembered it: The D.C. stop on Cris Williamson’s Flying Colors tour, at the DAR’s Constitution Hall, was my first women’s music concert. The year was 1978. I’d attended with a friend from my Georgetown University days, and our seats were way, way back in the orchestra. The stage seemed miles away. Though I loved Cris’s first album, The Changer and the Changed, I was underwhelmed by her live performance.

Flying Colors tour, 40 years later

Nope. Strange Paradise, the album the Flying Colors tour was celebrating, may indeed have come out in 1978,[1] but the tour itself didn’t happen till 1980: this Washington Post article from May 2, 1980, proves it.[2] The location was indeed Constitution Hall, and images of both the hall itself and a seating chart confirm my memory that the orchestra section is flat and very long: if you’re back in the double-letter rows, the stage would indeed seem very distant. The date must have been Saturday, May 3, 1980.

Get a grip, Memory: No way could this have been my first women’s music concert. When the Varied Voices of Black Women tour stopped at D.C.’s Ontario Theater in 1978, I was most definitely in the audience — and the Pacifica Radio Archives backs me up on the date with a catalogue entry for a recording from the last stop on that tour (at Medusa’s Revenge in New York City) on November 7, 1978. I remember being especially riveted by blueswoman Gwen Avery, with her big voice and white suit.[3] Ironically, she’s the only one of the headliners I don’t have on vinyl (except on the Lesbian Concentrate album, singing “Sugar Mama”) or, in the case of poet-activist Pat Parker, in print. (The other featured musicians were singer-composer Vicki Randle, pianist-composer Mary Watkins, and singer-percussionist-ensemble leader Linda “Tui” Tillery.)

I’m not a musician, but from the mid-1960s onward my life has had an amazing soundtrack. The music helped bind my various communities together. You know you’re part of the same community when you know the lyrics to the same songs and see each other at the same concerts. At the end of Women’s Center dances, we’d form a circle (often with the cashbox in the middle for safekeeping) and sing Cris’s “Song of the Soul.” We all knew all the words.

Since I was moving in at least two worlds at once, quite a few people protested: “Aren’t you limiting yourself, listening only to women?”

I pushed back: “Well, OK, but not so long ago my musical diet was mostly folk, mostly by men, with some classical, mostly Western European. Listening mostly to women expanded my musical world to include blues, jazz, and Balkan women’s singing, among other things. I learned about women who were conducting orchestras and other ensembles, not just playing in them; leading bands, not just fronting them. If women were doing it, I wanted to hear it.”

In truth, focusing on any particular genre, or tradition, or artist, or instrument, or time period, limits a person even while that person becomes adept in his or her particular specialty. If you go so deep into your specialty that everything else vanishes off the radar, you also limit the number of people who understand what you’re talking about.

Focusing on women in music — or women in anything — meant shifting the angle, changing the lens through which I viewed familiar terrain. Once I put women in the foreground, the male-dominated landscape didn’t disappear, but it did recede into the background.

For those accustomed to being in the foreground, I learned, this could be infuriating. Organize for women’s rights and you’re accused of hating men. If you call out white supremacy, you must be anti-white — even if you are white, in which case you’re a traitor to your race. And of course anyone who claims rights for the marginalized is guilty of “reverse discrimination.”

I’ve known for decades that, contrary to the claims of the over-optimistic, we don’t all benefit from the struggle for justice and equal rights, at least not immediately. In the long run we’ll probably all be better off, but in the shorter run the privileged often think they’re under attack and losing out. They fight back. I’ve lived almost my whole life in an era of backlash against the struggle for justice and equal rights for people of color and for women. Women’s music helped create and expand a space where we didn’t have to be on the defensive all the time. It also introduced me to musical styles I either hadn’t known much about or had dismissed as being just for and about guys.

There will be plenty more about women’s music before this blog has run its course. Right this minute, though, something strange is happening. In recent years, thanks especially to Facebook, I’ve been reconnecting with women from my D.C. days, women who remember many of the same songs, musicians, places, and events that I do. This is especially important because for the last 35+ years I’ve been living among people the vast majority of whom have no recollection of any of it, and of course as the years go by more and more of it gets lost. Sometimes I feel like the sole survivor of Atlantis, unable to convince anyone that my homeland ever existed.

Published by Aunt Lute Books, 2020

Then, in October 2020, Aunt Lute Books published Ginny Z Berson’s Olivia on the Record, the story of Olivia Records, women’s music pioneer and the label for Cris Williamson’s Changer and the Changed and several subsequent albums. I learned about it early enough to attend the book-launch party — my first Zoom book party! — at which Ginny and others spoke and Mary Watkins played.

Olivia had been founded in D.C. while I was a student in Philadelphia. By the time I moved back to town, in 1977, it had relocated to the West Coast. Before she co-founded Olivia, Ginny Berson was a member of the legendary lesbian-feminist Furies collective, which flourished in D.C. when I was a Georgetown University student majoring in Arabic and minoring in antiwar activism (or vice versa). It was at that book-launch party that I learned about Once a Fury, a brand-new documentary about the Furies (which I’ve since had a chance to see).

In the early 1970s I was mostly oblivious to the lesbian-feminist ferment happening elsewhere in the city, but once I moved back, the Furies, like Olivia Records, was part of my new community’s recent history. Before long, I had crossed paths with several former Furies (not, however, the collective’s most famous alumna, Rita Mae Brown) and held in my own hands copies of their newspaper at the Washington Area Women’s Center.

Clearly I’m not the sole survivor of Atlantis. Atlantis hasn’t sunk beneath the waves. My T-shirts are leading me back to what’s gone on in my absence, and what’s happening now. I just bought Cris Williamson’s latest CD, Motherland. The Furies newspaper has been digitized and is available online through the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History & Culture at Duke University.

Published by Bella Books, 2019

I’m currently reading Jamie Anderson’s An Army of Lovers: Women’s Music of the ’70s and ’80s, published by Bella Books in 2019. It’s more than a glorious reference work of who was making music then and where are they now, encompassing not just the musicians onstage but the sound techs, concert and festival producers, distributors, booksellers, the women behind our record labels and publications, and others who were behind the scenes making it happen. It also discusses the myriad challenges that all of us tried to address, with decidedly mixed results: racism, classism, anti-Semitism, and the often wildly unrealistic expectations we had of others and often of ourselves.

After living more than two decades with a considerable collection of LPs and nothing to play them on, this winter I bought a handsome machine that not only plays LPs, cassettes, and CDs, it can also record LPs and cassettes onto CDs. Much of the music released by major labels made it onto CD and/or MP3; plenty of it can even be found on YouTube. The same goes for some of the best-known musicians who recorded for feminist and other indie labels, such as Cris Williamson and Holly Near.

But others have disappeared leaving few if any traces. The first albums I recorded onto CD were three by Willie Tyson: Full Count, Debutante, and the self-titled Willie Tyson.

I didn’t expect my personal past to be sending such vivid shoots into my present world, but I can’t wait to see what happens next.

notes

[1] At least that’s what Cris Williamson’s website says. The chronology in the back of Olivia on the Record says 1980, as do Wikipedia and the MP3 I downloaded from iTunes. No wonder my memory is so screwed up.

[2] Note the parenthetical in the Washington Post story: “(What’s notable about this roadshow is that it’s coordinated by a nonprofit group organized expressly to put women on tour.)” That “nonprofit group” was almost certainly Roadwork, co-founded by Amy Horowitz and Bernice Johnson Reagon. Stick with this blog and you’ll hear more about them too.

[3] Please don’t tell me she was wearing some other color.