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.

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.

1976: Getting Unstuck

1976 was the U.S. Bicentennial year, and that’s the year the T-Shirt Chronicles start, with this blue T from that year’s Festival of American Folklife. The festival started in 1967 and has been held annually ever since (except, need I even say, in 2020), but that may have been the only one I ever attended, even though I lived in D.C. 11 years altogether — and wasn’t living there when I went to the festival. I probably went with one or both of my best buddies from my Georgetown University undergrad days, both of whom lived in the D.C. area.

What prompted me to buy the T-shirt? No idea. I don’t have a single clear memory from that festival: what I saw, what impressed me, nada. I had no clue that 44 years later I would be writing about this T as the first in a very long series.

But what better place to start? It wasn’t the Bicentennial celebrations that took me back to D.C. that summer. In mid-1976 I was trying to reconnect with the city I’d thrived in as a student activist, hoping this would reconnect me with the me who had lived there, the dean’s list student who was passionately involved in antiwar organizing and student politics and who was also getting a crash course in sexism thanks to the unapologetic misogyny of Jesuit-run Georgetown University.

When 1976 began, I was stuck. After graduating as a history major from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, I’d spent fifteen months in the UK, the first twelve pursuing but not completing a master’s degree and the last three hitchhiking solo around Britain and Ireland. Just before Thanksgiving 1975 I landed back in my suburban hometown of Weston, Massachusetts, in the unhappy home I’d grown up in. I had no idea what to do next, I had no friends in town, and I’d lost contact with my college friends.

In February, Grandma, my paternal grandmother, had a stroke. She died ten days later. Since she lived only a mile away, she was very much a part of my growing up. We weren’t close in the emotional sense — in my quintessentially WASP family, no one was close in that sense — but she introduced me to the two passions of my preteen and teenage years, horses and the Middle East, and I felt closer to her than to anyone else in the family.

After she died, my uncle Neville, who had lived with her for many years in the house he and my father grew up in, committed himself to a psychiatric hospital. Eventually he got his feet on the ground and walked himself into a happier and less isolated life than the one he’d been leading, but his cracking up presented an immediate dilemma: Who would look after Grandma’s house and take care of Max, her red Lab, till her estate could be settled?

The obvious answer was me. Whether this was a good thing or not — on one hand it gave me the literal space and time to get my feet back on the ground, but on the other being stuck under the same roof with my parents might have kicked my butt into gear sooner. Whether I was clinically depressed I can’t say because I never saw a clinician, but depression, alcoholism, and other forms of stasis are endemic on both sides of my family and I’ve got tendencies in all those directions.

That winter and spring I did a lot of walking with Max. When we weren’t out walking, I read Grandma’s letters from her young womanhood, learned that she’d been reluctant to enter into a marriage that eventually ended in divorce, explored her house (which I already knew pretty well), played a lot of solitaire, and taught myself to bake bread. In England I’d gotten hooked on unsliced bread from neighborhood bakeries; the cellophane-wrapped loaves then available in suburban supermarkets no longer satisfied. Neither my mother nor either of my grandmothers ever baked bread, at least not in my lifetime; none of them were cooks either. My teacher was a mass-market paperback. I’ve been baking all my own bread ever since.

Not long after I moved into Grandma’s house, Linda, my father’s girlfriend (he was still married to and living with my mother, an active alcoholic), recruited me as research assistant on a project she was working on, about what was going on in England at the time of the American Revolution. This involved reading period sources at Harvard’s Widener Library — which got me out of house and hometown and reconnected me with something I enjoyed and was good at. Linda was the only adult around who realized I was not in good shape; her intentions must have been at least partially therapeutic. It helped.

So did going back to D.C. that July. My D.C. years had drifted so far from me that it felt like they’d happened to someone else. Hooking up with friends from my activist student days pulled those days back within reach. I was on the right track, but because I was improvising the track I was trying to follow, it took a while.

Here’s where my memories of 1976 diverge from the facts of the matter. Time was fluid that year, with few dates to use as signposts, and contrary to popular belief you can’t find everything on the internet. Non-famous people who lived and died before news went digital can be elusive: I knew Grandma had died in February but had forgotten the date, and Googling didn’t refresh my memory. My sister, however, has been maintaining the family tree on Ancestry.com and she had it: February 17.

Easier to verify online — and disorienting when I did — was the date of a benefit concert I attended at Boston’s grand old Orpheum Theater for U.S. Senator Fred Harris, Democrat from Oklahoma, who was running in the Democratic presidential primary. Arlo Guthrie was the headliner, and my sister and I were sitting in the first or second balcony way over at house right, looking down at the brightly lit stage with its glittering mics, amps, and guitars.[1]

This is one of my most vivid memories from that year, and I’d already slotted it into my chronology. In an early draft of this post I wrote: “Thanks to the state ERA campaign I paid more attention to electoral politics in 1976 than I ever had, or that I would for the next 40 years.” But it didn’t take long to turn up incontrovertible evidence online that the Harris-Guthrie concert-rally had taken place months before I started volunteering for the ERA campaign, on February 26.[2] Harris’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination, always a long shot, was over by the end of April.

Harris was an antiwar, pro-racial-and-economic-justice populist who inspired the kind of enthusiasm that Senator Eugene McCarthy had in the previous decade and Jesse Jackson would in the next. His was exactly the kind of campaign that would have attracted me with my grassroots activist background, which had largely ignored electoral politics.[3] Could it even have been the Harris benefit concert that put the state ERA campaign on my radar?

The state ERA, Question #1 on the ballot, passed on November 2, election day 1976. By then it had brought three T-shirts into the collection I didn’t realize was a collection. More about that in my next post.

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Notes


[1] I could go on and on and on, but seriously, if you weren’t around in the 1960s and 1970s, or don’t remember much about it, look up Fred Harris and his then wife, Comanche Native American rights activist LaDonna Harris. They divorced in 1982. As of this writing, they’re both alive at the age of 89. Fred was elected to the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma in 1964, the year of the LBJ landslide and the last year a Democratic presidential candidate carried Oklahoma. He was an active member of the Democratic majority that implemented the Great Society legislation, and he was part of the Kerner Commission, officially the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commissioned to investigate the causes of the rioting and urban unrest that swept the country in 1967. The report was issued in 1968. Harris is the last surviving member of the commission. Arlo Guthrie did a 30-stop fundraising tour for the Harris campaign. According to a 2001 story, the campaign gave Arlo the wheels to travel in. He paid off the lease when the campaign ended and the Guthrie family spent years on the road in that bus.

[2] I’d also forgotten that Tom Paxton, well on the way to being a folkie legend, was the opening act. Both his set list and Arlo’s can be found online, and a couple dozen attendees seem to have made bootleg tapes of the show.

[3] However, the first — and until January 2017 the only — political party I ever belonged to was the D.C. Statehood Party, which I signed up for when I first registered to vote as a Georgetown University freshman. In those days the only municipal office D.C. residents could vote for was school committee. Electoral politics were only a big deal in presidential election years. Statehood for D.C. Now!