Seeking the fire: early days of women’s music

People think it all began with Olivia Records and while they were prominent in the early years, it really started in the 20’s with blues singers like Ma Rainey and later on, with gay bar singers who sang the hits of the day, sometimes changing the pronouns. For me, it started in 1977 with an album I found in a women’s bookstore. Sporting a picture of an orange juice can, an Olivia compilation, Lesbian Concentrate, featured Meg Christian, Cris Williamson and a host of other names soon to have their own altar in the church of my lesbian life.

Olivia started in 1973 after musician Meg Christian and activist Ginny Berson interviewed Cris Williamson for a radio show. Cris asked why they didn’t start a record company. Well, why not? Meg and Ginny were already part of a women’s collective who wanted to light the world on fire, but were uncertain about the lighter fluid. Now they had it. Their first release was a 45 that was supposed to raise money for their new efforts. It went almost nowhere although Meg’s uncle sent them a small check.

Maxine Feldman.

Maxine Feldman.

Meanwhile, others already had a nice little campfire. In 1963 Maxine’s Feldman, a self proclaimed big loud Jewish butch lesbian folk singer, was kicked off the Boston coffeehouse circuit for “bringing around the wrong crowd.”  Her first 45, produced by comic Robin Tyler, was released in 1972. The first full-length record to feature only women – from the musicians to the engineer – was Alix Dobkin’s Lavender Jane Loves Women. The New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band cranked up their amps, too. They released an album together in 1972 featuring one of their most popular pieces, “Papa Don’t Lay That Shit on Me.” Also in the early 70’s were bands signed to major labels like Fanny, Isis and The Deadly Nightshade.

Therese Edell.

Therese Edell.

Even before I wandered into that women’s bookstore, I found Therese Edell. As we filed into the concert hall, I wondered why a couple hundred women would go to hear someone who wasn’t Joni Mitchell or Carole King. As soon as I heard that rich alto voice caress “A Woman’s Love,” I was smitten. (I found out later that it was an Alix Dobkin song.) Leaving the venue my companion turned to me and exclaimed, “What’s great about her music is that she’s singing about our lives.” Well, that and she looked so adorable in that silky shirt, jeans and handsome Frye boots.

Therese released her album in the late 70’s and Olivia went on to release 40 albums, including Cris Williamson’s groundbreaking Changer and the Changed, an album that still sells today. Many other musicians followed, most on their own labels, including me. When I started touring in 1987, I had a ready-made audience, thanks to them. Otherwise I would have stored my guitar in the attic and told people I used to play.

There’s more to this story than performers and albums. A whole industry sprang up around them – festivals, record distributors, radio shows, publications, concert producers, and sound engineers. I miss the days of striding into a women’s bookstore and excitedly discovering the latest women’s music release. But then, I like turning on the TV and seeing Melissa Etheridge and her partner holding hands. I’ll bet her record label likes that she brings around the wrong crowd.

Did you find this post interesting and informative? Please consider keeping me in coffee and my cats in kibble. And it’s only $2.

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I’m writing a book about women’s music, with an emphasis on the artists of the seventies and eighties. More about that project and my writing in general here.

There are lots of great resources about the early days of women’s music. I highly recommend visiting JD Doyle’s site Queer Music Heritage.

I’d love to hear about your experiences around women’s music.

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About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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40 Responses to Seeking the fire: early days of women’s music

  1. Philly says:

    Jamie… yeah, that Lesbian Concentrate album did it for me, too. Found it at the Oscar Wilde bookstore in the Village. Still remember my favorite was “Ode to a Gym Teacher”…. and I remember how “radical” it was. LOL.

    Thanks for the memory and just for being you. I have met you a few times, at Carefree, SMR in Apache Junction and at New Paltz Pride last year. I think you are great.

    Philly

  2. Kurt Fortmeyer says:

    …and then there was a coffeehouse in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, where I first heard Jamie Anderson play….

  3. There are two early little-known albums I love. The first is Save The Children, Songs From the Hearts of Women, 1967. Recorded by Women Strike For Peace, spearheaded by Judy Collins and Ethel Raim (of Pennywhistlers). It introduced me to the Pennywhistlers, an early Balkan singing group. Remember the Balkan singing on Lavender Jane Loves Women? Alex Dobkin learned Balkan singing from Ethel Raim. Also includes Odetta, Malvina Reynolds, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Barbara Dane, Janis Ian, Hedy West and Viveca Lindfors.
    The second is more feminist-focused, Virgo Rising; The Once and Future Woman, came out in 1973, produced by Molly Gregory on Thunderbird Records. Includes Malvina Reynolds, Janet Smith, Nancy Raven, a trio Charley’s Aunts and Kit Miller.
    Neither are women’s music, as in lesbian-focused, but to me they are the forerunners, albums made by and for women.

    • jamiebobamie says:

      Thanks, Johanna. I’m familiar with Virgo Rising but not the other one. Great to have the information.

    • mefoley says:

      Charlie’s Aunts! Those are Ernest’s (my Other Half’s) relatives! I used to sing with them at family parties, mainly in Berkeley — at least, various singles and pairs and groups sang and regrouped and sang and then maybe everybody would sing along to the next one — they were the most musical family I’d ever run across. In the afternoon after our wedding, we went to Ernest’s parents’ house and sang, and Becky (one third of Charlie’s Aunts) was there to sing, too. Wow…takes me back… Kate sent me a CD of Virgo Rising a year or two ago — wonder where I put it? I’m glad other people still remember that album…

  4. Lane says:

    Jamie, Therese Edell was my first Women’s Music experience, too. She was performing in a tiny coffeehouse called the Cardinal Room in the student union at Bowling Green State University (OH). Wow–how can we ever forget ‘the first’ and the feelings that came with it? Feeling flushed with validation….

    Were you by any chance @ Michigan the year she was first brought out onto the stage in her wheelchair? Probably not a dry eye….

  5. JD Doyle says:

    Jamie, thanks for the very well-done article, a quick intro to Women’s Music, and of course thanks for the plug for my site. I could have thanked you by email but wanted to chime in the Terese Edell was My first Women’s Music experience as well, and who could not fall in love with that voice. It was in Norfolk, VA in July 1980, and I lived there then. Our local gay & lesbian group put on a big conference, and she was part of the entertainment. Skip ahead to 2004 and I now had a radio show, and wanted to interview Terese. We discussed it and she decided her voice just wasn’t strong enough to do it, so I regret I wasn’t able to capture that history for my site. I did do a show on her, and Casse Culver, in Nov 2004.

    • jamiebobamie says:

      My pleasure, JD. Folks, if you haven’t been to JD’s site, please take a look. It’s the most comprehensive site about glbt music that I’ve ever seen. He’s passionate about our culture. Because of people like him, we won’t be forgotten.

  6. clytia says:

    Nice job! Let’s also remember Be Be K’Roche and the Berkeley Womens Music Collective. Favorites here in Santa Cruz.

  7. Retts says:

    Jamie
    couldn’t sleep tonight so I came across your blog. Of course I love your references to Alix and her “Lavender Jane” recording. I loved it, and Meg’s “I know you know.” After that I couldn’t get enough of women’s music. Especially lesbian music. I loved Maxine Feldman also. Miss her. Michigan was the greatest in the early days, you could go there and get your fill of women’s music in one weekend. I learned so much, became a stage manager so I could be a part of it all.

  8. musicwoman says:

    Jamie,

    This is such rich HERstory!

    I’ve written a book entitled AMAZING MUSICWOMEN cataloguing women in Blues and Jazz, beginning with Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, through Toshiko Akiyoshi! It’s available at http://stores.lulu.com/divajc. I agree that the Internet has opened the doors widely for us to self-publish rather than be ushered through the very narrow doors of traditional publishers.

    Our organization, WOMEN IN JAZZ SOUTH FLORIDA, INC. has the mission of promoting women musicians, globally. This month, we released our first compilation CD with 10 songs from 10 fabulous women composers. It is available as physical CD or digital download at http://www.cdbaby.com/womeninjazzsouthflorida

    Visit our website: http://www.wijsf.org and become a member, if you are so inclined. It’s not just about Jazz. We are about women musicians and women’s music.

    Stay in tune!
    Diva JC
    http://www.joancartwright. com

  9. Tiik says:

    Hi Jamie. Well, being a part of our women in music herstory has been one of the experiences in my life that I am most proud of and honored to have been sent here on this earthwalk to do. You can read a lot of this herstory on my website, http://www.tiik.com, though I will brief some of it here.
    One early fond memory is when I was told that a woman was playing at Mr Henry’s here in Wash DC. It was the 60’s and women besides me weren’t doing a lot of that. I was told “It’s a chick guitar player/singer and she’s pretty good. You should go meet her.” So I went to see her and talked with her after to tell her how good I thought she was and to encourage her to keep at it. I went to see her a few times cuz she played there regularly. I never forgot her name, Meg Christian.
    In the early 70’s I went on to pursue my singer/songwriter/lead guitar goals. I was in an all girl band in Venice Beach – Lizzy Tisch – w/LoisWebb, Sunny Tepper, Gretchen Albright, and Sherry Rayn Barnett. We played The Bitter End West, BlahBlahCafe, The Ash Grove, the Whskey AGOGO and many more.
    The all girl band scene at that time and area was Fanny, Birtha and Lizzy Tisch. Rosemary from Birtha has an amazing voice and I have 2 or 3 of their albums from back then. Also the female fronted Teda Bracci & Dog Squeeze. I love Teda. She really should have been Janis in The Rose but Bette snatched it from her. Harumph!!!
    And June Millington has quite a herstory of bands along with Addie Lee from back then.
    In May of 1973 Kate Millet sent notice to Lizzy Tisch to come play at the 1st Sacramento Women’s Music festival…it was Margie Adam’s very first time playing like that…she was soooo humble and sweet. Then a group of random Hell’s Angels raided us. We formed a naked women’s circle surrounding them and chanted at them to go away…although i don’t remember exactly what we said they nearly begged us to open the circle so they could skeedaddle outa there. LOL!!! They were terrified of us.
    I left Venice Beach and moved to Berkeley to join Sharon Russell’s all girl soul band – Sweet Chariot- Bonnie Johnson (drums), Peggy Mitchell (Bass). After that I formed my own band, BeBe K’Roche. We had a lot of fun and eventually did that Olivia album.
    Over the years I’ve been very honored to have both female and male fans approach me and say that I was their inspiration to play electric guitar. Wow!!! We just get up there and do what we love because we can and people are inspired and changed. How cool is that? Definitely seeing Meg Christian back in those early days inspired me to keep on keeping on, even though she played acoustic.
    In the bay area at that time besides BeBe K’Roche there was the GangBand, The Berkeley Women’s Music Collective, Gwen Avery, Linda Tillery and another fab band was Baba Yaga. I’m stretching my brain at the moment to remember all those older days 🙂 I may be forgetting someone. Sylvia Kohen did also join our scene in the Bay Area sometime in the 70’s. And of course we had the great Terry Garthwaite. Looove her. One of my fav memories is a gig we shared with Terry and other bands. Guys kept coming up to me saying “You’re pretty good for a girl!” OMG!!! Yes, they did actually say that. One time a guy came up to me and said he liked my playing and my Gibson SG JR and could he play it. He just reached for it like I should give it to him and I pulled it back and said no very nicely. He yelled at me and said, “Do you know who I am?” I did know who he was – Elvin Bishop – and he still wasn’t getting my guitar.
    In the mid 80’s I went on to share a band w Toshi Reagon – Toshi Reagon and the Agitones – Kris Koth (bass) Barb Lewis (drums). We had fun. Toshi was still a teen LOL!!! We did both our tunes and shared lead singing.
    Now I have an all girl abnd – G.U.T.S., but that’s today, not yesteryear 🙂

    Need to run now. Thanks for haveing this blog.
    Blue Skies,
    Tiik

    • jamiebobamie says:

      Thanks for the wonderful posts, Tiik! I loved BeBe K’Roche. Saw y’all in performance at The Habit, a great little bar in Phoenix, AZ, where I used to spend a lot of time. Must’ve been around 77 or 78.

  10. Tiik says:

    Oh yeh…and then there was the time this guy called our group house asking for me and Peggy, our bass, to see if we wanted to join this new band he was producing…he had heard we were good and asked me if I had runaway from home cuz he was going to try to get all girls who had runaway and call the band The Runaways. Yes, it was a young Kim Fowley.

  11. Julie says:

    Great article, Jamie! Takes me back to MY first time hearing women’s music and the intensity in which I followed it from then on! I was a freshman music major in college in Denton, TX, and we had no a/c in the dorm back then, so it was box fans and doors wide open! I lived in the music majors dorm and there was a lot of music being played, which I’d already learned to sort of tune out or mentally dismiss. In the midst of all that, I heard a woman’s voice singing these words: “Sweet woman…” and the rest came flooding into my ears, making my heart pound with excitement that a WOMAN was singing about another WOMAN, and yeah, in THAT way!

    I’d been a lesbian since Day One, and a musician since about then, too, but I’d never heard any music like THIS! I had no idea it existed. I went down the hall to listen outside the closed door of that room, dying to knock on the door to meet what I was assuming was another lesbian for the first time in my life, and terrified to do so! I sat in the hall and listened to that whole album…and then knocked on that door. Needless to say, it was gung-ho, full steam ahead from then on! I bought “Changer…” immediately and loved that my hall mates loved the album and had no idea it was lesbian music!

    Kinda funny that one girl sent away to Olivia for the “Changer…” album and it came with a little paper orange juice can-sized promo for “Lesbian Concentrate.” I think she knew then, haha!

    Oh, and yes, y’all, you MUST go to JD Doyle’s incredible website…you can spend tons of time learning stuff you’d never otherwise know about GLBT music and history. Wonderful, fascinating and a passion for him that is incredible. You can learn, for instance, about Lisa Ben, a lesbian who did parody lyrics to popular folks songs back in the 50’s . (Lisa Ben = Lesbian…get it?). Her version of “Frankie & Johnny,” this one about two men, was the A-side on a 45 the Daughters of Bilitis produced to raise money for their organization in 1960. They sold it for $5 and it’s a very rare collector’s item as only 500-750 or so were pressed. Here’s this lesbian singer I’d never have known about if not for Queer Music Heritage! http://www.queermusicheritage.com

  12. Chris Wilson says:

    What wonderful memories! I had forgotten how much that music meant to me when I discovered it too. In 1972 I found a record in a discount bin at Zody’s department store in Burbank. Since I played guitar and wanted to learn new and different songs, I thought the one I found of Cris Williamson would be ideal. This was on Ampex records, before Olivia existed! What a thrill it was to get to meet her years later when I did a radio interview. And, of course, when I first went to concerts by Olivia artists, sitting in a sea of lesbians with performers validating our lives . . .

    Years later I was in Chicago for the Outmusic awards. Alix Dobkin asked if I could give her a ride . . . not sure where we went but I remember thinking OMG! Alix Dobkin is in MY CAR! That is so cool!

    Then there was the time that Jamie Anderson was at MY HOUSE! OMG! But that’s another story. . .

  13. Cammi Lance-Ankoor says:

    Wow well written and very interesting history!

  14. connie ward says:

    saw you a couple of years at the Lone Star Women’s Music Festival, down on the river–early years for you??? 1992, 93 and then in Bloomington, In at the National Women’s Music Festival. Have some of your recordings and still have the t-shirt, “I’m sorry that you’re straight, where do I send the card”. Have had a lot of fun with it. Keep up the good work.
    Connie

  15. rabdrake says:

    Friday the 13th was the opening of Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power at the Rock n Rock Hall of Fame/Museum.

    The museum doesn’t plan to feature, as such, those women who pioneered LGBT popular music, and those songs.
    Laura Nyro “Emmie” ’68, “Timer” ’68, “Roadnotes” ’84, and “Désiree” ’71, Cathy Young “Maggie May” ’72, Alix Dobkin “I Only Want To Be With You” ’73, ISIS “She Loves Me” ’74, Patti Smith “Gloria” ’75, Cris Williamson “Sweet Woman” ’77, Blondie “Sunday Girl” ’79, Carole Pope “High School Confidential” ’80, Rindy Ross “Valerie” ’81, Joan Jett “Crimson n Clover” ’83, Cyndi Lauper “When You Were Mine” ’83, Jill Sobule “I Kissed A Girl” ’95, The Murmurs “Squeezebox Days” ’97, Ma Rainey “Prove It On Me Blues” 1928, Lucille Bogan “B.D. Woman’s Blues” 1935 aka Bull Dyke, et al.
    The term LGBT will not even be mentioned. Laura Nyro will be given no recognition for “Emmie” as pop’s first lesbian love song.

    • jamiebobamie says:

      When I was at the museum a few years ago I did find a recording of Ma Rainey singing “Prove It On Me Blues.”

      Who are they featuring in this women’s exhibit?

      • rabdrake says:

        They tout 70 women. Laura Nyro, Pattia Smith, Blondie, Joan Jett & Cindy Lauper are featured, but not specifically for their LGBT popular music.
        I so wish Jill Johnston were still alive; she’d be right in their face about this glaring ommission.
        It’s problematic; I’m the wrong gender. Women will be better heard.

        But I did get the first comment on the exhibit’s youtube ad!

  16. rabdrake says:

    Kathy Belge told me to keep fanning the fire.

    Hope you enjoy this. Currently wending its way through the google search engine as Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power

    http://rabdrake.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/women-who-rock-vision-passion-power/

  17. Natalie Waugh says:

    Jamie —

    I ran across your blog and wanted you to know that Therese Edell died from complications of MS on March 14 at her home in Cincinnati. She was such an extraordinary person and a true pioneer of women’s music.

    As far as I know there is no official obituary but friends have created a tribute website at thereseedell.com.

    I remember the old days in Phoenix and the many women’s music concerts we produced there. I guess we were kind of pioneers too. It’s great to know that you went on to find success of your own as a songwriter and performer.

    All the best,

    Natalie

    • jamiebobamie says:

      I heard about Therese’s passing not long after I wrote the blog.

      Thanks for your kind note. Great to reconnect with you. Ah, the old days in Phoenix. I could tell stories. In fact, I think I will. I’ve got a couple of books in the works. Therese will figure prominently in one of them.

  18. L.A. Murphy says:

    Thank you, Jamie and everyone else who has written here.

    I am so grateful for all the women’s performance I was fortunate to enjoy, beginning in the mid-1980s. My first concert might have been stand up, Kate Clinton, at the parish hall of St. Mary’s Church on the University of Pennsylvania campus. She was still teaching English whatever year that was. I was so embarrassed when she crooned, “Put your legs on my shoulders.”

    By 1987 I was a regular at CampFest and NEWMR and seeing almost every woman who played Philadelphia. I made it to Michigan in ’89–I’d been freaked by the camping thing before– and in 1991 I began volunteering with Sisterspace, originally the Lesbian Feminist Weekend, organized out of Philadelphia.

    I remember women who have passed on, including Maxine Feldman, Kay Gardner, Dusty Springfield, Therese Edell, Mary Daly, Audre Lorde and Joanna Russ as well as those who faded away from sharing their work with us. Such a wealth of gifts!

    All of our culture, the music, art, writing, festivals, comedy, politics, theater, film. . . , drew me into a circle of women whose lives and work help sustain my own. Feron sings of taking our young ones and the hope that they will bring their own in time. I am glad to have been able to do what little I could to keep us going. I could not thank you all enough for the community we have made together.

    Sincerely,
    L.A. Murphy

  19. These personal experiences of how music has validated your lives is so very inspiring. I found my way out from under deep pop culture later in life in the early nineties. I bought my first guitar then too. Learned all of Sarah Mclachlan, Melissa Etheridge, Indigo Girls I could get my hands on. Then came Jewel, Dar Williams (how I do still completely and totally love her!), Ani Difranco, Sarah Harmer, Kasey Chambers, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris. These women have shaped my life for the better in every way I can imagine. They taught me how to write songs, how to get out there and perform, how to find a voice, how to be direct and subtle, how to grow into my boots. Angela Evans (formerly Angie Nussey) is really rocking my world these days as well. Though the foundation was laid so many decades earlier, the ground is still being broken today in my opinion. There can never be too much space taken up with women’s music in my opinion.

  20. Sybil Natawa says:

    Hello Ms Anderson, I remember you and that banjo strumming away. I was recently asked what would be a very romantic song I could reference and my reply was a song by Nancy Vogel from the Berkley Women’s music collective LP called Take the Time. A lot of internet search finally got me to some lyrics but I can’t find the music. Can you give me any tips? I thought to ask you as you might know just what I’m looking for and you never know, it don’t hurt to ask.

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