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.
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.
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.
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.