Still finding the fire: where are women’s music performers today?

Lately I’ve included a medley of classic women’s music in my concerts. I was taken aback recently when an audience member asked if those women were still alive. Most of us, yes. Last I checked, I still had a pulse. Here’s an update on the other more important members of our music movement.

Photo by Donna A. Korones.

Margie Adam did her first performance at an open mike at Kate Millet’s women’s music festival in 1973. (The same Kate Millet who wrote Sexual Politics. This was one of the first, if not the first women’s music festival. There was an early one in Boston too.) She went on to release her first album Songwriter and toured extensively over the years. Her life took a different turn recently when she earned her PhD and opened a counseling practice in the San Francisco area. Her website shows no performances past 2008. While that’s a sad thing for us fans, it’s good that she’s found a rewarding path. And besides, Dr. Adam sounds pretty cool.

Meg Christian was a founding member of Olivia Records. Her first recording I Know You Know was their first full-length album, released in 1974. I still have a dusty well-worn copy of it tucked away. She toured all over and released nine recordings (including compilations). She stopped live women’s music performances in 1984 but recently did a few Olivia cruises. Devoted to a spiritual life, she lived on an ashram in upstate New York for several years. I don’t know if she’s still there.

Ginni Clemmens was well known in Chicago as a teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music and as a performer of folk and blues, hanging out with the likes of John Prine and Steve Goodman. In 1980 she helped to produce and release a ground breaking compilation, Gay and Straight Together, a collection of original music featuring Kristin Lems (one of the founders of the National Women’s Music Festival), Trish Alexander, Dev Singh and others.  One of my favorite tunes of hers was an Ida Cox cover “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues.” She released four albums. In later years, she lived on Maui. I was preparing a tour to Hawaii when we started conversing and she very graciously offered to show me “her island” even though we’d never met. Sadly, she was in an auto accident right after that and we lost her in February of 2003.

Alix Dobkin’s ground breaking Lavender Jane Loves Women was the first out-lesbian recording done with only women. She went on to release several albums and tour all over the world. Therese Edell jokingly called her the Head Lesbian and really, she wasn’t too far off the mark. The FBI called her a trouble maker; Hot Wire readers voted her All Time Favorite Performer. She paved the way for so many of us and for that, I will be forever grateful. Her book My Red Blood, released in 2009, is a fabulous collection of stories documenting her childhood and her time in 60’s era folk music when people like Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan were a part of her social and musical circle. She currently lives in upstate NY and loves being a grandma.

Therese Edell’s concert was the first women’s music show I ever attended back in the 70’s. Even with my lousy memory I can still recall details from that event. Her rich alto voice and well-crafted songs always made me sigh. She only released two albums. Of the earliest one, she once joked to me that it was only available from under her bed. The second, From Women’s Faces, is one that many of you might know. It had classics like “Moonflower” (written by Annie Dinerman) and “Emma” plus one of my favorites, the funny “Mama Let Your Children Go.” She went on to be the Voice of Michigan, everyone’s favorite emcee, at that festival. She passed away on March 14 of this year.

Maxine Feldman was a folksinger who called herself a big loud Jewish butch lesbian. In 1969, one month before Stonewall, she penned one of the first out lesbian songs, “Angry Atthis.” Not long after that she put it on a 45 produced by comic Robin Tyler. Maxine wrote “Amazon” in 1976, a lesbian anthem that many know as one that opens the Michigan Women’s Music Festival every year. It’s on her one album, Closet Sale, released in 1979. Maxine often appeared at the festival where her booming “Welcome Women!” and funny stories as emcee were well-loved. In the late 80’s health problems caused her to stop performing. Distressed about finances and unable to get adequate health care, she reached a low point in the 90’s but with the help of friends, got back on her feet. It was during this time that I had the great pleasure to visit with her in her little apartment in Boston, sharing food and laughing about the old times. She passed away in Albuquerque on August 17, 2007.

Tret Fure’s been making music for over 40 years and no, she didn’t start in the womb although she was a mere 16 years old. She’s gone on to put out nine albums on Olivia’s Second Wave and on her own label plus three albums with Cris Williamson. She writes a love song better than anyone I know. Tret maintains a pretty heavy touring schedule as well as teaching guitar and more in Madison, Wisconsin. She’s also got her own clothing line Tomboy Girl. I don’t know when she has time for everything. I’m convinced that she’s given up sleeping.

Kay Gardner was a classically trained flute player and composer who performed with Alix Dobkin on her first recording and then went on to release many of her own albums including her first, Mooncircles, in 1975. Deeply committed to exploring aspects of music and healing, she wrote a book, conducted workshops and lectured on that topic at Cambridge, Yale, the Omega Institute and many other places all over the world.  She was well known at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, performing there as well as helping to establish the Acoustic Stage.  She was warm, friendly and always supportive of other performers, including me.  We lost her on August 28, 2002, not long after returning from the festival. Many still feel her presence there.

Photo by Irene Young.

Deidre McCalla has released five albums on Olivia and her own label including the latest, Playing for Keeps. She’s one of my favorite songwriters. Deidre still performs, recently doing a set at the National Women’s Music Festival. She’s toured less in the last few years, staying at home in Atlanta, while her son finishes high school. (He was homeschooled in earlier years so Deidre took him on the road.) He graduates in May 2012. She looks forward to getting back on the road. (Please tell me you’re coming to Ottawa!) Until then Deidre teaches guitar and works with a local vocal improv group

Musica Femina is a name that some of you may not know but I’ve always been a fan. A flute and guitar duo, they performed classical works of their own and by other women composers. Their concerts were educational but much more interesting that your average college class. They’d do a wonderful piece by a little-known composer and then tell us about her life. Kristen Aspen and Janna MacAuslan were also a part of other groups. Kristen was an early member of The Fabulous Dyketones as well as the acoustic quartet Izquierda. They both performed in Trio Pan Dulce, a group that played tangos, flamenco, French Café music and Latin American Folk music. Today, Janna has a sound company and Kristen is the development director for a non-profit. They live in Portland, Oregon.

Holly Near is an activist/singer/songwriter who started the first indie record company in 1972. She tried getting signed to a major label but was informed, among other things, that she needed that “hint of submission” in her voice. She’s released 26 albums and performed all over the world. Her portrait hangs in Cincinnati’s Freedom Center alongside Paul Robeson, Marion Anderson, Pete Seeger and many more – exactly where she belongs. From her anti-war beginnings to standing up for the rights of Chilean workers, she’s had her hand in many movements. Recently she’s been performing with Emma’s Revolution. I saw their show at the Michigan festival not long ago and wow, their tight harmonies and powerful songs were a force to be reckoned with. Holly recently took some time off but is now back on stage. Upcoming performances include pianist John Bucchino and vocalist Linda Tillery. Damn, would I like to attend one of those shows.

Mary Watkins has played and written music most of her life. I first heard her on Olivia’s Lesbian Concentrate album. Mary didn’t tour that much but I remember hearing her perform with Kay Gardner at Michigan. They even recorded an album together, Dancing Souls, that was all improv (composed on the spot). Her website doesn’t list all of her recordings so I’m not sure how many she released on her own – maybe three in the early years. Her latest CDs are Prayer for Peace (2005) and Recorded Music of the African Diaspora that features one of her orchestral works. She has numerous compositions  available on sheet music including chamber music, orchestral pieces and opera. She lives in the bay area of California where she teaches, composes and performs.

Cris Williamson is one of the best known performers in women’s music. Also there at the beginning of Olivia – in fact, it was partly because of her suggestion that they start the label – her first recording for them was Changer and the Changed, another well-worn LP in my collection (and soundtrack for my coming out). She released Gift Horse just last year. She’s sold over a million recordings. A million. Her “Song of the Soul” is in that medley I mention above; almost everyone at my shows sings along. For the last few years she’s taught songwriting. I’m so happy that we still get to hear her clear expressive voice.

This could’ve been much longer. That’s why I’m writing a book about early women’s music. Right now I’m just doing the research. I hope to have the book out in a couple of years. Meanwhile, I’ll keep checking my pulse. I don’t intend to kick off anytime soon. I’ve got too much writing to do.

Want more? Check out part two.

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 got most of these photos from Google Images and they don’t include credits. If you know who took these photos please tell me and I’ll add their credit.

Thanks to JD Doyle’s great queer music site. If there’s anything you want to know about GLBT music, it’s there.

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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25 Responses to Still finding the fire: where are women’s music performers today?

  1. Thanks for the write up, Jamie. The photo credit for my pic goes to Irene Young.

  2. JD Doyle says:

    Excellent overview, Jamie….as I knew it would be, I’m ready for Part 2…..and of course I loved the punchline…:)

  3. aronblue says:

    Thanks so much for this– as a performer and producer I’m always interested in connecting more deeply with the history of women in music.

  4. I vote you official “Women’s Music Herstorian”, Jamie. And yes, you should write a book! Love this!! 🙂

  5. Kala says:

    Yes, please do a part 2! I think this is my favorite ever of your blog entries. So great to hear current stories of these women.

  6. Awesome Jamie! You definitely should write a book.. I have a large collection of HotWire Magazines from the 80s if you need those for research purposes. I miss the women’s festivals and am considering the idea of working on one here again. We had a great run in Southern Oregon with them, but most of the women involved have moved away now and I cannot produce something like that alone. However, I’m working on raising consciousness (again) with festivals and some of the brothers who seem to have a woman affirming message in their music. I’ve noticed in recent years that many of the main stream festivals and smaller festivals used to make an effort to include women, but nowadays there are fewer and fewer women on the lineups. This is disturbing to me so I have been reaching out to these young folks and encouraging them to speak up as well and ask “why are there no women on this lineup?” or “why are there so few women on this lineup?”

    Thanks for keeping on girlfriend. I appreciate you!

  7. Julie Nicolay says:

    Wonderful and yes, looking forward to Part 2 AND the book! Good to let folks know of JD’s site, of course, incredible resource and pleasurable place that it is. I’ve still not made it through even 1/3 of it in all this time; I’ll never catch up (good)! I love keeping abreast (ahem) of these wonderful, life-changing women. These women whom I have followed since my first introduction to women’s music on a steamy August day in my dorm room in Texas, 1975, when the song, “Sweet Woman,” from “Changer and the Changed” floated down the hallway, drawing me to my neighbor’s door to sit, spellbound, and listen to something I didn’t believe existed: music by women FOR women…and for ME. Still stirs my heart and always will.

  8. Pingback: Still finding the fire, part 2: where are women’s music performers today? | Jamiebobamie

  9. Thanks for the trip down memory lane and the updates.

  10. Pingback: The “w” part of musician/writer/teacher/parking lot attendant | Jamiebobamie

  11. Pingback: Still finding the fire, part 3: where are women’s music performers today? | Jamiebobamie

  12. onlinewithzoe says:

    The Millingtons are going strong.

  13. Fabulous memories, Jamie! Thank you! Just a note, I thought Cris had an earlier (non-Olivia) self-titled album? And how great to see you last week!

  14. jamiebobamie says:

    Thanks, Martie. I should’ve said “Her first full-length recording for Olivia.” She actually recorded a 45 for them earlier as well as several recordings for another label.

  15. Pingback: Weekend Music Enjoyment: Leaping Lesbians: A Tribute to Women’s Music | furbirdsqueerly

  16. Pingback: Myths about women’s music and culture: they shoot men at women’s festivals, right? | Jamiebobamie

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