As I get ready to attend the National Women’s Music Festival I thought about all the things folks have told me about them over the years, from the outrageous (“They shoot men, don’t they?”) to the benign (“They still have those things?”). I’ve attended festivals for over thirty years. Let me blast a few myths for you.
They’re all transphobic
Might as well deal with the elephant in the room first; the answer is no. Michigan’s intention is that it’s for women-born-women. They’re the only current festival that I know of that’s like this. Transwomen and men attend the festival; some are workers. Some want to make the case that the reason attendance is down at Michigan is because of this intention. Attendance is down at all of the festivals. They could all use your support. (More about this issue and other Michigan myths here.)
Michigan is the oldest festival
Nope. The National Festival is the oldest. It began the year before Michigan. In fact, when Michigan organizers first started, they showed up at National with their flyers. They sat in the lobby with a cooler of beer. Everyone who took a stack of flyers to distribute in their hometown got a free beer. Both festivals are celebrating their 40th year in 2015 because the National festival didn’t happen in 1981.
Michigan has drawn as many as 10,000 women
No again. Lisa Vogel, the current producer, told me it’s a little less than that. Still, it’s a good number and probably draws more than any other festival.
Men can’t come
For most of the festivals, that’s true. These events are meant to empower women and that can be hard to do with men around. I hate to pull out this tired cliché, but some of my best friends are guys and would certainly be awesome to work with — it’s just different with only women around. Here’s an example: years ago I was at an outdoor women’s festival when it started to rain. Robin Flower happened to be on stage and she’s one of my favorites so storm or no storm, I was keeping my ass in place. I watched in amazement as women scrambled up huge speaker stacks and covered everything with tarps. Another group lowered the front of the canopy covering the stage so that the water could drain off. (Mind you, this was a stage big enough to accommodate a small orchestra – we’re not talking about a little plywood platform in the middle of a field). All the while, Robin and her crack shot all-women band were cranking through some pretty awesome bluegrass. In contrast, I went to a bluegrass festival not long after that and saw one woman on stage in several hours. One.
Men can attend the National Women’s Music Festival. They rarely do, though.
You have to camp
There isn’t a single festival where you have to camp. Really. It’s kind of a pain at the Michigan festival because there aren’t hotels close by, but I know women who stay at them. The Virginia event has a motel just one exit away plus they have charming little cabins on site that you can rent. (They’re rustic and you have to reserve them early but hey, it beats picking spiders out of your sleeping bag. Can you tell I’m not a fan of camping?) The National festival is all indoors. Yep, no pine needles in your hair. The Ohio festival has several motels close by. Heck, if you’re not a camper, most festivals have an RV area. Just rent the biggest RV you can find, share it with a few friends and split the cost.
Some women find that camping enhances their experience – live music under the stars and all that.
It’s all just folk music, right?
You probably don’t want to say that to Goddess and She, Scream Club, Leslie and the Lys or Candye Kane. This year’s line-up at the National festival includes Ladies Must Swing (an 18 piece big band), Sugar Beach (pop/dance), Sharon Katz and the Peace Train (South African folk-rock), Toshi Reagon (rock) and Mary Watkins (classical/jazz/gospel). And yeah, there’s folk too but so what? (She says defiantly. Y’all do know what kind of music I do, right?) I’ve heard everything from punk to bluegrass at women’s music festivals. There’s something for everyone. If you don’t like one act, wait for the next one.
They’re all cheaper than an Olivia cruise (no disrespect intended) and a lot more fun than a trip to New Jersey for your cousin Madge’s wedding. Michigan even feeds you. I still can’t believe they can offer three stages a day, a multitude of workshops and other amenities for that price. The Virginia festival has food too. You have to buy it separately, but it’s very affordable and so worth it for the barbeque chicken, real mashed potatoes, grits for breakfast, and dessert with lunch AND dinner.
They’re so politically charged I won’t have a real vacation
If you’re looking for lively political discussions you can find it at most festivals, but if that’s not what you want, you don’t have to participate and most of the time, you won’t even know it’s there. Also, some festivals don’t have that kind of atmosphere. I love the Virginia festival because it’s really just a big party. Not a drunken-let’s-upchuck–all-over kind of party, but a let’s-just-hang-out-with-friends kind of party. Ohio has that vibe too.
I have to take off my clothes
Some of the outdoor festivals are clothing-optional. Hey, we’re all women, so who cares? And it’s optional. I never take off my clothes at festivals and no one looks at me sideways.
Only lesbians can go
Don’t tell my straight, gender queer and bi friends who go. I love to stand at the front gate at Michigan and see the husbands dropping off their wives. “Bye honey! Remember the sunblock on your breasts!”
The showers are cold
All of the outdoor festivals have hot water. That wasn’t true in the early days, but we’ve learned a lot since then.
Children can’t come
Of course they can. Check with the festival to find out their policy. Some allow children of any gender and age, and some place limits on the ages of boy children. The Michigan festival has a camp just for boys and their moms that is so cool the boys look forward to going every year. Most festivals have child care facilities with lots of activities. Women’s festivals are safer for children than some of the other festivals I’ve attended.
It’s only for older women/younger women/white women/able bodied women
Some festivals do lean one way or another, but don’t make assumptions. The Michigan festival has a big contingent of women of color and I doubt they’d go if they didn’t feel welcome. Most festivals are as accessible as they can be; being outdoors in the woods can have its limitation although Michigan even has hookups (to recharge chairs, etc) and women who’ll assist you in setting up camp and whatever else you need. Many festivals are interpreted for deaf folks.
Certain ages tend to show up for certain types of music. I work for Goldenrod when I attend the Michigan festival and I’m sometimes surprised at the kind of music each woman asks about. Sometimes that 20 year old with the green hair wants to buy the Cris Williamson CD; when rock bands take the stage, sometimes it’s the 50 year olds doing the stage diving. If you’re middle aged and don’t care for punk, you can always leave before they come on stage. There’s something for everyone.
Festivals aren’t perfect, but they’re damn fine places to vacation. Here’s a partial list. Check ‘em out:
Here’s a video of me with a cast of thousands, er, hundreds, at the National Festival: