My partner and I left Ottawa in the wee hours, excited about attending this women’s music festival. I’ve been going since 1979 although not every year. Living in Arizona had its drawbacks. I was closer after moving to North Carolina in 1999 so that’s when I started attending every year. A few thousand women in the woods with live music and more? Where do I sign up?
If only I didn’t have to camp. Yeah, I went all the way through Girl Scouts, from Brownies to Seniors. (We didn’t have Daisy Scouts back when tyrannosaurus rex roamed the earth.) I happily slept on the ground, hiked for miles (including down and up the Grand Canyon in one day) and ate s’mores with enough burnt marshmallows to poison me forever. But I’m middle-aged now and I don’t have to wake up with pine needles in my hair. If it was up to me, my partner and I would rent the biggest damn RV they make. Rather than forgo chocolate all year to pay for it we compromised and bought a little tent trailer that we can use every year. It lives in Michigan with friends.
We picked up the trailer and headed to the festival on Sunday morning, the day before festival officially opens. I was teaching an intensive workshop and Pat was Camper Come Early – a special program where festival attendees work a couple of long shifts in exchange for coming in a day before. We can get our favorite camping spot and have a day to chill before the awesome craziness erupts.
We stopped at a rest area near Grand Rapids. Next to us was a big yellow truck driven by a cheery guy who asked if we were going to the festival.
When I’m traveling alone people never guess I’m a lesbian or that I might be headed to a women’s festival but when I’m with Pat, we look like the happy lesbian couple you might see in a kid’s book, with Pat’s tall handsome physique and my curvier one, usually clad in a skirt. Pat grinned and answered “Yes.”
He smiled back and said he was delivering sound equipment. He’s done it before and seemed happy to do so, commenting, “They always give me great coffee.”
It’s a far cry from the snide comment I heard from my uncle a few years ago, “They shoot men there, don’t they?”
Only the ones who don’t like our coffee.
There’d been drought conditions in the weeks leading up to that beautiful August morning but recent rains were bringing back the green. Queen Anne’s lace waved gently in the breeze next to the roads. A clear blue sky sported white fluffy clouds.
We made our traditional stop at Hanson’s grocery store in Hart, the small town near the festival, to make a few last-minute purchases. In the parking lot was a small SUV with Manitoba plates that was towing a tent trailer larger than ours. (They’d come over a thousand miles to attend this festival. I wasn’t surprised. Women come from all over the world.) We smiled and waved as we left the store.
“Do you think there’ll be women in the bushes?” my partner asked. It sounds nefarious unless you know that women arrive before the festival starts and camp in the greenery along the dirt road close to the entrance.
“Of course” I answered. At least it’s better than in years past when women actually set their tents up in the road.
The street was, indeed, lined with early campers, some who grinned and waved at us. The dirt road was dappled in sunlight, with green trees along each side, recently washed by rains and rustling in the cool breeze.
After being greeted at the front gate we drove in, found our favorite camping spot, and set up our little trailer. I set off to flyer the janes. I wonder how women named Jane feel about this renaming of the privies.
The janes are a kind of festival bulletin board where craftswomen, performers and organizers of every stripe post their notices. My flyers remind women who I am – singer-songwriter-parking lot attendant – and where they can buy my CDs. (I don’t really park cars. Mama said I should have something to fall back on.) This year’s flyer also said I once shook Melissa Etheridge’s hand. Over the next few days a couple of women asked to touch the same hand plus I got a shout out from one of the bands on stage, Scream Club, who was amused by my unique advertising.
That night I drove into Hart. Nedra Johnson and I do an annual pre-fest concert at the Comfort Inn there. This year poet C.C. Carter was joining us.
The joint was hopping. C.C. was her awesome sexy self, Nedra laid down some great tunes, and I regaled them with songs about body image, living in Canada, and why you should never break up with me. We crammed almost 70 women into that little room. At one point I looked up and noticed a little plaque on the wall that said “capacity 50 people.” Oops.
The drive back to the festival that evening was quiet, with most festie-goers settled into campsites or hotels close by. A luminescent orange moon peeked through the silhouette of dark trees. The campers alongside the road near the gate had put out their lights and were probably getting some shuteye in anticipation of an early morning rush for the line.
At the front gate a worker asked if I knew where to park. “Sure,” I confidently answered.
I am such a liar. Without volunteers directing traffic I wasn’t sure where to go. The signs were small and hard to read in the darkness. I turned where I thought I was supposed to and ended up in a grassy field by myself. I retraced my path and found a parking spot that I hoped was okay. I got out of the car, grabbed my instruments, and with no flashlight, stumbled through the field.
Almost everyone had gone to bed. The night’s stillness held only the melodic sound of the bugs, a light buzzing rising and falling, a midnight blue sky dense with stars overhead. Stars! I hadn’t seen those since last year’s festival. I set everything down and looked up at the beautiful sky. To my left was the big dipper with smaller stars scattered around it. Maybe this camping stuff wasn’t so bad.
After tripping around a fern-studded field I finally found our abode. I slipped into a warm bed, beside Pat.
Waking the next morning to the lovely sound of birds and women’s laughter, I got breakfast and sat at our campsite watching women go up and down the road preparing for the opening of the gate that afternoon.
Like I do every year, I took my mandolin outside the gate to the main road and sang songs for the groups of women and girls waiting to get in. I usually sell a few CDs this way but it wasn’t a CD purchasing crowd. That’s okay. I enjoyed meeting everyone, especially the young ones. They love the music. Their little legs start pumping as soon as they hear the first rhythmic strains of “Old Joe Clark” or one of my original tunes.
This Monday stroll felt different than in years past and I couldn’t figure out why until Pat later pointed out that there were no trans activists. There’s been an ongoing protest the last few years that included a camp across the road, but this year there was no camp.
I returned to our trailer just before the gate opened. I heard a great cheer and honking horns as women started to stream inside the gates. Sitting contentedly in our camp’s front yard, I went through the festival program book planning my week that included working in the Goldenrod booth (where festival artists sell their CDs), and my three-hour musical jamming workshop, all to the melody of periodic honking horns and cheering women. Shuttles, mostly tractors towing large trailers, slowly motored down the road loaded with camping gear and laughing women. I couldn’t have asked for a better soundtrack.
Tuesday morning I walked “downtown” to the crafts area to connect with my Goldenrod family and get a photo of all of us. RV, where I was camped, is a bit of a hike to where most of the action is. There were shuttles but I usually missed them. It was actually nice to walk. It was great to enjoy the fresh morning air.
That afternoon was my workshop. Thirty or so participants brought instruments, from guitars to a recorder, and we jammed on everything from Green Day’s “Good Riddance” to “Amazon,“ the unofficial theme song for the festival. I taught them a simple blues shuffle, and the chords that accompanied it, so we pretended to be world-weary blues players for a while with almost everyone taking a solo. (All we needed was a front porch, sunglasses and a fifth of whiskey.) My goal was to help women become unafraid of jamming and hopefully, look for jams when they’re outside the festival. I know that jamming has helped me become a better player. I want that for every musician, especially for women.
Tuesday night found me at the movies again, this time with several friends.
On Wednesday I started my shifts in the Goldenrod booth. My job is behind a bank of CD players and promo discs. If someone wants to hear a recording before they buy it, I’m happy to help them out and no, I don’t just sell my CDs. I delight in finding the right music for the right person. Sometimes it’s easy, like the gray-haired lesbian who asks for Cris Williamson. I ask if she’s heard Holly Near’s new album and chances are, she hasn’t. Then I think she might like Catie Curtis too. Some women are a little harder to get a feel for but eventually, I usually find something they really like. I keep piling up CDs next to them until they tell me stop. One year a woman jokingly complained that it was my fault she’d spent $300 at Goldenrod. Can I help it if there’s a lot of great indie music by women?
Everywhere I go there are mamas and babies. Sometimes it’s a young mother quietly feeding her infant in the shade of a tree, and sometimes it’s an older parent holding a little one’s hand as they contemplate the various ice cream flavors they could purchase.
A couple of years ago at the festival, a six year old came to the Goldenrod booth and asked for her favorite artist’s CD. “Where’s your mom?” I asked.
“Oh,” she confidently replied, “I’m a wanderer.”
I checked with friends and found that this meant she could walk about the festival unaccompanied as long as her parent(s) approved. The Gaia child care workers also kept tabs on them. It’s great to see confident young girls strolling around the festival. They’re safe here.
Wednesday night is always big because it’s opening night. The first set is a grand production with musicians, dancers and poetry. I’m not much for the woo-woo stuff like facing the four directions and thanking the universe, but I understand why women value it. Dancers in huge gold Isis wings (veils) slunk out of a hole in the catwalk that extended out into the audience, and in a haze of smoke, undulated their way up to the stage.
My favorite part was where women from all over the world welcome us to the festival. This year featured a very exuberant pair from Brazil. Some greeters are so excited to be with us that they weep, and some simply and shyly welcome us in French, German or Mandarin. It’s amazing all the different languages I’ve heard.
And of course, there’s the part where we all sing “Amazon.” Originally written by folksinger Maxine Feldman (who used to make regular appearances but passed away in 2007), the song has taken on a life of its own, performed by festival all-stars like Judith Castleberry and Julie Wolfe. We sing it reggae style, with lots of rhythm and enough joy to keep us sustained for a very long time.
While everyone else faced the stage, singing and dancing to the music, I turned the other way, looking in amazement at all the smiling faces. I’m not one for religious stuff but this is our church. Hallelujah.
The next set that night was Canadian comic Elvira Kurt who, while wearing a pair of those gold Isis wings, awkwardly climbed out of that hole in the catwalk. Kvetching about the lack of comics in the opening ceremony, and how they never get back-up dancers and live music, she stomped up and down the catwalk until a row of sexy dancers appeared. A hot rock band cranked up and she was in her element, weaving in and out of the dancers, her Chuck-clad feet stepping out a clumsy rhythm.
Then she went into a joking rant about the rock star status of her handsome ASL interpreter Pam Parham.
She cracked jokes about camping – “You know your tent is too big when it has a second story … when there are people in there that you don’t know.” Many times she had me laughing so hard I was gasping for air.
(A few years ago Pam stopped by the Goldenrod booth and told me that the first time she’d seen live music interpreted was when she attended a show I did in Tucson in the 80’s. It was then that she decided that’s what she wanted to do. I asked her if she would interpret for me the next time the festival booked me. She grinned and answered, “Yeah!” I can’t wait. It’s not often I get to work with a rock star.)
Rockers Team Dresch was on next, but it’d been a long day. I heard there was some fun stage diving. Maybe next year.
All week I ran into friends and women I know from elsewhere, from the woman who runs the kitchen at the Virginia Women’s Music Festival (I confided that I could’ve used her barbecue chicken about then), to the women who hosted me the last time I was in Kokomo, Indiana. Everywhere I went women called out “Hi Jamie!” I didn’t always know them but happily replied hello. Maybe they’d seen me in concert somewhere, were one of my regulars at the Goldenrod booth or simply saw my flyer in the jane, I dunno. At any rate, it never failed to put a smile on my face.
Rain dampened my spirits on Thursday and Friday. At least my fashionable rain coat and boots were a matching violet. Hey, if you’re going to be cranky, at least look good.
I missed the concerts Thursday night, electing to hang out with my sweetie in the trailer. The darkened sky didn’t look promising and I was done being wet. I really wanted to hear Candye Kane and we could sort of hear her as the sound drifted through the trees. The next day I heard that hot blues guitarist Laura Chavez played with her. Damn! I love her work and I’ve only seen her on YouTube. Ah well, another time.
There’s live music and comedy all through the festival on three stages starting at noon, but because of my work schedule I rarely made it to anything during the day. The crafts area where I work is close to one stage so the music from there serves as a pleasant backdrop. If there’s a beat I can dance while I work. Not many jobs offer that kind of benefit.
Friday afternoon I was excited to attend a workshop for professional writers. I’m just getting to the point where I feel like I could have business cards that say “writer” so it was great to meet others who’ve been on that path a lot longer. I got some great tips about getting support and signing book contracts. We ended early because the steady downpour was making it hard to concentrate.
Right after that I made my way to the triangle campfire. (The triangle is an area near downtown where many of the shuttles turn around. There are always friendly faces there.) Seeing the flames leap through the rain almost made me break out into that Holly Near song, but I opted for conversation instead. Steam rose off my clothes they were so wet. I kept listening for the shuttle that would take me to the RV area, but after a half-hour it still hadn’t arrived. When the crosstown shuttle – the one that went the opposite direction – arrived for the second time I almost burst into tears. Just then I heard the driver yell out that she was headed toward treeline (near RV) instead of her usual route, so she could refuel.
I launched myself into the shuttle, screaming “Praise the goddess!” I didn’t mind that we had to wait five minutes for more passengers. I was out of the rain and headed for our cozy dry trailer.
There were three young women sitting across from me. With silly grins they joked with each other about having to go all the way back to their campsite for the dishes they’d forgotten. I happened to have mine with me and offered it to them for a mere $150. They erupted in giggles and replied “No.”
A couple minutes later I told them they were all so cute that I wished I had my camera so I could take a photo. “Sure, for $150” one of them somberly informed me.
At treeline I hopped off the shuttle and trudged in the direction of our campsite. I passed a group of older women under a canopy, some I recognized, who offered me a hot dog. I rarely eat hot dogs, but the thought of a steaming dog after several days of tofu and beans had me salivating so I yelled back, “Yes!” I joined them, eating not one but two dogs. (I appreciate that the festival serves food but it’s such a hike to the kitchen from RV plus I don’t always love the chow. The Virginia festival has meat at every meal – bacon, burgers, grilled chicken and pork chops – plus lots of homemade sides AND dessert with lunch and dinner. Now that’s what I’m talking about.)
They offered hot dogs to others including the hard-working shuttle drivers and even strangers walking by. One woman couldn’t believe it. “A hot dog?” she exclaimed. “You’re joking, right?” When she was assured that no, they weren’t kidding, she practically ran over to them. “You’ve made a crummy day a lot better” she informed them. “I just checked my voice mail and heard that my ex and kids were in my car when they had an accident.” The kids and adult were fine but the car “didn’t do so well.” Sometimes all it takes is a steaming hunk of protein covered in mustard to make a woman feel better.
I found my sweetie snuggled under the blankets in the trailer. I knew my friends still had hot dogs so I asked if she wanted one.
“Really?” she asked.
“Yup,” I replied, then trotted back to get her one.
Tune in next week for part two.
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Some of these photos were taken with my camera and with the permission of the women pictured. A few photos I found on Google Images. If I’ve used your photo and you’d rather I not, let me know and I can take it down. If you’d simply like a photo credit I’m happy to provide one.