I used to camp. Now? Not so much, unless it’s the Michigan Women’s Music Festival. (I know, they spell it “womyn” but my internal English teacher won’t let me do that.) I returned just a few days ago and let me explain to you why I put up with pine needles in my hair and spiders in the portable toilets.
I first attended in 1979 when I was a mere 22 years old. Crammed into a little pickup with four other women, we journeyed for four days from Arizona, camping in farmer’s fields and pooling our money for peanut butter sandwiches. It was worth it. The festival changed me. Women ran everything, including sound and lights on a stage big enough for a huge band. All of the performers were women and to this young lesbian who’d almost put her guitar away, it was a miracle. Because of this festival and others, I found the support to do what I do. I’ve toured for many years, playing in hundreds of venues. I could go on – you know how we singer-songwriters are – but this is a post about the 2014 festival. (If you want to know more about my career, it’s in my memoir Drive All Night.)
Back to 2014. My partner and I always head out early from our home in Ottawa because our tent trailer is stored with friends who live a couple of hours away from the festival. I don’t sleep on the ground anymore. Hallelujah.
We spent a couple of wonderful nights with our friends then headed out on Sunday for the festival. I need to be there early because I do a concert at the Comfort Inn in town the night before the gates open. It was Nedra Johnson’s idea ten years ago and we’ve been doing it ever since, with a rotating list of openers. This year it was poet CC Carter. Here’s Nedra wowing our sold-out crowd:
My partner and I had already set up camp at the festival even though it doesn’t officially open until Monday. I was hired to teach a workshop and my partner, to work security, and one of the benefits is getting to go in early.
After the concert, I followed a long line of cars down quiet country roads to the front gate. I passed them to go in. I don’t know how they do it, sleeping in their cars and in tents alongside in the woods, waiting for the opening the next afternoon. The last time I had to wait in that damn line, I needed a case of chocolate to bring me back to sanity.
I parked inside on the quiet grounds, found my way to our campsite under a brilliant canopy of stars and crawled in beside my sweetie. A great show, a warm bed with my darlin’ and the anticipation of a great festival. I was one lucky woman.
The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, I headed to the line. While I don’t love waiting in it, I love visiting it. I carried a few things to sell – my CDs and books plus my friend Mosa’s beautiful calendars. I got to meet women AND make some money. This was my ice cream money ‘cause as everyone knows, no festival experience is complete without daily ice cream.
Here’s a friend’s bus, waiting in line:
After walking at least as far as Arkansas, I decided to catch a ride back to the front gate. I’d sold all my books, and most of the CDs and calendars. Yes! Not only did I have dough for ice cream but I could buy art in the crafts area and if I didn’t like the food they were serving, I could get my own meals at Saints, one of the snack bars.
As I strolled to my camp, horns started honking and a huge YAY rang out as the gates were opened to let in the first of the line. And now, the festival really begins.
I sat at our camp, watching shuttles stuffed with women and gear motor by. Some of the more hardy souls pulled garden carts loaded with tents, ice chests and piles of duffle bags and packs. Lots of happy voices around me as women welcomed each other. Some were rather dramatic, like the two women who ran full-tilt toward each other, ending in a joyful hug that I’m sure could crush a few ribs. Others were more subtle with a glance and a coy, “I’m glad you’re here again.”
Here’s one of the shuttles:
And another one:
This was the RV express, taking us from the night stage all the way to RV with no stops. By the end of the day, my middle-aged bones were pretty grateful for this one. And it’s kinda fun to see how many bodies you can cram onto this thing. Forget stuffing phone booths. (For you younger readers, that’s a little building with a phone … no not a cell phone … never mind.)
Because we were camped in RV, or as I liked to call it, outer Mongolia, I made several daily trips downtown for concerts, workshops and just about everything. Not that there wasn’t plenty happening in RV. Those women know how to party. And they have bacon. One night, I got so distracted by RV friends who offered me a ribeye with homemade potato salad that I completely forgot about a date with my honey. I made it up to her by trekking to the night stage with a take-home container full of luscious chocolate desserts, thanks to those same friends. They saved my marriage.
But I digress.
I love the many wonderful touches at fest, from the cool art that graces the community center stage to the entrance sculpture at the night stage. Here’s one of the tiny signs I saw tied on trees. “Lisa” is Lisa Vogel, the one who, with the help of a couple hundred volunteers, puts on this shindig.
And there was this sign:
Monday, I sat down with the thick festival booklet to decide what I was going to do. If you wanted, you could give up sleeping and have something to do every hour of the day. I’m not kidding. Even at 4 am I’m sure the ladies in the Zone (loud and rowdy camping) would be up with a big party. It’s not my scene, though. Staying up after 9 pm is an adventure for me. Have I mentioned I’m middle-aged?
Anyway, I sketched out my schedule. I’ve worked for Goldenrod there for 15 years (the booth that sells CDs and merch from performers), but I’m semi-retired now so instead of 5 or 6 shifts, I had only 2. I knew I was going to lead a jam on Tuesday afternoon and read from my book on Saturday but the rest of my time was free! I saw some great movies on Monday night (with two dates, natch), and had time to hang with friends and wander around the crafts area. On Friday, I grabbed a sandwich and a drink from Saints and settled at the day stage with friends, giddy with excitement, exclaiming to everyone that I didn’t even care who was on, I was at the day stage! Really, I was kidding, ‘cause I was looking forward to Super Set – CC Carter, Nedra Johnson, Gina Breedlove and Hanifah Walidah. It was really nice to hear CC and Nedra with a huge band. I wanted to stay for Isle of Klezbos (an all-women’s klezmer band that totally rocks). However, I needed to rush off to catch Carolyn Gage read her play “Crossing the Rapelands.”
I just realized I totally skipped Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the festival. See, that’s what happens when my brain is flashing happy images of music and women. It’s like a drug, I tell ya.
Tuesday afternoon I led a three hour jam. We played everything from “Brown Eyed Girl” to “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Here are the beautiful jammers:
Wednesday night was the much anticipated opening ceremonies. It’s a grand event with music and dance featuring a cast of thousands … okay, maybe a hundred. We end it by singing “Amazon Women” together. It was fun to turn around and see the crowd singing and dancing. I’m so glad Maxine Feldman’s song is still sung. More joy.
My favorite part of the opening ceremonies is the welcome from women all over the world and from different cultures. I love hearing the different languages and loving greetings.
Thursday night featured comic Elvira Kurt. She’s an institution at this festival and I love her interactions with her sign interpreter Pam Parham. They have great chemistry. Pam’s a rock star. Tell Elvira I said that. (Pam told me once that seeing the ASL interpreter at one of my shows years ago was when she first thought about doing that kind of work. Yes, you can thank me.)
Cris Williamson was on next. What a delight to hear her do all of the songs from Changer and the Changed. I knew every word. It was the album that didn’t leave my turntable back in the seventies, as I stumbled through the maze of coming out. As I watched my friends’ four year old play with her buddies, a luminous moon shining through the tree to my right, and my partner stretched out in front of me I thought with satisfaction, I have come full circle.
So now I’m back to Friday. I know, you were drooling in anticipation, right? Because I mentioned Carolyn Gage’s play and didn’t tell you anything about it. I’m a fan of hers but I’ve only seen two of her plays all the way through because when we cross paths, it’s always at a festival where we’re working our arses off. With the whole day off, I had the luxury of hearing her play and sisters, holy cow. “Crossing the Rapelands” is about a hitchhiking journey she took with a crush back in the seventies. And somehow – I have no idea how she did it – she interwove it with the travels of Janis Joplin, Sacajawea, Thelma and Louise, and white settlers in the 1800s, complete with maps. And it worked. As a writer, I’m usually hyper aware of transitions and she took us on this ride that had no stops. I’m terrible at sitting for long periods of time but before I knew it, an hour had gone by. Two hours? I dunno. It was a great play. You can buy the play here. (And while you’re at her site, check out her blog. The woman creates so much quality material, I don’t know when she has time to do laundry.)
I also had the opportunity to go to workshops. My favorites were Zumba, led by the very capable Maryasha Katz and hooping, taught by Terri Burch. Maryasha has a background in dance and exercise. She broke everything down well, offered a variety of steps and had great music. I didn’t have plans to take Terri’s workshop until I saw her hooping at the day stage and thought, hey, she’s really good. When I complimented her, she smiled and said, “Come to my workshop.” Okey dokey. My mind was blown. Who knew that using (what I thought was) a kid’s toy could be so graceful and such a great workout? I bought a hoop in crafts and now I’m totally jazzed to take classes. Or maybe I’ll move to where ever Terri lives. I’m sure my honey wouldn’t mind.
Friday night was the femme parade. I don’t have a photo of my fabulous outfit so you’ll just have to imagine an orange sarong with a matching orange bra edged in tiny tassels. There were so many lovely ladies in the parade, from a pair of domestic goddesses handing out cookies to a woman decked out in pink, all the way down to sparkly boots. And there was this woman, in matching polka dot everything, from her headband to her pumps:
And while we’re talking lovely ladies, here’s HF selling raffle tickets:
Lots of women dress up, even if there’s not a parade. I saw everything from suave butches in suits to sashaying femmes in dainty lingerie. It’s a women-only festival. We’re safe here and if a woman wants to wear only a pair of camouflage undies and a glittery cowboy hat, we support you sister.
Friday night I danced my fool head off, and most other parts, to Cocomama. Oh how I love their style of Latin music. After them was singer-songwriter Crystal Bowersox. I was excited to see her because I’m a big American Idol fan. All right, say what you want, I’ll just wait over here …
Her voice is flat-out amazing, with great pitch and a hint of that Janis Joplin-like grit. She was better in person than on my TV screen, for sure. Nice to hear her do a whole set of originals except for the last two songs where she sang the poop out of “Me and Bobby McGee” and as an encore, “Hallelujah.” I could listen to that last one over and over again. She reinvented that song. Speaking of singing shows, Beverly McClellan, a finalist on The Voice, was on the day stage Saturday. I missed her set. I heard her at the Ohio festival last year, though, and women raved about her set at this festival. She’s got enough power to light a small city.
Saturday I read from my book Drive All Night. Nice crowd. Writing the book was fun but getting to read it makes my little performer’s heart go pitty-pat. I had a signing at the bookstore, People Called Women, after that. Since the book was sold out, I didn’t get too many women coming by. That’s right, folks, sold out. Either we didn’t plan well or it’s a really good book. (We have many copies, though, we only sold out at the fest. Lots of places to buy it including Ladyslipper and from Bella Books.)
I made my first visit to the Acoustic Stage on Saturday. I know, I’m surprised too since it’d been up and running since Tuesday but hey, I didn’t make the cloning workshop. Anyway, I showed up early and just lolled about in the nice weather. (It was warm but not hot with only a little rain. Perfect weather all week.) Here’s what it looked like before it filled up:
And the reverse:
Slanty Eyed Mama was on first. I always enjoy them and I’m impressed as hell that they can improvise on the spot with recommendations from the audience. They used my suggestion of “chocolate.” What? You’re surprised that’s what I’d want to hear in a spoken word piece? They ended with their much-requested, “Rice Rice Baby.” Who else could mention Hello Kitty underwear and MSG in the same song? I don’t have video of them at fest but here they are doing the song:
Up next was the highlight of my festival, Cheryl Wheeler. Holy crap can this woman write songs. And funny! Here’s a video of another performance that’s a good example of what she can do. She tells a long entertaining story about marrying her partner, then plays this killer love song “Ghandi Buddha” that she also did at fest. If you want to skip to the song, it starts about 7:35.
That night was Skip the Needle, a rock band that included Vicki Randle, Shelly Doty and others. I was late though. They sounded great through the trees as I zoomed over Whistle Trail to the night stage bowl.
Ah, Whistle Trail. I used it a lot, getting from outer Mongolia to the night stage. It’s not used a lot and often I was the only one on it. I loved this quiet walk. One day earlier in the week I heard two violins playing a duet somewhere off in the distance, probably coming from the acoustic stage. To the other side of me was the sweet twitter of birds. Add the soft whoosh of my feet on the leaf-strewn path, and it was a beautiful and subtle symphony.
Melissa Ferrick was on after Skip the Needle, with Natalia Zuckerman on lap steel and bass. Great set. She did my favorite of hers, “Everything I Need,” which of course I felt compelled to sing with. She also did a few songs from her great new album. I’m a little over “Drive,” an older number, although it was a favorite with much of the crowd so I understand why she did it. She had a signing at Goldenrod the next day, but didn’t make it because she wasn’t feeling well. That probably means she wasn’t totally healthy on Saturday night, making her performance even more amazing. In previous years, she’s had a long line for her signing and stayed for every one of them, so she’s not some slacker who sneezes once and decides she can’t make it.
At one point in the evening emcee Elvira sat down for a chat with us. The crowd got quiet, even the noisy ones in the back where I was sitting. Speaking for Lisa Vogel, she told us that (contrary to rumors) the festival was definitely happening next year, its 40th year. After that, though, the festival would change. Because attendance has dropped over the years, the festival in its current state was not financially feasible. Lisa picked a good ambassador. Elvira spoke clearly and calmly. We all figured something was up so it was good to have it confirmed from the stage.
Last was Chix Lix, a big extravaganza that’s ended every Saturday night for a few years. Each year has a theme and this time it was duets. Performers we’d seen on other stages came out for a song, accompanied by a wall of sound including at least three backup singers, a full drum set, percussion, bass and electric guitar. I missed Julie Wolfe’s keyboard, though and it felt like there were holes in some of the arrangements. She’s played with the band in previous years so I don’t know what happened this year. There wasn’t anything truly memorable like the year Holly Near showed up in a red bustier to sing some hot upbeat number. (I want to say it was “Livin’ La Vida Loca” but my middle-aged brain could be failing me.) Some of the pairings were a bit odd, like Vicki Randle with Bitch and at one point, everyone thought it was over so we started to pack up. When my back was turned, I thought I heard a violin. I looked up and there was a quartet of violins playing “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.” It felt out of left field and while some of it was lovely – at least one of them trained at Julliard – someone was off key during part of it. A more lively song followed that. However, we were already headed out.
Sunday was spent getting a few things organized for departure the next day and doing some last minute shopping in the crafts area. For the first time in 15 years, I was able to listen to the entire comedy set on the day stage starting at 4pm. I’d seen Dana Eagle on Last Comic Standing and was eager to hear a longer set. She made me laugh a lot, especially at the Jesus jokes. When told by a Christian that Jesus was always with her, she quipped that she hoped he didn’t come to her shows because he couldn’t clap, then she held out her arms as if on a cross. While I really enjoyed most of her set I didn’t love the rape jokes. I understand why she told them, though. When you are in the trenches at the comedy clubs, sometimes that dark humor plays well. She didn’t know the festival audience. She’s smart, though, and the next time she comes, I’ll bet those will be off her set list. And as someone with a lazy eye, I had to like her. I told her later that we should have coffee and talk about parallel parking.
Next was Sandra Valls. I’d seen her at a club a few years ago and didn’t find her funny. I gave her another chance, though. Not much has changed. Screaming four letter words through much of her routine – as if those words alone could be a punchline – and then ending with singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” left me flat. Lest you think I am a delicate flower, I loved Karen Williams, who was on after her and is no stranger to profanity. However, she uses it in stories, not as a stand-alone device. And anyone who says she needs a snack nearby if a partner is feeling amorous is all right by me. Middle-aged sisters, unite.
What have I left out? Seeing groups of women laugh together everywhere I went. Watching the children from Gaia chase each other around in a fit of giggles. Talking with crafts women – finding out why one wears white all the time (part of a religious transformation) to the Lesbian Connection women who jokingly call me one of their stringers (because they’ve printed so many of my letters). Getting ice cream every afternoon. Stopping in at the Goldenrod booth to visit with my friends. Listening to Madison Yearsley sing in the crafts area and me bursting into tears after she was done because it was so beautiful and well-written and wonderfully sung and she’s only 12 years old. (See for yourself at www.youtube.com/MadisonYearsley.) One time a full shuttle rolled past, most of them leaning out the window and happily yelling my name. I’ve only been booked once at this festival (in 24 years of sending audition material) so they don’t know me from the stages there. Maybe they’ve seen me elsewhere, visited me in the Goldenrod booth or they’ve come to a workshop … or maybe I’ve dated them. I was pretty busy in my twenties.
One time I was standing in the line at Saints and the young woman in front of me turned to face me and said, “Thank you for being a part of my festival experience all these years” and added that she’d bought my book and looked forward to reading it. Oh my heart.
There’s much more I could write. I’ll end here though. Otherwise, I’ll have to find a publisher for part two of my memoir.
Too soon it was Monday morning. In a light rain, we packed up and headed down the road. Until next year, sisters. As long as the 2015 festival has Vicki Randle and daily ice cream, I’m there.
Many thanks for HF Leo and MJ for the use of their photos. I don’t know where I got that first photo – if it’s yours let me know. The rest were taken by me.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider making a $2 donation with the button below. Merci y’all.