I don’t usually start hallucinating until midway through the National Women’s Music Festival. I don’t do hallucinogens but lack of sleep does weird things to a body and I’m like a little kid – I’m afraid to sleep for fear I’ll miss something. And this was the fortieth anniversary, so there were a lot of special things going on. So, there I was at the Marriott in Middleton, WI (Madison) on that first day, July 2, a chorus of angels singing, trumpets sounding, chocolate fountains merrily spouting, and women everywhere. Okay, so only the latter was true. Before I even made it to the front desk, I’d hugged 47 women. I stood in the line at the desk to check in. A woman ahead of me turned around and with a warm smile exclaimed, “Hi Jamie!” Holly Near. Dang! I was looking forward to hearing her as well as the rest of the stellar line-up and I’m not just saying that because they had the good taste to book me.
This is my favorite women’s music festival. Not that I don’t love the others but this one is so well-run AND I get to sleep on a real bed and eat at restaurants that don’t cook over an open flame in 50 gallon drums. Outdoor festivals, I love you but I’m not a camper. Not. Also, this festival’s been wonderful about booking me over the years, starting in 1991. It’s really validating to know that one of the biggest women’s music festivals thinks I’m groovy enough for spots on the main stage. Or, in my case, the hotel lobby where I entertained late one night and collected $12.46 in my open uke case. There was a crowd waiting for the elevators and my tiny musicians brained screamed, “Hey! An audience!” (And I wasn’t soliciting for change. Really.) But I digress.
After a sound check with the fabulous Kaia Skaggs and her crew, I headed to my room for a little rest and to check in with Kara Barnard, one of my band members. We wondered aloud how us old folks were going to stay up past 10 pm for our set that night but we are women, hear us … oh never mind.
Because I was getting ready for my performance, I missed a lot of the stage before me. I know the festival started as it always does, with a showing of Kay Weaver’s One Fine Day. I love this inspiring film and song. It starts everything on a high note.
Lucie Blue Tremblay hasn’t performed much in the last few years, however, she’s still in fine form, as witnessed by her opening set. Some musicians lose their range as they get older; she can still hit those high notes with crystalline precision.
I caught some of Tret Fure’s solid set and was part of her choir for a new song, “Freedom.” I admire her songwriting and wonderful stories.
Nedra Johnson rocked the joint next with only an acoustic guitar and some help from singer Tory Trujillo. I can’t help but move when I hear her warm voice and rhythmic songs. I was listening back stage when Tory came running back to me and said breathlessly, “Nedra needs more backup singers!” Without even knowing what song we were going to do, several of us hopped up there. We performers like you to think we have altruistic reasons for making art but part of it is simply “look at me!” Nedra could’ve been preparing a Bellini aria and we’d be like, “Where’s my part?” Fortunately, she’s not an opera singer and I know her wonderful songs well so when she launched into “Anyway You Need Her” I could jump right in. The audience loved it and I imagine they were especially thrilled to find that Jesus was a lesbian. (Now you want to hear the song, right? There’s a clip here.)
The last section of the evening was a series of short sets by three musicians. First up was Kristin Lems, one of the founders of the National Women’s Music Festival. She’s a folk singer with a gorgeous clear soprano and has been an activist for years. She included one of my favorites, “Women Walk More Determined.”
After her was head lesbian*, Alix Dobkin. Alix is retired but made a special appearance for us. The audience went nuts because, you know, Alix. Before her set I’d asked if she was going to do “If It Wasn’t for the Women,” one of my top Alix songs and, um, could I sing it with her? “Only if you sign it with me” she responded. Sure! How hard could that be? Hells bells … the answer is HARD. I hope the deaf women weren’t laughing too hard at me.
Then it was time for my set. I purposely didn’t look at a clock because I knew it was at a time when I’m usually sacked out in front of the TV on the couch, drooling on a pillow. I was afraid there’d be no one left in the audience or that I’d be greeted with a chorus of snoring, but no. Yay for disco naps and coffee. There they were, ready to listen, laugh and applaud. I opened alone with my bluesy ballad “Dark Chocolate,” then moved into more up tempo songs with my band Kara Barnard and Tory Trujillo. Oh how I love performing with these women.
I ended with “Menopause Mambo.” I still don’t know how Tory hits that really high note at the end. I’m sure only dogs can hear it. My set was over far too quickly. Next time, I hope they give me three or four hours. All right … 50 minutes.
The next day, I checked my schedule. I had a page black with notes because there’s so much going on, from workshops to the marketplace, and stuff falls out of my middle-aged brain. You’d have to be super human to get to it all. I’d rather have that than sitting around wondering what to do next. One of the first things I did was to visit the exhibit of Irene Young’s work. She’s taken photos of almost everyone in women’s music. I love how she catches their personality. It takes real talent to do that.
The woman with the long white hair in that photo is Toni Armstrong, Jr – she’s had a hand in so much of women’s music including publisher/editor of Hot Wire: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture. She organized a lunch that day with veterans of women’s music, from author Bonnie Morris to performers Sharon and Sandra Washington. So much history in that room.
Margie Adam was at the festival. She’s retired from doing music but she gave a great keynote speech on Friday morning that was inspiring and entertaining. I saw her several times at the festival, too, talking with women and doing what she does best, keeping us focused, informed and happy. She’s one of my favorite people in women’s music.
I caught most of the panel discussion that day about women’s music history on the Spot Light Stage. When you get Bonnie Morris, Linda Tillery, Toni Armstrong Jr and Nedra Johnson together, how could it be bad? I had to miss CC Carter and Troy Trujillo with Sweet Song. I’ve heard CC’s sensuous poetry at many festivals so I’m sure she brought the house down. I had the pleasure of catching Tory at the Virginia Women’s Music Festival earlier in the year so I wasn’t too disappointed (although hearing her is always a treat). So, where was I, you want to know? Well, I should’ve taken a nap – have I mentioned the hallucinations? – but I went to the showing and discussion of Radical Harmonies. What? You don’t know this documentary? Run right out and watch it ‘cause it’s about women’s music. Our history. Important stuff. Even though I’ve got my own copy, it was great to watch it in a room full of women. I felt tears come to my eyes several times.
Friday night arrived and I found myself on stage again. It sounds like an accident, doesn’t? “Found?” More like, I asked for more stage time because, you know, “Look at me!” And I love to emcee. Back in the day, I learned the ropes from Sue Fink. She taught me the secret emcee handshake and gave me valuable pointers like “Don’t read from the program” — it’s more boring than watching hair grow.
I entered twirling the baton. Can you get any more “Look at me” than that? I would’ve set it on fire but you know, silly fire regulations.
The first act was someone important to women’s music. I told a little story to introduce her. A woman who volunteers in performer care asked her last year what she wanted to eat and the performer answered “A salad and a club soda.” They had the food but not the drink so the volunteer went down to the bar, ordered her a club soda and brought it up to her. Surprised, the musician thanked her and asked why she would do that. The answer: “Because I’m 61 and you’re Cris Williamson.” How many of us have flown across the country, driven across town, etc, to hear her lovely songs? And that night, she didn’t disappoint. I love that she’s doing songs from Changer and the Changed these days. She ended with “Song of the Soul” and had everyone singing along:
“Band in a body” Zoe Lewis was on next so I had to do something really special. First, I hula hooped while playing the ukulele because, well, I can.
I adore Zoe. I’ve never seen her do a bad show. She plays 40,000 instruments and covers topics as wide ranging as the evils of plastic to stories about her mom. Zoe is one of the performers we musicians admire because she’s so damn good at everything she does, covering a lot of territory from jazz to folk, on piano, guitar, ukulele and harmonica. She invited London, one of the kids in attendance, and me on stage to help her with one song. London was running things. Movements included wiggling our butts and sticking our tongues out to the beat of the music.
I had to take off my shirt to introduce comic Sandra Valls, on next. Because I’m like that. Calm down, I was wearing a sensible – but pretty – bra.
I always have fun with the hard working interpreters. Laura Kolb and I have worked together for years.
Two of the plaintiffs in the recent Supreme Court case regarding same sex marriage, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowsewere , were in the audience, so I introduced them. They received a long standing ovation and rightly so.
Since the final act was a band, there was a long set change. First, some awards were given to women who have worked their arses off for women’s music – Toni Armstrong Jr, Lisa Vogel (producer of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival), Ursula Roma (creator of the festival artwork), Root Choyce (lighting designer), Kristin Lems (founder), and several long time workers: Sandy Appleby, Shirley Reilly, Joanie Kanter and Karen Gunderson.
After that I thought I’d have just enough time to read one chapter of my book. (What book? Read about it here.) Then I told a story about visiting Dollywood with my mom. Technicians were still scrambling around the stage. So I told another story, this one about preschoolers learning ASL (American Sign Language). Technicians were still moving things around. (The stage was full of instruments. I’m sure the audience thought there would be a rock opera next.) So I kept talking. I called out to the Canadians, who were huddled together in the center of the room – you know how scary it is in the US. I took that opportunity to educate the mostly American audience about the difference between poutine and poutain. You definitely don’t want to ask for the latter. The stage still wasn’t ready.
I was starting to consider lighting the hula hoop on fire when the stage manager finally tapped me on the shoulder. Time to introduce two of my favorites, Laura Love and Big Bad Gina. I love their fun harmonic wall of sound. I was a bit worried about Laura because I’d seen recent Facebook posts where she alluded to something really tragic in her life but ya know? She’s a professional. You never would’ve known anything was amiss because she blew off the roof. They all sound so good together — tight harmonies, energetic and lots of variety. And they did “Beetz in my Salad.” Girl howdy.
There was an open mike and a drum jam after the stage but it was all I could do to fall into bed. There was a lot I missed including many films and workshops. I didn’t get a final count but I’m guessing there were about a hundred workshops, from CC Carter’s inspiring body positive workshop “This Body Present” to songwriting with Tret Fure.
I woke up Saturday morning around nine to the lovely strains of “Leaping Lesbians.” A flash mob in the lobby, seven floors down, were whooping it up. Do you think I could convince them to live with me and do that every morning?
I made a few forays into the marketplace, sampled hand dipped chocolates, bought a t-shirt, and drooled over the beautiful art. Sometimes I was there to replenish my CDs and books. Goldenrod ran out of my CDs once and books, twice. My head will not fit through any door now.
That morning I had the pleasure of attending Nancy Manahan’s workshop. She’s the editor and one of the writers of Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence and On My Honor (about lesbian Girl Scouts). Such groundbreaking work; she’s a warm and engaging speaker. Nancy invited me up to speak, bless her heart, because I’m in On My Honor. She gave me my first real writing job and I’ll always be grateful for that.
I dashed off to give my own workshop, DIY Business. I expected a roomful of musicians but instead, I got a chocolate maker, police officer trainers and more. No worries – we all do promo and that’s my jam. We talked about social networking and lots more. (For more, see this blog post.)
I regret missing Ruth Barrett’s Spirituality Keynote. I heard it was inspiring. It doesn’t surprise me. She exudes wisdom and positive energy, not to mention being one of the smartest women I know.
I caught the first part of the Spot Light Stage, a women’s music performers retrospective. My favorite quote was from Alix Dobkin, “I would still be having sex with men if it wasn’t for men.” I missed the next act, Ngaire, because I had the foolish notion that I could take a nap. I gave that up and wandered back to the stage to hear Linda Tillery. Oh, that warm, expressive voice! She opened with “Fever,” playing a cajon (a versatile wood drum) and accompanied by the ever-wonderful Mary Watkins on piano. Later, June Millington joined her on electric guitar for a swampy-grooved Muddy Waters tune. Hot. Damn.
The live auction was at 3:30 so I showed up and did my best Vanna White. Always a fun time.
It’s good the program book was easy to follow. They even had little pocket schedules that fit behind your name tag. It seemed like a lot of women were using them and given that most of us were middle-aged and older, we needed them. There weren’t a whole lot of younger women there. For a few years, they did the late night She Rocks stage that featured acts appealing to younger women. It never seemed to catch on, though. Maybe because most of the board is older? Or perhaps younger women think the festival is only for women-born-women and some of them object to that? It’s hard to say. I’m a middle-aged woman so I’m probably not the one with the answers. And since I mentioned it, this festival is open to everyone. While it was kind of a surprise to see two men at one evening concert, I wasn’t bothered by it since there were (I think) 800 women. Also, I met a few very nice trans women and again, I wasn’t concerned. I’m glad they could attend. I wish there’d been more women of color. There was (I thought) a fair representation of women of color on stage and leading workshops so I don’t think that was the issue. Perhaps the festival needs someone more savvy in diversity issues? I hesitate to point out any flaws because, really, it’s a well-run festival and the crew works their butts off, but it can always get better.
And while I’m rattling on about structure, I liked the Marriott and the attached convention center a lot. The map in the program made it really easy to find everything. All of the workshop rooms and performance halls were well marked and had a list of workshops outside. The sleeping rooms were clean and nice, plus the hotel staff was really gracious and efficient. I wish there’d been more than two elevators, though. It was hard at the end of the night’s concerts, with everyone having to wait. Not much can be done about that, I guess, and everyone was really patient about standing in line. Some of us could bound up the stairs a floor or two, but for women in scooters and with other mobility issues, it must have been difficult.
I had the breakfast buffet one morning and it was great. I loved hanging out with everyone, too. There’s also a bar in the middle where you could order from a short menu for other meals. If you didn’t want to eat there, you could go to a near by restaurant. I got take-out barbecue from a place across the parking lot that was lip smacking good.
After that barbecue dinner, I dragged my sorry ass back up to my room. I missed most of Melanie DeMore’s set. Shoot. With her deep gorgeous voice she could sing my grocery list and I’d sigh with pleasure. Holly Near was on after that. How I love her music. She did a few of her “greatest hits” (from the Billboard Protest Chart — there is such a thing, right?) and in general, wowed us. Her set was well-paced and covered a lot of issues, informative but not too heavy and still entertaining. How the heck does she do that? Her band was stellar – Miriam Davidson on piano, Jan Martinelli on bass and Tory Trujillo on vocals.
June and Jean Millington were on next. Good to hear some solid rock from women who have really paid their dues. They were there in the trenches back in the seventies when it was unusual to see a woman behind an electric guitar or a set of drums. I have so much admiration for them.
After they finished, the stage wasn’t closed. Next came the even-better-than-chocolate part of the festival, the high energy all-performer jam. If any of the booked performers are around and want to perform, they get up and do it. It includes musicians you may not have seen, like Kiya Heartwood and Nancy Scott, who were on crew this year. Holy crap it’s fun to sing and play on everyone’s stuff.
Here’s a few highlights — Big Bad Gina singing a Brandi Carlisle song:
Recognize the mandolin player on the far right in the orange skirt?
And here’s Tret, with “Freedom” and a cast of thousands singing with her:
We ended the whole shebang with “Going to the Chapel.” Now that same-sex marriage is legal everywhere in the US, it was perfect. Everyone sang. If there’d been chandeliers, there would’ve been some serious swinging.
Special kudos to the sound crew for all that they do, especially at the jam. That’s like the Olympics of sound and lights, with all those “Look at me!” performers crowded on the stage. We could’ve easily sounded like a wall of mud and we didn’t. Far from it.
And while I’m talking about crew, a special shout out to the members of the board and all the volunteers. They don’t get to enjoy the festival as much as we do because they’re so busy working. Here’s Linda Wilson, the board’s president:
I was still buzzed after that amazing jam. First, I entertained at the elevators. Because I could. Then I slipped into the drum jam, then finally, sat down with a group of women in the lobby who were having a few drinks and a damn good time. You don’t want to see me after too much liquor so I politely sipped a bottle of hard cider and did some serious hanging out. I think the evening included flashing women stuck in the glass elevator. Maybe it was a hallucination. Lucie Blue was at the opposite end of our long line of tables, teaching women and the male security guard how to whistle. I would’ve joined them but by then, I was welded to my chair with fatigue. Not long after that, I drifted up to my room and crashed.
Sunday morning I woke up with a migraine. Third morning in a row. Thankfully, I came prepared with a really big hammer, er, meds. Took some and went back to sleep. Overslept and missed most of the Artist Breakfast. Forgive me, ‘k?
The lack of sleep, intense emotions and migraines finally caught up with me and on Sunday morning, I had a little breakdown. The angels guided me to Ruth and Falcon’s booth in the marketplace. I so adore those women. They gave me hugs and a back rub. Fixed me right up and in enough time to catch some of the final stage. I missed the Drum Chorus, though. I arrived as the (singing) chorus was starting, so I joined them. Director Miriam Davidson had invited me so I wasn’t just barging in. I sang a couple of songs with them, then got to be the scary lesbian for “Leaping Lesbians.”
Alix Olson was next, killing it with her compelling spoken word. Scary smart, personable and dang, can she write, whether she’s telling us about loving women or about her grandma stage diving. One of the highlights of the festival for me. Jori Costello’s ode to women’s music,“Songs of My Soul,” was a sweet way to end. On my way out, I ran into the angels again or was that Holly Near? Yeah … Holly. We wished each other a safe journey home before I walked through the lobby one more time and crawled into my car. Thank you angels, thank you Holly Near, thank you everyone.
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*Therese Edell first called Alix Dobkin the head lesbian and given all that she’s done for us, it’s kinda true. And I like to say it because it makes me giggle and think of Therese.
I’m sorry about not knowing the two volunteers involved in the story about Cris Williamson. I was running on fumes by that time in the festival and neglected to write their names down. If you know them, let me know.
Read more about my visit to Dollywood here.
Thanks to Janice Rickert, Janna Brown, Stacy Biffle, Becky Bohan, Susan Savastuk, Holly Near and Prairie Nyx for the photos and video. If I used your photo and neglected to credit you, let me know and I’ll add it or remove the picture.