There were dances, sure, but I never went to one. Back at my first festival, at the tender age of 22, I’m sure I danced non-stop. I’m 57 now. So many changes for me and the festival. It felt like a slow dance, one with many nuances, sometimes playful and sometimes intensely serious but always, our festival. And indeed, it was the last dance. She may continue in another form after this. However, organizer Lisa Vogel is calling it quits and after forty years, she’s due some rest. Most of the women I met at the festival chose to live in the moment and celebrate this amazing event.
My partner and I live in Ottawa, Canada, so it’s a bit of a hike. We started in the wee hours of July 31, my partner loading the car and me, making sandwiches. Her in comfy shorts and shirt, me in a casual skirt and T-shirt. Even half-awake I could laugh about us being the classic butch/femme couple feeling great that we were going to a place where my partner wouldn’t get called sir and everyone would know that I was a lesbian without a lengthy explanation.
We drove straight to Ann Arbor, spent a couple of nights with friends, picked up our tent trailer, and then headed for the festival under the slowly rising sun. Fluffy clouds drifted across a brilliant blue sky as we motored closer to the gate. My partner was CCE (Camper Come Early – women who do a couple of long work shifts) and I was an intensive workshop presenter, so we could go in a day early, on Sunday. We passed lots of cars pulled over to the extreme left of the dirt road near the front gate, women who were already camping to get a good place in line. I heard later that some had been there since Thursday.
We were greeted at the entrance by a cheerful worker. I smiled and said, “Hi, I’m Cris Williamson and this is Holly Near.” Laughing, the worker responded, “Glad to know you two finally got together.” After checking in, we drove to our favorite RV camping spot and set up. I left my partner to finish while I strolled to the Belly Bowl (worker area) to pick up my worker band. Because the gates didn’t officially open until Monday, only workers were there. It made for a quiet walk along Whistle Trail, with only the wind teasing the trees and the soft whoosh of the leaves at my feet.
After a quick check in, I hightailed it back to camp to get ready for my shows with Nedra Johnson in Hart, the closest town. On the way out there were even more women on the left side of the street, some with chairs and standing in the middle of the road. One group made the road so narrow that only one line of traffic could pass through. I lost patience. I rolled down the window and politely told them that locals use the road and they might not drive as slow as we would. A woman shouted back at me, “Then we’ll ask them to slow down and send them off with love.” Yeah, and they’ll be on top of your loving ass before you can say anything. Did I say that out loud? I don’t think so. I’m all for peace and love, sisters, but you’ve got to watch out for yourself, too.
I didn’t let that spoil my good spirits. I love these Hart concerts. It’s something we’ve done for the last eleven years and always a fun way to start off our festival experience. We sold out for one show at 7 pm so we added another at 4 pm. Big fun y’all. The highlight was Nedra’s song “August Moon” that she wrote especially for the festival women.
Usually after the show, I have a quiet drive back to the land. This year was different. I followed several sets of taillights and after turning on to the dirt road was surprised to find a line of cars extending almost to the pavement. A sheriff’s car, lights ablaze, sat at the end. He directed me to get behind the line of cars now at the right side and on the road. When I responded that I was already camped inside the festival, he waved me through. I drove slowly although there weren’t many women out because of the late hour and the ferocious thunderstorm that pounded them earlier. Most were bedded down, gathering energy for the next day.
After breakfast the next day, I headed to the line. I was one of many women hawking everything from breakfast bars to T-shirts. Some of us were raising travel funds and some just like to socialize. I had my CDs, books and a ukulele with me. It was big fun making up little songs with the uke and getting some laughs. Stages are everywhere, folks, even on a dirt road. (If you have a photo of me playing the uke out there, I’d love to post a copy here.)
Rumors abounded about when the gates would open. The official time was 1 pm but since the line now extended for miles, even on to the paved road, they were figuring out a contingency plan. At one point during the day, the line extended for eleven miles. I heard shouts around 10:30 that they were opening early. After a joyous chorus of car honks, the line moved a few feet, then stopped. Still, I didn’t want to be caught without a ride back to the main gate, so I turned and headed back there. It was a long walk and finally, toward the end, I got a ride with some crafts women who were just making it under the wire. We got to the gate and were soberly informed that they would have to go to the end of the line. The driver protested that they’d turned on the dirt road an hour before the deadline but it had taken them that long to get to the front. She was almost in tears and I don’t blame her. Knowing I couldn’t help, I slipped out of the car and let them figure things out. I found out later that after consulting with others, they decided to let her in. Good thing since cars at the end of the line were hours away from getting in the gate. They quit letting in cars at 1:30 the following morning. There were still eighty-some cars in line. A worker told me that more festie-goers arrived that first day than the whole week of each of the last two festivals.
On Monday, once inside the gate, I did the time honored tradition of flyering the janes. Let me explain a little vocabulary. We don’t call them porta-potties or jons. I don’t know how women named Jane feel about the renaming but we’ve called them janes for years. And those of us with wares to sell find that those little pieces of paper promote our business while women are, um, doing their business. Taping up the flyers is long and hot work – I could easily post 200 — but I can’t tell you how many women have come to the Goldenrod booth (CD booth) saying that they were interested in music they saw advertised in the janes.
I could hardly go a few feet without running into familiar faces. It was a dance going on all over the land as women reconnected with each other. Because it was the last festival, many were returning after years away.
I had dinner with Goldenrod friends and hit the sack early. At my first festival, I doubt I slept much but at my age, you’ve got to rest. I fell asleep to the sound of women’s laughter and the grind of engines as RVs pulled in. This is how you test a relationship. “Honey, go right. Stop. Now to the left. Watch out for the …. tree!”
When I woke up Tuesday morning, we had several new neighbors. We were packed in pretty tight, as the tents were elsewhere on the land. I love how women dress up their campsites. Some return year after year in the same spots.
A migraine drilled at my temples but I was determined to attend Pamela Stoneham’s improv workshop at 9 AM. I knew her from WoMaMu, a great women’s music camp I’ve taught at in California. I’m so glad I went. Pamela’s an experienced workshop presenter who had all sorts of fun interactive games for us. I especially enjoyed the more complex ones at the end – mini-skits where we could interact with other, making it up as we go. There was lots of encouragement and laughter. Three hours went by in a blink of an eye and by the end, the headache was only a polite tap at my forehead.
That afternoon, it was time for my workshop, Musical Jam for Everyone. Thirty to fifty women joyfully joined in on everything from “Brown Eyed Girl” to “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” We sang rounds I learned in Girl Scouts and played the instrumental “St Anne’s Reel” with three fiddles leading us. I offered tips along the way, from guitar strums to jam etiquette. It’s my hope that these women will seek out jams in their hometown. Not only is it the most fun you can have with your clothes on (or off, since the festival is clothing-optional), but it’s a great way to become a better player and singer. We had ukuleles, guitars, a bass, saxes, flute, penny whistle, percussion, voices and believe it or not, a didgeridoo. What would “Proud Mary” be without a didgeridoo solo? Toward the end we sang an extended version of “Amazon” that included dancing. Big fun y’all.
I stay in touch with a group of women from the festival and Tuesday night, we had dinner together. So nice to see those faces I’ve known for a dozen or so years.
After dinner I knew I wouldn’t have the energy to walk all the way back to RV. (It’s about a twenty minute walk from “downtown.”) So, my wife and I waited for a shuttle. They have a great system of shuttles, some just for DART women and some for everyone. (DART stands for Disabled Access Resource Team. Not only do they have shuttles, but there’s an area downtown where they can camp.) Because of the high attendance, though, shuttles were few and far between. A large crowd waited with us and my tiny musician’s brain registered, Hey! An audience! I pulled out my mandolin and played through a few tunes, some with the crowd singing along. Still no shuttle. So I played some fiddle tunes – I know, it’s not a fiddle but it’s tuned the same – and one of my originals, “Hurricane.” The shuttle still hadn’t shown, so I started a new song, “Waiting for the Shuttle.” The chorus was, “Dammit, dammit, dammit … ” and with a chorus of fifty, it sounded good. Dammit. The shuttle appeared a few minutes later. The magic of song.
The shuttles were usually crowded. It was sometimes a human Tetris game. As we packed into one shuttle, an older woman slowly lowered herself down on the bench, announcing, “I have bad knees and a big butt.” Right away, another woman responded, “And you have a lovely bra.” (Clothing choices were creative. Bras were not limited to hidden attire.) On that same shuttle, as the last woman squeezed in she exclaimed, “I could fall … right into someone’s cleavage.”
I’d missed the previous night’s movies and I was determined not to miss them Tuesday night. What’s better than seeing women-centered films under the stars with a thousand of your closest friends? As I sat with Lois, I thought how my life had come full circle. She was my very first girlfriend, back when we were in high school. We lost touch for a few years and now, here she was at this festival with me. First, we saw a series of entertaining shorts including an animated film that featured … dancing tampons. The final film was a full-length documentary, Out in the Night, about a group of African-American lesbians wrongly convicted of assaulting a man who was attacking them. I’d read about the incident and resulting court cases during the time it happened and was interested in knowing more. So sobering and a wake-up call for anyone who thinks it’s safe to be lesbian and Black. One of the attorneys involved spoke briefly after the film was over. It was powerful to hear her.
Wednesday I woke up with another damn headache. Fortunately, modern medicine and a strong cup of coffee fixed me right up so I could wander downtown for shopping and visiting. I could hardly walk five feet without stopping to talk with women, whether it be greeting an old friend, or chatting with a stranger as we walked together. I love finding out where women were from. One day I walked Lois Lane with a woman from Tijuana, Mexico. It was her first festival.
I love the crafts area. I went right to Woman Made Products to buy a shirt that proclaimed, “Who’s on your playlist?” and underneath were a bunch of names. Mine was right in the middle, next to Maxine Feldman. They also had a shirt that listed authors, “What’s on your bookshelf?” I almost bought one. Maybe Margaret Atwood was at the festival. I hope she bought one.
I also got a shirt from Emma’s Revolution, one that says “peace” in three languages. I already have one in red but I needed – totally different than “wanted” – one in purple.
I love watching everyone at the festival. The girls are so confident. Sometimes they just ride the shuttles up and down the road. Two of my friends have a daughter who got to be a wanderer for the first time. At age seven, this was very exciting for her. Wanderers are kids who can roam free at the festival, as long as they’re accompanied by an older child and/or check in at a regular time and return at night fall. They’re safe there. One day I asked another couple about their daughter and they waved their hands and replied, “Oh she’s somewhere.” The festival always sparks interesting discussions, like the time she asked them, “What do they do in The Zone?” (It’s a late night party place on the land where almost anything goes. No kids are allowed.) They thought for a few seconds and answered simply, “They spank each other.” “Ew!” was the response.
Wednesday afternoon I attended Pat Schmatz’s workshop Writing through Fear. She said a lot of great things about writing without judgement, then offered writing prompts around the topic of fear. Sometimes we shared what we’d written with small groups. I enjoyed a couple of the exercises. Others didn’t interest me as much. Still, I’m glad I went. She’s a good instructor.
One of the musical acts I was most excited to see was Alive!, a band popular in the early days of the festival and returning for a reunion. I arrived at the beautiful acoustic stage as emcee Karen Williams was warming up the crowd. The band came out as I finished my daily ice cream bar. (Yes, daily. I’m on vacation. Dammit.) Some musicians slow down as they get older. Voices crack. I didn’t see any of that with this dynamic band. Dishing up jazz/pop/blues like it was mama’s homemade pie, they served us thick slices, each fragrant with harmonies and groove, often with a Latin feel because of Carolyn Brandy’s congas. They played well-loved songs, from the original “Spirit Healer” to June Millington’s “Heaven is in Your Mind.” I think it was that one that pianist Tammy Hall offered a spirited gospel-flavored intro. Damn, she was good. (Original keyboard player Janet Small passed away five years ago.) Vocalist Rhiannon was in her element, especially on a song detailing a bad day with all her electronic devices, from a phone to GPS – very witty and engaging. They ended with Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues.” Ain’t that the truth? Not a single woman there, at that moment, had anything close to the blues. If I’d heard only one musical act the whole festival, I would’ve been satisfied with Alive! Fortunately, there was a lot more.
Karen Williams came out during the set change and did some of my favorite quips. “I’m from New York City,” she says, “And we don’t call this camping. We call it homeless.” She went on to tell us how she showed up in heels for her first festival, with no sleeping bag, no flashlight, and no clue how to survive in the woods. Her comedy is usually edged in anger but with an invitation to laugh so when she snapped at us, “I’m going to do old material. Get over it,” it was greeted with gales of laughter.
Next up was Big Bad Gina. No, they aren’t a character from a horror film, unless you’re afraid of powerful women musicians. They’re an eclectic band with great harmonies and fun material like “Beetz in my Salad” and “Amazon Warrior Princess.” They were supposed to appear with Laura Love who is dealing with trouble at home and couldn’t make it. I’d seen the band at the National Festival with Laura and they did a more upbeat set there. Their Michigan set included more ballads.
Wednesday night was the night no one wanted to miss. Every year the festival opens with an all-star celebration of drumming, ritual, dancing and singing. Ruth Barrett did her spiritual thing. We faced the four directions, honoring those who came before us. You’ll forgive me for not having all the correct details. I was always that person giggling in church so when it comes to stuff like this, I check out. I understand its importance for everyone else though. We end it all with “Amazon,” a song written by Maxine Feldman. The band does a reggae/rock adaption with some added lyrics. We danced and sang and danced some more. Amazon women, rise! It ended with a spectacular display of multi-colored smoke that shot up around the perimeter of the crowd.
I was excited to hear pianist/fiddler/songwriter Barbara Higbie and vocalist/songwriter Teresa Trull, the next act. Both are stellar musicians and they have great chemistry. They did my favorites, including a couple of fiddle tunes, “Tip the Canoe” and “St Anne’s Reel.” I don’t have any video from the festival, but here’s Higbie and Trull at another gig, burning it up with the first fiddle tune.
I wanted to stay for the last act, rock band Skip the Needle, especially since it included my other girlfriend Vicki Randle. I’m a fan of hers, and was curious about the band, but my middle-aged body said go to bed now.
Thursday morning was another of my workshops. As I got ready to read from my book, Drive All Night, I asked the thirty or so women there why they’d shown up and a half-dozen said they’d seen the flyers in the janes. Oh the power of strategically placed paper. I had great fun reading selected chapters from my collection of road stories. The performer part of me loves reading. I love writing too but my cats don’t clap when I finish a great story. They don’t get my jokes, either. (Why do I have them?)
Next on my festival agenda was the day stage. Speaking of agenda, let’s talk about the wonderful festival program. Without it I wouldn’t have been able to plan my fest. Holy crap it was thorough and I love that they included photos from the past – a phone booth in the woods in 1988?! – and a complete list of workers and performers (4,776 just on crew). It was satisfying to see my name listed. I also loved the photo collages that really captured the feel of the festival. If you look in the far top left corner of the second collage, you’ll see my butch wife in a tutu.
But I digress – back to the Thursday day stage. I settled in with friends under one of the trees and listened to the round robin – Gretchen Phillips, Ferron, Nedra Johnson, Marcelle Davies-Lashley, Holly Near and Cris Williamson. Ferron had trouble with her song, doing it in fits and starts. She muttered that she hadn’t played guitar for a year. Slowly, though, she remembered what felt like most of the song and we leapt to our feet with applause. Holly Near started her song by telling us that she’d been accused of bringing on the rain at some festivals. “If I was that powerful,” she quipped, “I’d end police brutality against Black people.” Amen, sister. She and Cris Williamson did a lovely duet about rain. Ferron sang again, “Misty Mountain,” presented with more conviction than her first song and to an audience dancing and singing along. They ended with Cris’s beautiful “Lullaby,” a multitude of harmony rising around us.
Cocomama was on next. Muy caliente! Drawing from a multitude of traditions, they offered Latin-fused music with congas, percussion, keyboard, vocals and bass. I chair danced for a while, then jumped up for their last song.
I wandered around the crafts area after that. Got my hair cut by the talented Kim Roberts. We figured we’ve known each other for 28 years. How cool is that?
Then it was time for the Butch Strut. We femmes and assorted others waited along Lois Lane in great anticipation. There was the far away sound of drums … then tiny dots that gradually turned into a slow moving force of sheer handsomeness. Just when we thought the mobs of lumberjacks, sharp suited women and airline pilots had stopped, another group appeared on the horizon. As it turned out, some butches love to have their pictures taken so they stopped to pose all along the route. And they say femmes take their time. In one of the last groups proudly marched my first girlfriend, looking dapper in a tie and hat, alongside my current wife in leather chaps, a fedora and tight T-shirt. It’s clear I’ve been a huge butch fan most of my life.
I arrived at the Thursday night stage as Betty was blazing through their harmony powered pop set. They have enough energy to fuel a small city.
I was lucky to have seats up front for Jill Sobule, on next. Oh how I adore her fresh outlook and well-crafted songs. She opened with a catchy little singalong. Who could resist singing “When they say ‘We want our America back’ what the f**k do they mean?” I don’t have video of that performance, but here she is at another gig ‘cause I know you’re dying to hear it:
She also did a lot of my favorites, including her hit “I Kissed a Girl” (much better than that other song) and a rousing version of “Underdog Victorious.” Interpreter Pam Parham was a member of the band, shooting up her fist for the chorus and wiggling her eyebrows seductively at a suggestive line of another song. She’s as much a star at this festival as the musicians. And speaking of a band, Jill only had one side player, a guitarist/vocalist whose name I failed to get. They felt like a wall of sound although it would’ve been nice to hear her with a bass and drums like last year. (Ironically, on the acoustic stage.)
I would’ve stayed for Medussa but again, it was past my bedtime. I heard her band through the trees as we trudged back to Outer Mongolia RV.
And so ends part one. Make another pot of coffee because there’s part two.
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Did you attend the festival? I welcome your comments below. Please keep it civil. Angry diatribes will not be approved for posting.
I credited and asked permission for most of the photos posted. If I used your photo and missed crediting you, please let me know and I can remove the photo or credit you. I tried to use only photos where I had permission of the woman/women in the photo or if no one was recognizable. Again, if I goofed, please let me know.
My phone died on the way home from the festival so I depended heavily on generous festie goers for photos. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. If not for you, I would have no pictures to help me remember.
Just because Michigan as we know it is over, doesn’t mean women’s culture has died. There are lots of gatherings. I talk about them here.