Before Stonewall, on May 13, 1969, folksinger and trail blazer Maxine Feldman wrote “Angry Atthis,” a song about not being able to openly love her female partner. Songs like that didn’t exist before then. Maxine went on to perform and record for the exciting women’s music network in the seventies and beyond with songs about a myriad of topics, especially lesbians. Not only was Maxine a friend of mine, but she was a great entertainer who was vital to our culture.
Maxine grew up on stage. She worked briefly in TV shows when she was a child. She took singing, acting and dancing lessons and later, attended the Performing Arts High School in New York City. After graduation she majored in theater arts at Emerson College in Boston. She didn’t stay because school officials asked her to leave after they found out she was a lesbian. Her parents sent her to an aversion therapist. She told JD Doyle (Queer Music Heritage), “We know that doesn’t work. To me, being queer is like breathing.” Sometime around then, she learned a few chords on a Martin guitar and started working in folk venues. Maxine performed in coffeehouses in the Boston area until word got out that she was a lesbian — not that Maxine had ever made a secret of that. Fearing the “wrong” crowd, only one venue continued to hire her so she took a succession of other jobs.
She transferred to El Camino College in Torrance, California and in 1971, that’s where she heard feminist comedy team Harrison and Tyler (Patty Harrison and Robin Tyler). She started opening their shows. It wasn’t always easy. At Ventura College, school officials complained about Maxine. Robin responded “… the college did not tell us to bring a lesbian here. But we are part of a revolutionary movement and this means freedom of expression for all people.”
Harrison and Tyler produced Maxine’s first recording in 1972, a 45 with “Angry Atthis” on one side and “Bar 1” on the other. Accompanying her were Robin Flower and Naomi Littlebear Morena, women who also forged their own careers in women’s music. In 1979 Maxine released her only full-length recording, Closet Sale.
Maxine enjoyed her shows with Harrison and Tyler but decided to go back to doing solo shows. She performed throughout the seventies and eighties in all kinds of venues, from tiny coffeehouses to bigger venues like the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. In 1974, she played at the prestigious Town Hall in New York City. At a 1977 NOW conference in Houston, she received protection from the Secret Service, partly because they were already there to guard Rosalyn Carter and Betty Ford and also because protesters outside had signs such as, “Kill all dykes, kikes, commies, and abortionists.” Maxine joked with her concert audience, “Well three out of four ain’t bad.”
Maxine wrote “Amazon” in 1976, a lesbian anthem that many know as the one that always opened the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. It appeared on Closet Sale. She once said that she was most proud of “Amazon” and “Angry Atthis.”
Many knew her as a regular emcee at the Michigan festival as well as other festivals and events. Her booming “Welcome Women!” and funny stories were well-loved.
I had the pleasure of visiting her a few times in Boston while I was touring in the nineties. She loved to tell stories about the old days and always had a supportive word for my career. By that time she could no longer sing and health issues prevented her from the emcee gigs she loved so much. She faced financial issues, too. Many women came together to help her. In the early 2000’s, she moved to New Mexico. Unfortunately, she and I lost touch around then.
Maxine passed away in 2007. Folk music magazine SingOut! asked me to write her obituary. I was honored to do so. I interviewed her widow who told me that in her last years, Maxine didn’t care which pronoun was used for her. I don’t know if that meant she wanted to transition or if that meant that when someone called her “sir” in the grocery store that she’d laugh it off. At any rate, I wanted to honor the possibilities so in the last paragraph of that obit, I used “s/he” to refer to her. I wish that I could’ve talked with Maxine directly about all this. Since then, some people have assumed she wanted to be male – even her Wikipedia entry is incorrect – but in the age of the Internet, that’s how it sometimes goes. Maxine always called herself an out and proud Jewish butch and that’s how I’ll remember her. I love you and miss you, Maxine, and I’m not the only one. You were Our Amazon.
Read and hear JD Doyle’s great interview with Maxine here.
Maxine appears in Radical Harmonies, a wonderful film about women’s music.
Did you know Maxine? Love her music and humor? Please comment below. Informed and respectful dialogue only, please. Any posts outside of that will be deleted.