“Something About the Women”
- Holly Near
Fifty-some years ago, something remarkable was incubating in the United States. A cultural revolution through music was emerging out of the labor, civil rights, and peace movements. Women’s Music, a term coined by Meg Christian, was growing, flourishing, and evolving in creative pockets around the country. These women activists wanted to be done with the constraints of a music world defined by men.
Some of these women had been unable to find commercial success in the mainstream music scene. Others had been subjected to emotional and sexual abuse by that often-misogynistic mainstream system. They wanted to change the world, creating a safe space for freedom of expression.
The early 1970s was an incubator. In Washington, DC, there were the Furies, evolving into the Olivia Collective. These women were determined to work as a collective, sharing power, work, and decision making. Knowing nothing about producing records, they set out to learn each piece of the record-producing business. Olivia Records was born. The earliest records to come out of the collective were Meg Christian’s I Know You Know, in 1974, followed by Cris Williamson’s The Changer and the Changed, a year later. Olivia would move operations from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles.
Although we often associate Olivia with Women’s Music, there were other pockets of creative women-focused music and artistic expression. Oakland, California was bubbling with activity. Spaces emerged where artists could authentically express themselves and audiences could see themselves reflected in the words and music of those performers. Promotion and production of shows grew as women flocked to fill the seats.
Along with the growth of shows, including some touring, the genre would see the rise of music festivals—a place for musicians to perform and for lesbians to gather and celebrate. Festivals pulsed with the energy of place, freedom, camaraderie, and collective power. And always the music.
I am very glad that I came of age during this rich moment. Though memories dim, I can recollect my first experience at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 1978—or was it 1979? Gathered together on a warm August night, Holly Near came on stage and sang “Mountain Woman.” As she sang, acapella, in her clear strong voice, the crowd was silent, spellbound. It was a singular moment for me.
The 10th anniversary of Olivia Records was celebrated with a concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring Meg Christian and Cris Williamson. What an exciting night that was! Olivia would evolve from a record-producing company into a lesbian travel company, though continuing to include lesbian performers in their travel itineraries. The 50th anniversary was highlighted with performances by those initial pioneers of Women’s Music.
Alas, time moves on; society continues to change. As the lesbian and queer community has become more integrated into the larger society, the need for separate and affirming spaces has become less vital. Lesbians now enjoy mainstream and commercial success. (Think: Melissa Etheridge, Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls, Brandi Carlile….)
However, it is important to document and preserve the history that was so important to many of us.
One of the first efforts to preserve the history of Women’s Music was the documentary Radical Harmonies, released in 2002 at approximately the 30-year mark. A full-length film, it chronicles the early years of Women’s Music. It was co-produced by an early sound engineer (and current Milton resident), Boden Sandstrom. Boden’s late wife, Casse Culver, was one of the early musical pioneers and one of the artists featured in the film. Casse recorded her first album, Three Gypsies, with an East Coast women’s record company, Urana Records, of Wise Women Enterprises, in 1975. Radical Harmonies can be found on-line at WomanVision.org.
Other efforts—Holly Near has been interviewing women from the Bay area who were important in those early days. A curated archive of photos and links to the interviews can be found at BecauseofaSong.com. A history of Olivia, written by Ginny Berson, is also available: Olivia on the Record—A Radical Experiment in Women’s Music (Aunt Lute Books, 2020). Berson, an original Olivia collective member, chronicles those early days and the dream to create a revolution for rights, justice, freedom, and ownership for women.
A local celebration of 50 years of Women’s Music is scheduled for Sunday, October 29, 2023, from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., at Epworth United Methodist Church, Rehoboth Beach. Some of our local bands, including GirlsRoom, Christine Havrilla, Natalie Darkes, Bettenroo, and Robin and the Hoods, as well as other local talented women, will perform some of the early beloved favorites. During the second half of the show the performers will perform songs from the generations of women artists who have followed those early artists. The show will end with original music by our local artists.
Tickets for this show are $25 and are available on Eventbrite; search for “50 Years Women’s Music Rehoboth Beach.” ▼
Kathy Lehmann is a retired social worker who moved to Delaware from New Jersey in 2020. She has been a part of the Women’s FEST planning committee for the past two years.