For decades, Holly Near has been close to the vortex of the Women’s Movement. Her presence has been ubiquitous, extending back some 30 years and spanning at least two generations. To say that she is a feminist singer and songwriter, activist and teacher, a bard and warning bell, is only a surface reflection on a long river. With her bell-like voice, Holly Near has been lover, sister, midwife and mother for a generation of American women striving to bring their own vision to bear on the world at large. She has sung some of the most powerful, courageous and compassionate songs in American folk music. She brings the sound of courage for those who need to hear it.
Her story has not been hers alone. It is the story of mothers and grandmothers, businesswomen and workingwomen, hippies and professionals, lesbians and straight women. They are our friends, our family and community, ourselves, part of the whole cloth of our past, our present and soon-to-be future. The story of women’s struggle for equality, dignity and empowerment began long before Holly Near’s involvement in it. Yet she has planted seeds in her lifetime that are now full-grown trees, and she has nurtured more gardens, grown more flowers, than she will ever know.
The 1970s, when Holly Near began her career, were not an easy time. Coming out of the ‘60s, the United States seemed either on the verge of chaotic collapse or visionary rebirth. Dissension over the war in Vietnam divided the nation. Half a million young American men were branded as deserters, living underground or in exile. Twenty million Americans across the country turned out to celebrate the first Earth Day. The Environmental Protection Agency was established. Blacks and Chicanos, finding the Civil Rights Amendment largely unenforced, organized more militantly against their continued treatment as second-class citizens. President Nixon resigned over the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. The Freedom of Information Act was established. Women, many of them radicalized in the Civil Rights Movement, began establishing a political movement of their own. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the right of states to prohibit abortion. Many lesbians and gay men found the courage to come out of the closet. They established openly lesbian and gay communities and businesses. It seemed that nearly everyone had a cause, and was demanding a redress of grievances. The baby-boom generation, feeling its power, would not be denied.
The outcome of all this was neither utopia nor total destruction. What happened was somewhere in between. Eventually these movements settled into the fabric of American life, becoming a foundation and groundwork for new approaches to politics, where the personal became the political.
In its midst was Holly Near. She sang for everyone, but especially for her sisters, in a voice both gentle and strong. She encouraged women to “fight back” against their attackers, to “retake the night.” She sang for the right of women to love women, for men to love men, and she gave them love songs to sing. She sang for the disappeared women in Chile and for the people of Vietnam. Over the years, she has sung her truth in the face of genocide, rape, sexism, homophobia, greed, brutal dictatorships, militarism, the prison industrial complex, environmental degradation and hate. In her own way, she has helped empower a sea change in the lives of women, a rising tide that lifts all boats.
It is easy to take such gains for granted. Listening to mainstream music today, it is tempting to believe that women have always been writing their own songs, making their own music as they choose. Michelle Shocked, Sarah McLachlan, K.D. Lang, The Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, Ani Difranco—with so many strong women in our midst, it is hard to imagine that it hasn’t always been thus. And we can thank our lesbian feminist sisters for putting shoulders to the wheel and changing that reality.
In the early 1970s, Cris Williamson and Holly Near were instrumental in starting independent record companies that were both outlets for lesbian feminist music and learning centers, for the development of businesses based on women-centered values. In 1975, Cris Williamson released The Changer and the Changed on the Olivia record label. It featured some of the most lovingly passionate songs ever produced. The record was a wild success, selling more than 500,000 copies. At the time, it was unthinkable that any independent record could sell that well.
Williamson’s record was no fluke. It was a flagship. The trend continued. Women’s concerts and festivals became social events, filling halls built for thousands, a place for women to nurture new perspectives, and develop the confidence and skills to stand by their deepest beliefs. “When you open up your life to the living, all things come spilling in on you. And you’re flowing like a river, the changer and the changed. You got to spill some over, spill some over, over all.”
The Missoula Folklore Society presents Holly Near and Cris Williamson on Thursday, March 14 at the Wilma. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door, with $2 off for MFS members. For more information, call 360-4758. NOTE: A lunchtime conversation with both Near and Williamson will be held at noon that day at the Union Club.