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Chicago's Place in Women's Music History
by Jean Albright
2004-10-13

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Pictured Toni Armstrong Jr.; Artemis Singers.

Three decades of women's music in Chicago and across the nation were represented Sept 26 by women's' music artists, producers and historians at the Chicago Historical Society in 'Women, Womyn, Grrls, and Kings,' the final installment of the 2004 Chicago Historical Society series on GLBT Chicago. The series was co-sponsored by the Center on Halsted and the University of Chicago Lesbian and Gay Studies Project.

Recurring themes were remembering and carrying on the essence of women's music into the future. The day was dedicated to Ginni Clemmens, a pioneer of women's music who died in 2003, and Joy Rosenblatt, an early concert producer in Chicago who died this year. On stage were women representing both the earliest days of women's' music and the latest incarnations of women's music culture—including Estrojam, which had just completed a weeklong women's fest.

Performers were Artemis Singers, the first chorus to identify themselves as lesbian-feminist; Ubaka Hill's Chicago Drumsong Orchestra featuring Big Smith and Diamana Diya; Surrender Dorothy with Toni Armstrong Jr., Paula Walowitz and Laurie Lee Moses performing together for the first time in 19 years; and Kristen Lems, founder of the National Women's Music Festival, the longest-running women's music festival. A tribute to Clemmens was performed by Kristin Lems with Jorjet Harper, Tricia Alexander, Diana Laffey, Laurie Benz, Paula Walowitz, Laurie Moses, and Toni Armstrong Jr. The band Kim performed together for the last time before one of their members moved away. The reception which followed featured the well-known DJ Wanda, and a performance by the Chicago Kings.

Surrender Dorothy performed 'Surprise ( I'm a Lesbian ) ,' 'Neopaganomics ( Goddess' Rage ) ,' and 'You're Not the First' and then joined in on 'Solid Ground,' part of Kristin Lems' salute to Ginni Clemmens.

Two panels discussed national and historical importance of women's music, specifically contributions by Chicagoans. Panelists were Toni Armstrong Jr., former publisher of Hotwire, The Journal of Women's Music and Culture; Ubaka Hill, founder of the Drumsong Institute; Jackie Anderson, a member of many community boards and the Mountain Moving Coffeehouse collective; author Dr. Bonnie Morris of the Women's Studies departments at George Washington and Georgetown Universities; Tammy Cresswell, founder of Estrojam; Kristen Lems; and Lin Daniels, producer of women-only events since 1974.

The day's events were coordinated by Toni Armstrong Jr., with Jackie Anderson, and Evette Cardona co-producing. Emcees were sisters Pat McCombs and Paula Gee. Diana Thorpe and Sunny Pfifferling interpreted. The Historical Society has plans to host a program next February called, Friends and Lovers: Same-Sex Relationships for the 21st century.

Hotwire publisher, organizer

'In only 30 years we've gone from being told we're sinful perverts and quaking in our shoes that we might be outed to family and employers, to now being celebrated by one of the most prestigious mainstream institutions in the Midwest,' Armstrong said to Windy City Times after the event. 'For as much flak as the lesbian-feminist community has taken over the years—for being anti-male, for being too 'politically correct,' for not being properly 'politically correct,' always some complaint about what we were doing—it's clear that the culture we created has had the power to change society. And we're just getting started ... . It's only been 30 years!'

She spoke of one disappointment. 'Looking at the packed auditorium, there were only a handful of men in the audience. CHS's first two gay events were presented by men and were primarily about gay male culture, yet there were lots and lots of women in those audiences. Over the years, there's been so much screaming—and even a few threatened lawsuits—because some lesbian-feminist events, like Mountain Moving Coffeehouse, have been for women and children only. Yet here was a perfect opportunity to share, and where were the guys?' she asks.

'Unfortunately this is typical of what lesbians have experienced over the many years of being in the 'gay' community. Ironically, the men in Chicago who were the most supportive of this event were the straight men from CHS and that fabulous gay historian George Chauncey.

'It just drove home that the DIY [ do it yourself ] ethic that has always sustained our lesbian-feminist culture is still firmly in place. All of those performers and panelists, as well as the organizers, sound and stage crew, and emcees ... it was an extremely high-powered group of women, and all of them worked for a tiny fraction of the money they should have been getting. Performers even bought their own tickets to the event, just to be supportive. This is how and why we've changed society—lesbian-feminists have never waited around for male approval or male support. We've just made things happen.'

Among the speakers on the history of womens music were Lin Daniels and Bonnie Morris, quoted here at length.

Women's music events

Lin Daniels' remarks celebrated the evolution of women's music, quoting writers and musicians on the philosophies that framed the women's' music community.

'What is women's' music? Margie Adam, singer and songwriter, has said that it is politics refined. It's what woman loving sounds like. Women's music is the music that speaks to our lives as lesbians. It has also been the instrument that heralded a new culture with women as its base, and lesbian feminism at its center. What I hope to do here is to give you an overview of how this culture evolved.

'The first voice of women's' music I heard was Maxine Feldman's. I was having dinner at Mother Courage, a lesbian/feminist-owned restaurant after a NOW meeting in New York City. Bertha Harris and Rita Mae Brown were there that night in the summer of 1973. A very large woman with overalls and no shirt walked over to a small table in the front of the restaurant, cleared it, climbed it with her guitar, and began singing 'Angry At this'. The lyrics began with 'I hate not being able to hold my lover's hand, except for under some dimly lit table, afraid of being who I am.' The lamenting tone grew bolder and angrier, until even the straight women were holding hands, right on the tables! Incredible. In 1973, most lesbians did live in fear, but this big, bold dyke, sang a song that she recorded in 1969, the first 'out' 45, produced by Robin Tyler. With the song, she ignited a movement.

'In the fall of 1973, Alix Dobkin and Kay Gardner performed and produced 'Lavender Jane Loves Women' which became the one of th first recorded lesbian albums, completely produced, written, performed and distributed by lesbians,' Daniels continued. 'In a world that kept women out of the record industry, those recordings were minor miracles. In an environment where lesbians were overtly hated and feared, even in feminist circles ( Betty Friedan still spoke of us as the Lavender Menace ) , beautiful, rough, clear voices rose up like flowers in the desert, affirming womens' loves and lives. Soon, other women started recording. Olivia Records recorded 'I know You know' by Meg Christian. Then a flood of new recordings, produced, performed and written by lesbians.

'Next step: the records were being made, but how to get them out to women? A distribution network was created. Hundreds of women became instant record distributors, taking records to their consciousness-raising groups, to rallies, to women's bookstores, eventually record stores, and through mail order.

'Then, in order to get records out, you have to promote the artists. Hundreds more women became concert producers. Then the lighting designers. The carpenters. The piano tuner. We had a lot to do.

'Then, in order to coordinate tours and distribution, there needed to be ways of communicating with each other. There was Paid My Dues here [ in Chicago ] , and in New York in 1977, I began publishing Music Women, a 'zine created for women working in the budding women's music circuit. Then came the miracle called Hotwire, which provided a published forum for this world we were creating. It was edited and published by Toni Armstrong Jr., who also published Women's Music Plus a women's culture directory, the only comprehensive directory of its kind in the world.'

Daniels went on speak of women who had influenced the growth of women's music and her own relationship to it.

'Myriam Fougere is a lesbian-separatist artist who creates lesbian forms, vulva imagery, women bodies, couples, for women's eyes only. This was then as now a radical notion. She did not want her creativity clouded by mens' judgement or vision.

'Now what exactly is lesbian separatism? If you ask 100 separatists for a definition of separatist, you will get 110 different answers. For Myram and myself, it meant creating art only for women, living in a lesbian-separatist community and sharing personal time and space with women only. For some, it meant 'living in the real world,' but sharing personal time only with lesbians. Each lesbian who considers herself separatist has her own definition. Separatism was and is a way for lesbians to discover their own voices, develop their own values, outside of patriarchal rules and assumptions. The East Coast Lesbian Festival was a cauldron for lesbian separatist discourse. It was an unabashedly lesbian-separatist place, which made it the most controversial. Lesbians taking space for themselves with absolutely no male presence was and remains a radical concept ... . Although they were called 'music festivals', music was just a part of what happened there. Music was the catalyst. The workshop space at the festivals served as a clearinghouse of ideas. The crafts area became a venue in which to display uniquely lesbian art. We created a venue for films by lesbian filmmakers. Women's dance troupes, like the Dance Brigade, became part of the scene, expanding the possibilities for lesbian expression in that art form. Ad hoc choral groups and orchestras and drummer circles were formed by women like Kay Gardner and Sue Fink and Ubaka Hill. this opened possibilities for hundreds of women who, without the festival. would never have had the opportunity to share their music and voices.

'Alternative healers like Billie Potts set up spaces at the festivals to heal and educate women ... . Access for the disabled was a priority. Women spent thousands of hours and dollars, creating systems to make festivals accessible to women of different abilities. The East Coast Lesbian Festival, for example, built a 150-foot ramp to make the theater accessible to wheelchairs. We had 17 sign language interpreters to make the music and the workshops accessible to deaf women. Handi-vans were hired for shuttling, the program was printed in braille and menus were planned to accommodate varying food needs. All common areas were ramped. This work was done in a existing camp facility. Most can't even imagine making accessible space on open land but devised ways to make it happen. Women stayed with it, year after year at the Michigan Womyns' Music Festival, each year making it easier for women of all abilities to attend.

'Michigan, East Coast provided sober support space, space for women of color, Jewish women, young women, and, of course, space for older women—although we're rapidly reaching he majority! We confronted issues of racism, anti-Semitism, ableism and any hard community issues that cropped up over the years. Festivals were the places to do that.

'In short, we were trying to create space in which everyone has a space, a voice. In a world that silences women, we created spaces where women's voice were the only voices. In a world that pushed the disabled to the side, we opened a door to women of varying abilities. We exposed thousands of women to deaf culture, simply by insisting that our performances and workshops be ASL interpreted. We created these spaces for the best reason. We did it because we had to for ourselves and for each other.

'Unless you've experienced living in a space, even for a dew days, built on lesbian-feminist ideals, it is almost impossible to describe. You need to be there. Lesbian-feminist writer Jewelle Gomez, put it this way: 'I guess I'm grateful to the evolution of music festivals and the women who made them happen because they are a such gift to us. I went to Michigan only once, and it was a life-changing experience. It is a living entity that proved women were powerful enough to create and sustain a culture, to nurture each other and overcome brutal opposition to do so. Festivals proved that feminism is a vital philosophy. The sight of several thousand naked women taking showering together, laying down carpet on hills for wheel chairs, stirring huge vats of 'goddess knows what!' for meals for several thousand, giving massages, screaming for more from musicians they love, trying to keep mud out of their tents and fighting to keep a space for us. That sight, even once, has been enough to sustain me for decades.'

'Alix Dobkin wrote: 'There is absolutely nothing on earth to compare to the women-only, woman-centered environment that festivals provide in an ongoing living situation. It's comfortable, energizing and expansive, like entering a warm room after bing out in the cold.'

'We started this journey 30 years ago. What visceral legacy did we leave?,' Daniels said.

'Laurie Fuch's Ladyslipper Music and Terry Grant's Goldenrod were there from the beginning and are still distributing women's' music. Margot McFedries, the first sound engineer at Michigan, went on to become one of the first sound women in her trade union in San Francisco. She is a permanent fixture in one of the most prestigious theatres in San Francisco. Barbara Price, who helped to produce the Michigan Womyns' Music Festival, runs the Montclair Women's Club in North California and continues to provide a venue for women's culture. Olivia Records has morphed in Olivia Cruises and Resorts. The business is thriving, and they are currently planning lesbian retirement communities. Kay Gardner wrote an opera, conducted women's' symphonies, pioneered the concept of music as healing and other accomplishments too numerous to list here. Her legacy will live on in many different communities and disciplines

'I also believe that the legacy of lesbian culture and women-only space is the personal transformation that occurs in that context. As Grace Atkinson once said, 'Once your consciousness is raised, it can't be lowered.'

'Claudia Brenner is a woman who was shot and saw her partner murdered on a camping trip on the Appalachian trail by a man who shot them because 'God told him to kill the lesbians'. She came to the East Coast Lesbian Festival a few months after the murder occurred. She thought she'd never be able to camp again, but felt that she'd be be safe at the festival. She started opening up in the safety of women, began telling her story. As she talked about it, a layer of the horror of that event began to peel away, and after that, she began talking to others, then wrote a book, called Eight Bullets, which has helped other victims of hate crimes and helped her to live her life. I remember the 62-year-old woman who came to me after one of my festivals and thanked me profusely for providing the space. She said that it was the first time in her life she felt safe to walk alone in the moonlight and trust that no harm would come to her. Creating safe space for women is no small act.

' ... . Amoja Three Rivers, feminist historian, has said that 'Women's festivals are glimpses of the world that women could build together, a practice ground for the matriarchy.'

'Although the world has changed in many ways—Ellen DeGeneres is getting Emmy Awards and Melissa Etheridge and Rosie O'Donnell are fabulously successful out lesbian performers, we still have work to do. Their success doesn't obviate my need for lesbian space. We still live in the patriarchy. Our work isn't done yet. The music industry today, just as an example, is increasingly misogynist and gay bashing. I think we need to hear songs about loving women now more than ever.

'Margie Adams has said that 'as long as there is woman-hatred, sanctioned and systematically practiced all over the world, I will be one of the women visually celebrating what woman loving sounds like.

'I'm with you Margie. I've been creating space for lesbian for 30 years, from livingrooms to Carnegie Hall, and every time I think that perhaps the era has passed, I think of the words of Nicole Rossard, a Quebecoise feminist philosopher, who said 'A lesbian who doesn't create lesbian space is a lesbian who is participating in her own extinction.'

'What is our legacy? We're not done yet.'

Historian

Bonnie Morris, women's studies professor at George Washington University, a historian of women's music festivals, spoke to the group of, '.. a radical movement sparked by young amazons in the early 1970s ... today being celebrated by proudly middle-aging and elder amazons.'

'We are a 30-year movement with two and three generations in the house, and many proud fans and activists are aglow with the fires of menopause,' she said. 'Documenting all that we've accomplished is simply a new category of volunteer workshift. You don't stop inciting; you just start writing. We used to argue about the politics of eating meat or wearing makeup; now we argue about where we're going to donate our women's music archives when we die. We're ready to teach future artists and young lesbian activists about the golden years of vinyl.'

She said that, in defiance of the limited roles and opportunities for female artists in the male-dominated recording industry, the women's music genre grew in healthy and progressive ways. Independent artists and recording studios like Olivia and Redwood Records, and women-only festivals, made cultural and economic change as producers, sound engineers, writers and fans invested themselves in getting feminist messages conceived by women, to women.

'This call for change named racism, as well as sexism and homophobia, with pointed song lyrics and intentionally diverse stage lineups, and self-scrutiny became an additional hallmark of women's music concerts and collectives. The will to identify and prevent exclusionary practices led to unique stage production ethics, such as sign-language interpretation at concerts and up-front seating for deaf and disabled fans. The lesbian fan base proved to be a hitherto untapped consumer niche for material production, so that woman-made art, clothing, political buttons, mugs and other lesbian-positive goods were sold alongside the music at concerts and festivals. The preponderance of lesbian consumers created a new sense of accountability among artists whose own sexuality represented a radical connection to their audiences.'

Diverse cultural lineups of artists became the imperative of the first festival producers, Kristin Lems and Lisa Vogel. An 'ethical superstructure of inclusion' became a cornerstone. The conservative Midwest became the focal point for festival culture with the National Women's Music Festival in Illinois in 1974 and the first Michigan festival in 1976. By 1990 there were 20 to 30 festivals held annually in almost every state, including Alaska and Hawaii.

Morris described the era which produced artists oblivious to mainstream critics or male fans, endless debate on separatism, a soundtrack of political love and feminist commitment, an alternative to bar culture, and the concept of lesbian space. The early days reduced many women's dependence on male services and gave opportunities to women in related trades as legions of women learned stage work, production, sound engineering and carpentry. DIY ( Do It Yourself ) recording developed when the content of a feminist artists' work was deemed unmarketable by mainstream agents.

'Festivals and companies willing to train women in music also served as a job corps for women who, newly divorced or coming out as lesbians, did not have the economic support of a male partner's income,' she said.

Feminist humor about subverting patriarchy opened doors for lesbian comedians who joined music artists onstage and paved the way for the eventual success of Ellen DeGeneres. Women's music journalism, such as Paid My Dues, Hot Wire and the resource catalogue Women's Music Plus, popularized the movement through direct mail and women's bookstores, feeding a new and hungry fan base.

The impact reached far beyond music and related professions, she said. 'For women in isolated, small towns with neither lesbian bars or concert venues, ordering women's music through the Ladyslipper catalog or Goldenrod made a personal connection to life-changing music possible. Millions came out privately to the records of Meg Christian, Cris Williamson and Alix Dobkin.'

Finally, Morris charged her listeners with keeping the early impact of women's music alive.

'So, did we change American history? Yes. We professionalized gay activism and began being paid for what we did so well. Through festivals and industry conferences like AWMAC [ the Association for Women's Music and Culture ] , we fostered outreach, empowerment, and organizing skills that led two generations to fight discrimination in our laws. We created a material culture of feminist activism sustained by song—the oral legacy of our wave. We made lesbian sexual orientation, partnership, and the stance of lesbian intelligence assets, not aspects to be written out of womankind or hidden, denied or downplayed. We put gay and feminist music selections into Tower Records and books on festival culture into Barnes & Noble. We leaped into the computer revolution to connect musicians and activists worldwide via the Internet. Today's women artists are on TV, in mainstream films, and some of us stay up late to watch Vicki Randle on Jay Leno. Through Olivia Cruises, today's lesbians have the option to take an all-dyke music voyage—where rainbow flags are displayed to welcome us in rural, Muslim Turkey! That's a global impact that gives me great hope.

'And now I'll stop and ask each of you in the audience what you hope will be remembered about us. And to WRITE IT DOWN.'


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