Testimony: Consciousness Raising In Women's Music
9 Songs That Just Might Change How You See The World
Since “From Separatism to Spiritual Reckoning: Meg Christian’s Path to Recovery and Rebirth” ran two weeks ago, I’ve had wonderful exchanges with some of you who had never heard women’s music before and wanted to know/hear more. Seeing as I’ve got features on some of my favorite artists from the genre coming in the upcoming months, I thought this might be a good opportunity to share a handful of songs that showcase the range of stories and experiences relayed under the umbrella of women’s music.
Joan Little—Sweet Honey in the Rock
In 1974, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, original member of the Freedom Singers and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, heard about Joan (pronounced Jo-Ann) Little, a woman who had been incarcerated in the Beaufort County Jail in North Carolina. The night jailer had attacked and raped Little. She killed him in self-defense and escaped the facility. While a manhunt was underway for Little, Reagon overheard a less-than-sympathetic conversation about the case and wrote “Joan Little” in response. Stanley Nelson directed Raise Your Voice, a documentary about the Sweet Honey in 2005, which tells the story of “Joan Little” and the group’s intensive history.
Ferron, a singer-songwriter from Canada, emerged in the late 70s, inspired by Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn. In her book An Army of Lovers: Women’s Music of the 70s and 80s, author Jamie Anderson shares the story of “Testimony,” which served as a breakout composition for Ferron. Composed for a film, This Film Is About Rape, Ferron wrote this song the night before the song was due, “inspired by a conversation and her own experience as a rape survivor.” Sweet Honey in the Rock covered this song on their We All…Everyone Of Us album in 1983 and their version was featured on the Season 3 finale of The L Word.
Don’t Pray for Me—Linda Tillery
When Linda Tillery came into women’s music, she already had a wealth of music industry experience under her belt. As a part of the psychedelic band The Loading Zone, she’d toured with Jeff Beck and Vanilla Fudge, and opened shows for Big Brother & The Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin), The Who, Sam & Dave, and many others. She released a sorely overlooked solo album as Sweet Linda Divine on CBS Records in 1970. While working in a women’s bookstore in the mid-70s, she discovered women’s music. Her official introduction to Olivia Records came as a producer for BeBe K’Roche, which led to her producing other albums for the label and her own solo project. This tune was written by Mary Watkins in response to Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade.
Sweet Woman—Cris Williamson
Cris Williamson had also been working in the folk circuit in the late 60s and early 70s. Meg Christian, prior to forming Olivia Records, hosted a radio show in Washington D.C. and had been playing Williamson’s album. They met when Williamson came to the area for a concert and was shocked to find women singing her songs in the audience. At her suggestion, Christian, Ginny Berson and a handful of other women would form Olivia Records. It was Cris who would deliver the label’s biggest success. Her 1975 album The Changer and the Changed would sell over 500,000 copies, unheard of, at the time, for an album on an independent label. The album resonated deeply because of its unassuming and affirming lyricism, presenting lesbians with representations of [some of] their lives and relationships in musical form.
Sugar Mama—Gwen Avery
Gwen Avery brought the deepest elements of the gospel and blues traditions to women’s music. She first appeared on the Olivia recording Any Woman’s Blues, which was recorded live in a women’s jail in San Bruno, California, along with Tillery and several poets including Pat Parker. “Sugar Mama,” an Avery original, would be included on Lesbian Concentrate, Olivia’s compilation album, produced in direct response to Anita Bryant’s aforementioned anti-gay campaign. “Sugar Mama” would make Avery a staple in the women’s community.
Alix Dobkin—The Woman In Your Life
Alix Dobkin’s anthem of self-definition immediately struck a chord with listeners when it was released in 1973 on the Lavender Jane Loves Women album. Dobkin had also been a folk singer in the sixties, said to have been Bob Dylan’s favorite singer. She became known as the “Head Lesbian,” and remained a controversial figure until her death earlier this year. “The woman in your life/She's someone to pursue/She's patient and she's waiting and she'll take you home now/The woman in your life, she can wait so easily/And she knows everything you do, because the woman in your life is you.”
Maxine Feldman was, like Alix Dobkin, a forerunner in the making of women’s music. Her first recording, a single titled “Angry Atthis,” was recorded in 1972 and produced by comedians Patty Harrison and Robin Tyler. “Amazon” was written in 1976 (officially released on Feldman’s 1979 Closet Sale) and opened every Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. The Toshi Reagon-produced remake featuring women’s music notables Holly Near, Cris Williamson, Judith Casselberry, Aleah Long, gina breedlove, and others should not be missed.
Beautiful Soul—Margie Adam (with Cris Williamson and Meg Christian)
In 1975, Margie Adam, Cris Williamson, Holly Near and Meg Christian were undoubtedly the ones in women’s music. They were selling out venues and even known as The Fab Four within lesbian feminist circles. Margie’s music sounds like what might have happened if Laura Nyro and Carole King had had their own incredibly inventive daughter. This is one of the greatest examples of her brilliance. Do yourself a favor and dive into her debut album, Songwriter. It wouldn’t hurt to listen to Dusty Springfield’s holy take on this one as well, recorded in the 70s and only released after her death.
A Chording to the People—Mary Watkins
Mary Watkins brilliance has never, truly, been celebrated. This Howard graduate, who majored in music composition, moved to the Bay Area and ended up working in the shipping department at Olivia Records, while working as a musician in both bands and musical theater. Through the 70s and 80s, she would play on and orchestrate some of the most important albums within the genre including Meg Christian’s Face the Music, Call It Jazz by Alive!, and Linda Tillery’s debut for Olivia. Mary’s 1978 release Something Moving captured the breadth of her interests: jazz, classical, soul, disco, rock and experimental forms. The album also initiated much dialog as to whether or not instrumental music could convey a feminist message.
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