Art & Activism: Interviews
Holly gives numerous interviews throughout a year. The tabs below explore questions and answers from a variety of interviews that were conducted by email.
"Internet technology has made it possible for me to do interviews by email. The inquiring writer asks the questions; I send the answers. They can seldom use the whole interview. But here I have the luxury to elaborate or print the original."
Click each of the interview subjects/titles below to read about it.
In an interview, I was asked to discuss activism. Words like "activist" and "activism" often strike a chord of nervousness or hesitancy with many people. How do people become activists, how do busy people participate, how do we get young people involved etc. The following are some thoughts I have on the subject of activism.
People in power need to control others in order to maintain power. One of the ways to do that is to take that which is threatening and demonize it. So words like "activist", "feminist", "socialist" are intentionally identified as anti-patriotic and only the very brave are willing to call themselves such things. In truth, an activist is one who is actively involved in creating community, whether that is locally in their neighborhood or internationally. It is an admirable quality.
I believe people who practice their beliefs in daily life are activists. Again, building community. I don't believe an overworked, underpaid single mom needs to necessarily show up at a meeting to be an activist. If she works at helping her children unlearn the prejudice and violent behavior that children are taught daily, she is an activist in my mind. Think what would happen if people simply did intervention from time to time. What if we made it clear in our daily lives that we don't think it is ok to hit children. If we didn't laugh at racist and sexist and homophobic jokes at parties. In fact, what if we said gently, "Hmm. It is sad that you think that is funny. Is there no love in your life that you need to create humor at someone else's expense?" Now that changes a party!
I think the web site is a very useful tool for organizations and for example, gay youth who live isolated have found that they are not alone. My only hope is that people keep coming outside. The community is not in front of a computer. That is how to find community but then one needs to walk out the door and make contact with the real thing.
Young people are generally active. It is great when that energy is put towards community. Progressive teacher really try to involve their students in world thinking. They don't get much credit for it. They often don't get support and sometimes they get threatened and fired. One way to help children is to help teachers. Some young people start up pen pal relationships with someone who lives in another country. Some learn a song in a different language and then go sing it at a hospital. Organizations could invite young people to be on their board of directors, teach them to chair a meeting, ask them to design a leaflet or invite them to speak at an event. I am not an activist because I have some particular politic. I am an activist because I prefer people who care to those who don't. The quality of my life is better when I work for change than if I sink in to the despairing world of competition and violence. Life in community is more interesting to me than life in isolation. Sometimes activism is as simple as falling in love. I am interested that young people are really taking on issues of money. These huge events they organize to confront the world economy are spectacular.
Mainstream media perpetuates the idea that there is no activism. This is a great tool for the power structure that is in place. Of course there is activism. But I think as a movement grows and swells, the media is forced to present some aspect of it because it is too large to ignore completely. The anti war movement that opposed the war in Indochina went on for a long time before it got headline space. That was true in the anti-apartheid movement too. But eventually, when there are a million people marching, the press has to cover it, even if they report only 500,000 people. There were 80,000 in DC a while back, protesting Bush and war and corporate economy. In an era of "homeland security" and threats against freedom of expression, that is a lot of people to show up at a demonstration in DC. A lot! It didn't make the front page of the NY Times. It barely made The Times at all. That is not an accident. It is intentional.
Part of being an activist is remembering to tell each other the truth even if the media wont. That is why community is important. We need to tell each other the news. One person tells one person tells one person. In that way, we do not fall prey to the news as those in power want us to receive it. They want us to think that everyone is out there in support of Bush and the policies he represents. The safer we can make it for every day folks the better. We have seen it before. First one woman tells about rape or incest, she is not believed, she is put in a mental institution, or stoned to death in the plaza. But then another and another and another. And now there is a growing refusal on the part of society at large to convict the victim. The larger the resistance movement, the easier it is for people who are afraid, to stand forward. So, first we organize the brave. We create a space for the timid or for those who if they speak out now, will lose their jobs and in some cases, their lives. It is very hard in the early stages of a movement to trust that in time, the middle of the road will feel safe enough to tell the truth and think clearly.
Another important aspect is to support public spokespeople. We need people out there who are articulate. Help build the careers of artists who tell the truth. Invite them to sing. Give support to Amy Goodman and get local public stations to carry her program. I have often said this to my audience, use my concerts and the concerts of other progressive artists you like to bring a new person into community. Music is a good way to open up dialogue. Give progressive music to friends for gifts. Use every gentle opportunity to build the movement for social change. I am amazed at how many people right now are looking for an alternative to the dominate opinion. That is a good sign for humanity.
What do you think about all these debates over sexual identity?
Sexuality apart from procreation continues to be a wide open field. I am not sure we know as much as we pretend to know. But it sure is fun watching it unfold.
For some, sexuality just isn't interesting at all. I think it is a mistake to think of sexuality as the most important issue in the LGBT community. That thinking falls prey to the heterosexual perspective on homosexuality. It seems to me the most important issue in the LGBT community is the right to be queer i.e. the right to be free of the heterosexual assumption.
The issue of rights and safety is hugely important. For that there must be a highly sophisticated and organized political movement. And with time and education, that movement links with other civil and human rights organizations and communities to work for peace and justice with all our creative diversity.
I do see that sex is central to some people's identity. Studying sex seems best served through the door of curiosity and fascination. We are a complex species to observe.
The building of friendship, family, community and love is more complicated. We are so isolated in this country, no longer supported by tribes and villages. That said, who makes you feel good? Hopefully not some stereotypical profile. If one is just after a type and only wants sex from that type, then I would suggest looking at issues of addiction and dependency. If one is desperate for love then I suggest looking at one's friends and family and see if love is all around. If not, get a new set of friends, a new family. If one is looking to alleviate loneliness? There are many people in long term relationships who are lonely. Does one want to have children and raise a family? Can you count on a partnership to last as long as the children? Are you afraid of growing old alone? What about elder communities? There are many issues that should not get confused with sex or rights but have to do with building community.
Maybe one finds a friend/lover/partner for life. Monogamous, like penguins. (Although Ellen Degeneres poses the question with regards to penguins and monogamy, "How do they know?")
I don't like to throw all questions of sexual preference or bias or birth right into one pot. Nor do I like church, state, parent or cultural prejudice or political community to decide who I love/live with or with whom I have sex.
Anything that is nonviolent is OK with me. I believe in making as much room for people as possible but if someone is into violence, I don't really want to know them. I don't really want to hold hands with them at a gay rights rally and pretend we are a united front. I don't understand gay people who vote conservative because they think it is good for business and then want the gay community to support them in a work place dispute for domestic partnership.
Do you identify as a bisexual and if so, have you been criticized by gay people for being bisexual?
I don't identify as a bisexual. But I know many bisexuals have felt attacked by the gay community. I understand why lesbians and gay men get suspicious around bisexuals. Maybe they don't trust that the bisexuals will stick around when the going gets tough. But not all bisexuals bail and some gay people bail or stay in the closet. Happens all the time. It is dangerous to make assumptions or rely on generalities. Trust comes from a deeper place.
It is appropriate to mistrust heterosexual institutions and heterosexism. It is inappropriate to mistrust all heterosexuals. But it is impossible to tell by looking. If black people mistrust white people, they are mistrusting racism and that is appropriate. It is up to the white person to learn to be an ally and in time, trust will be established. Most women trust men who are allies but not men in general. A lesbian might learn to trust a non-lesbian ally but not necessarily all heterosexuals. How one chooses to identify is personal and cultural. There is no sexuality that is greater or lesser than another. The rest just has to get worked out. One disco, one soft ball game, one lost love, one gay pride rally at a time.
Why don't you identify as a bisexual?
I don't know why. Just isn't a handle I relate to. I include human and civil rights in all that I do. I am monogamous. I relate to that term. I am a feminist. If I am with a woman I am a feminist. If I am alone I am a feminist. If I am with a man I am a feminist. And until the one I am with and I part ways, then I am just what I am in that relationship and I don't much think about what I will do next. I focus more on what I bring to that relationship. It is a full time job being honest one moment at a time, remembering to love, to honor, to respect. It is a practice, a discipline, worthy of every moment. I think my feminism and my ability to love has been highly informed by having had lesbian relationships. The quality of my life has, without question, been elevated.
For a brief moment in time I struggled with sexual identity, somewhere in the mid eighties. Then I realized it was the wrong question for me. That is not to say it is the wrong question for others. It just wasn't important to me. So I haven't really thought much about it since. I am going to sing lesbian love songs and support gay rights no matter what. The rest is public relations.
Are you married?
I don't believe in marriage unless one has some need for a tax break or social security. I would marry to simplify some red tape. I don't mind if people get married. It just isn't for me at this time. That could change. For now, the state and the church seldom approve of anything I do so I don't need their approval on love. I don't aspire to the heterosexual nuclear family model. However, I have lots of straight and gay friends who are married and they create their own model. They love it. I love them. I celebrate love. The more confident one becomes, the less one needs all people to be the same. Bigotry and judgment are the height of insecurity. So I don't much care who is gay or straight or married or not. I notice mostly notice if they are brave enough to confront bigotry. That is a quality I greatly admire.
I am very sad for men and women trapped in any relationship where there is cruelty, dominance, inequity. I long for the liberation of all people, including those trapped in relationship.
I do want to clarify one thing. I think it is absolutely essential that there are LGBT organizations focusing on rights and culture and safety and sexuality. It is important to keep a door open and if we don't work hard to do that, dominant culture will happily close it. The LGBT community can not count on the peace movement to keep these issues alive anymore than the peace community can count on the LGBT community to end war. We are all needed to cover all the territory.
Young people discovering their sexuality, their identity, must know they walk with a strong tradition and that they are not alone. They have a right to information without being pressured. Their choices will be different than their elders for they come into their own at a different time. There are brilliant out lesbians and gay men and bisexuals and transgendered people and heterosexuals keeping the fire of change alive and not a day goes by when I don't feel grateful to them for their work.
In the meantime, there are all sorts of other things going on in the world. Sexuality is only one of the many things we are. Loving. Sharing. Feeding. Housing. Being brave enough to identify as a world citizen for peace. Now that is almost as dangerous as coming out as a queer. Lots of danger in the world. Link up. Don't be left in the wake. Single issue movements will not have the power to sustain the onslaught of hate and war and violence that is before us. Get into coalitions. When they take away your first amendment rights, your right to travel, your right to legal council, your right to religious freedom, your right to your color/sex/gender/age, your right to protest - well, it won't matter who is in your bed. You're gonna be queer.
There is a kind of naked simplicity to the way both Cris and I present our music in a live concert situation. It is very intimate. Her work is more relationship based, mine is more world view based but both are deeply personal. We also have a history with a large part of the audience and I think new people who walk into that environment feel it. They know they are part of something bigger than what is going on on stage. Cris sings about relationships that have 20 or 30 years history. I sing about ideas that have a 30,000 years of history. We not only carry songs, we carry time. When we were younger, we were time. That is how I see young people performing today. They are so in-the-moment just as we were—a beautiful urgency. Now we are older, the present gets smaller and smaller. That is why it is important to have artists of all ages, cultures, experiences, and perspectives out there working so that the music is as big as the spirit of the world.
Good teaching is, in part, the act of being a bridge. A little footbridge sometimes, and other times a long and glorious expansion. It is leaning in to someone else's journey just long enough to invite an idea and then leaning back so as not to direct the idea. And if one is a mentor, sometimes it means intervening between a student and harm's way. A good teacher doesn't try to fix someone. I try to invite people to their best selves. And to help people discover what it is that stops them from their own greatness.
It is not for me to say how my time here will be viewed but I do believe that I was born to ask the questions not usually asked. So what if progressive ideas are heard in the main stream? The question is, what isn't being heard? It is a wonderful thing that radical ideas make their way into the middle but if every one goes into the middle with them, then what? So I like staying out on the edge. There is never a shortage of material, challenge or inspiration out here. Sometimes I put my feet up with a box of popcorn, turn on the TV, and spend the evening watching the middle. Ideas and feelings that were locked up in cruel secret boxes when I was young are running all over TV. But the cruel boxes still exist so when I come to the end of the popcorn, I turn off the TV and carry on.
How would you characterize your vision for the future on your latest release, Edge? What direction is your activism taking these days?
I took a year off for my 50th birthday a few years ago, didn't listen to music, didn't read the news, rediscovered the quiet creative part of my mind, spent a lot of time with children and young people. I think what came out of that in Edge is a spiritual and evolutionary response to a crisis of faith in which human beings continue to flounder. We are angry and tired, which in some people gets expressed through passionate activism, in others through fearful religious impositions, and still in others through a kind of numb apathy. No recording is complete since it stops time the moment you record it and of course, time and growth goes on. But Edge captures a moment in time.
What do you think of the state of women's music today, in light of the popularity of the Lilith Faire and artists like Sarah McLachlan and Jewel?
There has always been a difference between women who do music and the code word, "women's music" which really means feminist and lesbian-feminist music. I don't think Lilith Faire ever pretended to be a radical political expression. I think it was meant to be fun, women gathering together to have fun. And in a male dominated music industry, when women gather intentionally and name it, the gathering takes on a political tone because male culture isn't used to it. When the rockers gather is it called a men's gathering? I don't think so. When there are all men in a band it is a band. When there are all women in a band it is called a girl band. I think it is terrific that there are so many women rising in the music industry. That just wasn't possible 30 years go and if we had something to do with it, I am well pleased. There are journeys to be honored. There is Dorothy Dandridge to Lauren Hill. Dorothy wasn't even particularly political but her very presence, her courage, rocked the world. These journeys are worthy of notice.
However, if what you want to know is the state of radical-feminist and lesbian- feminist music, it is hard for me to say because I don't know the women who are writing and singing in their garages and on the street. When we were first doing this music, no one knew us either so I hesitate to comment on that which I don't know about. But it appears that young people are taking the discussion of gender and sexuality to a different place. Just as we fought to have gender and sexuality brought to the table of political and social debate, young people are now fighting to remove such narrow identifications. I dont see that as going back but rather they are daring to take it the next step. We couldn't have skipped over what we did. But there is no reason to stay there. Now, the music. I am grateful. The world still has access to the music of Sweet Honey in the Rock and Toshi Reagon carries on that tradition. The world still has June Millington and The Butchies carry on that tradition. The world still has Mercedes Sosa and Irene Farrera carries on that tradition. There are women like Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Copper Wimmen and Zrazy and they carry on from where I stood. It is as it should be.
Keep in mind, the women of my generation are still working, not in a retro way, but investigating new ideas, new sounds, from a place of maturity. That is a different place than from the perspective of the young warrior. It was wonderful to be young. I am finding that it is also wonderful to be aging. I like the way my voice has developed a warm woody sound that was unavailable to me in my youth. I have more power in my lungs. I love that I am calm and detached in a way I did not even want to be in my youth. I like listening to the sounds coming from my peers. We are still delightfully fearless. Linda Tillery and The Cultural Heritage Choir, Rhiannon, Cris Williamson, Janis Ian, Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Here is what I think about political music. It is always there because political thinkers are always there. However, it ebbs and flows in relationship to political movements. When activism hovers and shimmers close to the ground, so does the music. When activism explodes into the sky, so does the music. But we are always here if and when you want to find us.
Very few mainstream women artists do political music with notable exceptions like Tracy Chapman, the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco. What does this indicate about the state of women's civil rights?
Perhaps young women are enjoying the fruits of our labor and there will be a pause. Remember we had McArthyism and the '50s before we reacted in the '60s and '70s. We had profound inspiration. There comes a time when a person wants to fly to some new place and then s/he realizes someone has a foot on the wing. For a while, one is so used to that foot that one doesn't notice it is there or thinks that foot-on-wing is the natural state. But fortunately, a spark of truth enters the universe, and one soul at a time starts to think clearly, and soon, there is a critical mass and a major social change follows. I have heard singers so powerful that their song renders the foot weightless.
What's the most important issue facing the women today?
I think it is very hard to remember in the midst of essential success (gay characters on TV, a black woman one of the most powerful forces in the entertainment industry, women's soccer taking the world by storm) that we still live in a racist and misogynist world, that people still beat, insult, and abuse their children. That corporations are in bed with the prison system, using predominately black men as slave labor. And that women are burned to death for showing their faces. So the most important issue facing women today is to remember, to stay alert, to be mindful, to see social action as a gift, an opportunity to reshape the world. Not completely in one's lifetime, and not at the expense of one's ability to breathe, and not out of guilt, but because birthing is unique unto women and it does not mean just having babies and cleaning stoves. It means taking the full and dignified position in society as the great mother, the clan's mother, the tribal intelligence, the witch, the healer, the crouching tiger, and the hidden dragon. When society convinces women that we do not have that much power, it is free to destroy. Remembering is most important.
Has your view of the lesbian community changed since you married a man? Were you surprised by the reaction of the lesbian/women's community?
Well, first of all, I live with a man, but we are not married. I don't really believe in marriage. It is a left-over from the patriarchy. I think people should be able to define their family and that all should be treated equally in the eyes of the state without having to get permission or a license. If a patient wants their lover in the emergency room, then they get to have their lover in the emergency room. If people want to have union ceremonies and ask the support of their friends and family in their journey, that is also a personal choice. But I do not ask the state or the church for approval of my life/love choices.
I understand why GLBT want to marry. I am not opposed to this as part of a transition to a better place. I know it would be very difficult to get heterosexuals to give up marriage. So if one wants equality, it is essential that any couple can marry, regardless of race or gender. However, in my heart of hearts I want us all to reach higher than what heterosexuals have settled for. Maybe some day.
As for the lesbian community, I think there was a panic initially. Keep in mind, it was almost 20 years ago when I first had a relationship with a man after having been out as a lesbian all over the world. At that time, there were only a handfull of lesbians as well-known nationally as I was. I was out in People Magazine! I dont think a woman had ever come out in People Magazine before...at least not a singer. So to lose one out lesbian spokesperson was very threatening. Lots of lesbians had come out to my music, had fallen in love to my music. So there was an understandable fear-based response. Some women who had been outed back then, had immediately married and said that their flings with girls had been a phase or a mistake.People feared I would do that. But once the lesbian community saw that I was not abandoning lesbianism, that I continued to work for gay and lesbian rights, that I continued to promote lesbian culture, I think a trust was rebuilt. And we are fine now. It is interesting though. That was 20 years ago and it is still a subject of discussion. Some wounds take a long time to heal
How has your identity and your thoughts on identity in general evolved over the last decade?
Human beings like clubs. It makes us feel good to have an US and a THEY. And often for survival reasons it is an essential tactic. If the THEY attack the US, the US has to become more US than they might otherwise be just to defend themselves. But it is important for me to remember these are artificial divisions. And except for the purpose of inviting people out of isolation or for the purpose of defense, I try to avoid self definition through group identity .
If you weren't a singer/songwriter/activist/musician, what would you be?
An admirer of a singer/songwriter/activist/musician
Of all the experiences in your life, what event or events have touched you the most? Any big regrets?
Those are two huge questions squeezed into one. I can't even approach the first. The second? Yes, of course. But many of those regrets turned into lessons. I try to forgive myself.
What three people living or dead would you like to invite to a dinner party?
To my great surprise and pleasure, I have, in fact, had dinner with most of the people living with whom I would like to have dinner. I would have liked to have heard Edith Piaf sing live but I don't think I needed to have dinner with her.I am honored to be on the planet at the same time as Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. I think Maxine Waters is amazing.
The following are excerpts from an interview done in 1990 with The Progressive (freelance writers Susan Watrous and Bob Blanchard). I have cut bits out that were dated or that referred to out-of-date print material, etc.
The interviewers asked several questions about audience and artist.
They've let me know the effect of my music, and that has led me to be more willing to acknowledge myself as a teacher and healer. The other side of that is taking responsibility. A lot of artists say, 'I'm not political.' People are afraid of this word 'political,' but perhaps what they really fear is the power of their own music."
In art and music, there is a certain delicate line-or choices-that artists have to make. Some artists must spend their time practicing their instrument in order to be the greatest cellist, which doesn't allow as much time to be exposed to the world, to become an extraordinary thinker or an activist. Others may spend all the time on the picket lines and won't have time to hone their craft-their songs may not be as brilliant.
But every once in a while a Sweet Honey in the Rock or a Pablo Casals comes along-thoughtful people as well as great musicians. I think it's hard to do everything, but these are the choices artists have to make.
It's been really important to me to be a good activist and a good thinker, a good musician, a good singer, and a good entertainer. You can't do it all, but if the truth be known, I have walked those delicate lines as best I know how.
As an artist, what is it you hope to touch in people? Why do you do what you do?
There is no single way for an artist to approach humanity and the expression of it. I've tried to pay attention to diversity and human experience, to be alert to my own state of amazement and to write about that-sometimes rhetorically and sometimes symbolically.
Part of being an artist is being willing to be shocked, being willing to be surprised, being willing to be hurt, by things we've been shocked, surprised, and hurt by for years. To be always in a state of wonder, even about things that are familiar. It's a kind of sensitivity that can sometimes be an extraordinary blessing and sometimes a real pain.
When an audience comes to one of my concerts, I hope they'll see themselves, somewhere, in one of the songs, not in a state of Pollyanna purity or perfection, but as a self they like and admire and respect. They might actually learn something and be able to move to a new state of comprehension of them- selves as a result of looking in the mirror that they, in fact, created. That circle of expression is part of what I have tried to teach myself.
When change happens as a result of people looking in such a mirror, I am reassured again and again of the power of art and culture. We're living in a state of denial if we ignore the central nature of culture. When I say "culture," it can be as big a picture as the food we eat and the clothes we wear, or songs, dance, films. Music, for example, can be used against us as much as it can be used for us. Muzak can put a whole nation to sleep, whereas a lullaby is intended to put a child to sleep in a sweet way. We have to be careful about how we choose to go to sleep.
It sounds as if you're worried that people on the Left may not acknowledge the tremendous power of culture to influence consciousness.
I don't know what "the Left" is any more - I'm not sure what I mean when I say those two words. But I hope progressive humanitarians will take culture very seriously. In language, for example, just re=teaching a group of people to say "he and she" was a huge annoyance to people, but it meant something. It rattled a whole way of thinking. And once women are actually not excluded, I don't think any of us will give a damn what pronouns are used. That wasn't the point. The point was that because the pronouns were exclusive, we were also excluded from society - it was an intolerable thing and language mattered.
Language is like songs, like food, like dance - it is the expression of what we think. Sometimes we have to undo how we think, clear out the misinformation, and actively put chosen information into those spaces. I don't believe you can do it haphazardly.
What are some of the lessons we need to start putting into action?
t is essential, for example, that men start being interested in and excited by how women think. To come to a concert and hear a lot of songs from a female perspective should not make men say, "Oh well, that's for women." Similarly, white people have to understand that there are different time lines in different cultures, different ways of perceiving things. Not all thought is linear. Not all thought is based on achievement.
In a cross-cultural world, we have to be willing to go and sit quietly - not be the center of attention. We have to be able to listen. We all have something we don't know, and we must be excited by the possibility of stretching that limit. Because of the nature of dominant culture, a huge amount of that rests on the shoulders of white middle and upper-class men. They have a longer journey to go than many people.
But they've also had a longer turn at the top than some other people. So maybe it could be seen as the wheel turning.
Yes, it is turning. But I don't believe in the punishment theory. I do think they have had immense privilege, but rather than dump their privilege and start pretending they don't have any skills, they need to use the privilege and skill and all that opportunity to take that longer journey. And now. Right now. In certain areas, there's not a lot of time. Time is an issue.
If a woman has been in a crowd and heard sexist jokes and very quietly, a man intervenes and says, "I don't think that's funny," there is such wonderful energy. He hasn't drawn attention to himself but he has intervened, he has interrupted it. I can be refueled for hours by something like that. And I have to remember that I can offer that same refueling to people of color by intervening in a racist comment, or when children are being abused. The act of intervention for one another can be so revitalizing. I mean, why would we not want to bring that kind of pleasure to each other?
You've said the 1970s and 1980s were "an unacknowledged, extraordinary time." Others have commented on the climate of cynicism and apathy. How and why is your perspective different?
I'm not allowing my perspective to be dictated by the dominant culture. Some people went to sleep, got apathetic, or became materialistic—part of the "Me Generation." But to me, the 1970s were the time when all of the romantic principles that got unloosed coming out of the 1950s actually had to be put into practice.
There weren't lots of big demonstrations; there weren't peo- ple running around with ribbons in their hair. There were working class, hard-core people out there trying to change the school system, to get child care, to stop capital punishment, trying to confront nuclear power plants, to make abortion legal, and trying to address the number of people in the South who maybe had won the right to vote, but still couldn't read. It was the era of the rise of the women's movement, which completely changed attitudes all over the world in ways we'll never be able to count. It was organizing on a grass-roots level.
The 1970s changed a lot of attitudes. People began to put the ideas to work, which is the next step after what was experienced as the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Remember, the Vietnam war wasn't even over until 1975, and the covert war began again in Indochina. In the early 1970s, they still had it on the books that being homosexual was a disease or a mental illness. The Stonewall riots took place, and the gay-liberation movement was ignited. Environmental groups expanded. Sol- idarity movements developed. Nicaragua had a revolution. Stu- dents began pressuring universities to divest their funds in South Africa. There was so much of that kind of creative work in those two decades. I mean, what is this idea that it all hap- pened in the 1960s? That kind of nostalgic interpretation of history disempowers the present and confuses one's plans for the future.
If one considers that those were also Reagan's years of "mourning in America," the work of those struggling for change becomes that much more courageous.
Yes, all of this happened despite that destructive mentality. People stayed in there and worked against it. It didn't look romantic any more, because in that climate it was really hard work.
Anyway, I thought the 1970s and 1980s were incredible decades, and they were half my life. I refuse to have somebody come along on television, or some Top-40 radio program, and dismiss half my life as unimportant. I find it astounding.
Believing in the significance of this era is a gift to a whole generation, an affirmation of the choices we've made. It's empowering to believe that the time we live in is a good time, even if it's a hard time. If you believe your time is your time, it empowers you. I do believe the powers that be would like us to remain isolated. One of the ways to do that is to accuse the public of apathy, and they say, "Oh, right, I'm apathetic." Or say, "Nothing went on." Right, nothing went on. You just keep feeding hogwash to people, and pretty soon they'll eat it. I think that is what's happened, and I'd like to encourage people with political perspectives not to buy such an insulting meal.
If somebody says to us, "What about the apathetic times?" we must ask them who they're hanging out with, who they're talking to. Stop it again and again when it comes up in conversation. Our most immediate history is being wiped out from under us. Go see miners on strike in the Southeast. Go see black people defending themselves against drugs, and against the war on drugs which is a war against their communities. Go see the work done by the gay community to fight AIDS. Go see single mothers trying to raise healthy children with no help from society. Go see members of the progressive church risking their lives to stop the death squads in El Salvador.
We who are interested in relative truth have to keep digging for it and not let ourselves be sucked under.
It seems that being an artist requires a delicate balance be- tween a state of motion and a sense of strong roots. Your roots reach back to the rural community of Potter Valley in northern California. Was that particular setting significant in giving you a base for your work today?
There's no way for me to know whether if I had been born in New York City I would have thought this way as well. But I didn't come from New York City; I grew up in a family that knew it was living on Pomo Indian land, which is different from the experience of many kids. My parents had been involved in the labor movement; if we'd grown up in the city, we would have been red-diaper babies, but out in Potter Valley, there was nobody to red-diaper with. When my parents moved to the country, they realized country people function differently than city people. You can either be an outsider or you start to be a farmer.
My parents thought politically but acted personally, because in the countryside that's how you have to act. They were involved in starting a preschool, and working in the PTA to stop corporal punishment.
Was there ever a moment-perhaps as a teenager-when you thought, "I'm going to be an artist"?
Near: Like, "I think I'll grow up to be Holly Near"?
Yes. Was it a conscious decision, or more a process of evolution?
Sometimes I forget I'm "her " even now. Was there a moment? There were definite turning points. Even when I was little, I was disturbed by the fact that I was different. I wasn't sophisticated enough to know how I was different, or what I was different from, but I had sneaking suspicions that some of the things going on in my mind weren't going on in other people's minds. That disturbed me.
My mom helped me in that, as did my father. They encouraged thought, not "Think like me" but "Think like you. Learn to think. You'll get through life better if you learn how to think."
In 1971, when you were invited to join the Free the Army show, it was a major intersection for your career, the point at which your artistic path and your political work joined. What was it like when the two parts finally came together?
It completely changed everything in my life. I had been a film and television actress before I was in the FTA show, and I did several TV projects when I returned, but it wasn't fulfilling any more. I didn't really reject that other life from a moralistic point of view. It was just shallow. Of course, all this reads like some huge choice I made. The fact of the matter is that the peace movement needed me and artists are suckers for that. We need immediate affirmation all the time.
Did you know what you had to do next, or did it take a bit of trial and error?
I'd been raised on Paul Robeson and the Weavers, but unfortunately I never had an opportunity to ask them what kind of contradictions they had to pass through to do their work. I didn't know the process that one had to go through to do political art. Doing Hair in New York, before the Free the Army show, that was actually the beginning of the turning point. When the students were killed at Kent State, the cast voted to do a demonstration from the stage, and I abstained.
That's an interesting story because often I've learned what to do next by being, I hate to use the word "wrong," but by making a choice that, moments after I made it, I would decide I'd never make again. It's an interesting way to learn. And if you have the guts to keep making mistakes, your wisdom and intelligence leap forward with huge momentum. Leaping away from my mistakes has propelled me forward-not like disengaging, but rather rising out of them. It has great force behind it. It makes for great storytelling, too, because people love to hear the mistakes you've made.
When we talk about artistic evolution and expansion. what are the necessary ingredients? What do you need to continue to grow?
Well, the first thing is, I don't believe in nirvana. That helps. Even if nirvana was handed to us on a silver platter, this would be the first day of our struggle to keep it.
My creativity and my political work are linked. I don't go out and do this work out of guilt or out of responsibility, though I used to. Now I do it because it makes for the life I want to have. It creates the memories I want to look back on. It creates the substance. It creates the passion with which I make love. It promotes the tones that get into the music. If I didn't think and feel the way I think and feel, I couldn't sing the way I sing. And I like singing the way I sing. You can't just leave out one part; the bread won't rise if the yeast isn't there. I like this life. I like it when it's hard, and I like it better when it's not, but I know you don't get the sweet part without the bitter.
We have to go into the hard parts with fascination, knowing that it's going to be like a dancer working out. It's going to hurt, the muscles are going to hurt. If people are willing to go out there and run three, five miles a day and really go through the grueling stuff of keeping in shape, then those of us who believe in emotional and political and mental and intellectual and economic and all those other ways of keeping in shape have to be willing to put in the same amount of sweat.
You see dancers enjoying the hurt; we, too, have to figure out how to find pleasure in the stretches. And when we make mistakes say, "I'm blessed that I have an opportunity to learn from this." And when we burn out, when we're tired, we have to rest. Although, of course, there is the issue of necessity, the urgency attached to survival.
Does having a long-term perspective help you sustain energy for your work?
Yes. If you know where you've come from, it's easier to know where you're going. It's not so lonely. And also to accept that what we really cared about in one moment has to change along with us.
Being a troubadour, being an artist, being a political musician is a constant state of motion. I suppose that's where the idea of movements came from.
In 1989, you celebrated your fortieth birthday. It seems to be a time for looking at your life as a glass half-full. What's your feeling for the 1990s? What's next for Holly Near?
In all fairness, I haven't always seen my life as a glass half-full. I've had real moments of despair—longer than moments, longer than I wish they were.
But I feel very positive and happy right now, and in good health. Interestingly enough, I don't know how to answer your question. I don't really have the slightest idea what's next. I think that's why I'm so energetic right now; it's a gestation period, I feel like I'm waiting.
I'm interested in the integration of the forms of theater and music and film, and of television, of song writing. Part of keeping this space open is not to try to choose a form yet-to spend more time thinking about content, the next expression of an idea, and let form take care of itself. I think it will find me. It always has.
Because I'm a very organized person, it's tempting for me to want to get next year organized, but I think I'm supposed to wait for a while.
Holly Near's recent recording, "Edge," makes it clear that she has not rested on her laurels, but continues to write and sing political songs with all the grace, humor and the maturity that comes from doing this work for nearly 3 decades.
She took time yesterday from her anti-war work to answer five of my questions:
Why aren't the networks giving the protests great coverage?
It is not in their best interest. Long sentences with complete ideas and opposition thinking has always been on the outer edge. Then as the middle begins to feel safe enough to accept some of the so called "radical thinking", ideas move to the middle and a new edge is created. Some people move into the middle with the ideas and some stay on the edge. At least that is how it has looked to me for the time I have been around on this planet. I like staying closer to the edge. Sometimes I visit the middle. Just wouldn't want to live there. I hope that the global peace activists remember that even with minimum coverage and misrepresentation, they have been hugely important. This kind of work takes time. It is not a sound bite.
What is the craziest thing that happened on a New Year's Eve?
I am a rather quiet person. Don't have lots of crazy things to report. I am often in bed by 10pm knowing that it is midnight somewhere in the world. I do like it when the sun shines on New Year's day. Seems promising.
What is your favorite Pete Seeger moment?
Had lunch at his house, wonderful soup cooked by Toshi Seeger. They both have incredible memories and are good story tellers. I hope I can retain half as much as I become an elder. But favorite moment? Probably sound check at the Greek Theater in Berkeley with Arlo Guthrie, Ronnie Gilbert, Jeff Langley, Susan Freundlick, myself and Pete. We were on tour. The sun was out, Pete brought out his recorder/flute, sat on the floor, leaned against the leg of the piano and played the sweetest melody. Everything got quiet except the birds who seemed familiar with the tune.
What is the best pseudo-reality show on television right now, aside from the Nightly News of course?
We gave up having a TV last year. So I am out of the loop. Life is way better than TV. I recommend it to anyone who has forgotten they have one.
Do you have any weapons of mass destruction that Hans Blix should know about?
No. I still know how to think critically and sing without an instrument. But that is only a threat to those who dominate and seek control. I don't think the masses (or Hans for that matter) would find it a threat.
alternative answers by dj jaws
this month we're going to discuss the expression "radical-lesbian-feminist-singer-songwriter". can you say "radical-lesbian feminist-singer-songwriter" three times fast? i didn't think so… however, if you look in the dictionary, under the word "radical-lesbian-feminist-singer-songwriter", you'll most likely find a picture of holly near. her voice has been described as a cross between joan baez and joni mitchell, but her style is purely her own, as is evidenced in her outstanding, autobiographical one-woman show, "fire in the rain…singer in the storm", at the union square theatre. holly's career began in 1969, when she had a small part in the original broadway cast of "hair", which led to parts in early 1970's television and films like "slaughterhouse 5", "minnie and moskowitz" and “the magic garden of stanley sweetheart", in which she co-starred with a young don johnson. in 1972, she joined fellow activists tom hayden and jane fonda on the "free the army" tour. in 1974, she went to viet nam, nicaragua and el salvador. after 'coming out' in 1976, she participated in the "women on wheels" tour with a host of other feminists, including lily tomlin, and in 1984, suffering from many years of severe back pain, holly had a breakdown and dropped out of sight.
the alternative nature of holly's musical career is exposed during act one of "fire in the rain…singer in the storm", where she recalls her two brief encounters with the corporate world of the major label. she was told that her voice lacked "…a certain element of submission…" in response, holly founded redwood records in 1972, releasing her first album, "hang in there". fifteen albums later, at age 44, holly is as energetic as a child, whether it be bouncing on her trampoline on stage, or with her microphone "lost in locks" (of her hair), running up and down the ramps that are designed to be used to depict her years of travel, or when perched on the edge of her chair during our talk. we discussed one of my favorite parts of the show and she was gracious enough to re-live it for me…
hn: after doing the ritual, where a little girl makes a corner out of beads, i pause to take a sip of water, apologizing to the audience for not having enough for everyone and continue… "i think those bible stories were myths, not laws. i believe that all jesus was trying to say, is that there really is enough to go around, if we are willing to share and not leave anybody out. jesus was really the first proponent of a national health care system…so they killed him!
…so we continued...
djj: are you religious?
hn: no…not in the organized sense.
djj: …but, do you believe in god?
hn: not in the european-christian tradition, but i believe in the universe and i believe in mystery. i don't think that anyone knows, either scientists or religions, how we came to be…where that first spark of life came from. i believe that human beings have a very difficult time living with the unknown, so they have to make up answers. i don't disapprove of people having religion. i just encourage us all not to let it dictate our sensibilities. religion can give us roots and traditions, and help us when we think that all has failed. i'm not opposed to creating myths and traditions, as long as we understand that that's what we're doing.
djj: so, what's next?
hn: i have a show…and another show…i've spent so much of my energy on this show, that i haven't really thought ahead too much. i will probably spend the rest of my life doing creative things, but i don't know what the next thing will be. i have a couple of writing projects that I'm working on.
hn: yes! i've decided that i've had enough reality for now!
djj: ever since i've been involved with alternative musicians, the question that always comes up is, "how do you go on?" you've done 16 albums!
hn: the audience that you do have makes you feel that you're not totally obscure. it's changing the numbers in your head. if, over a year, you sing to 5,000 people, that's a lot of heart and souls to share your music with. i happen to be fortunate enough to sing to more than that, so i think it comes from re-organizing…it's math! i can't believe that madonna has sold out all these stadiums, and yet, there are people in the press that say she's dead. you go on, because if i'm singing to 3-5,00 people in a night, that's a very meaningful career to me, but it means nothing to a major label. you have to decide who's going to be your judge…your barometer.
djj: what do you think of madonna, and other female pop singers?
hn: whether it's madonna or janet jackson or bonnie raitt or any of these women…kd lang…k.t. oslin…
djj: …but kd lang is out…
hn: so is madonna. to me, here are these women who have come into their own, in a time when we live in an institutionalized, sexist society that says you have to sell sex if you want to survive as a female performer. kd had to find an image. so did madonna. women have to find a "thing" that has some sexual connotation to it, in order to make it. there are a few women who have survived that, but it all comes down to the boots and underwear. it's our society's fault!
djj: who do you like? what are you listening to this week?
hn: i like tina turner and gladys knight. i like to listen to romantic arias. i listen to old charles aznavour and edith piaf records of the 50's and 60's. i like marvin gaye. i'm always fascinated by the poetry of paul simon.
djj: do you feel as though he exploited south africa?
hn: no. he did a project with south african musicians at a time when a boycott was on, and he chose to cross that blockade. but, that's a different question. there is no easy answer to that. he did take a lot of criticism for what he did, but in some bizarre way, his doing that has brought more south african musicians to the forefront, and i've heard some of them say that they were happy to have had that opportunity…but it was hard on the boycott.
djj: do you want to talk about your sexuality?
djj: ok. are you in a relationship right now?
hn: i haven't been in a relationship for nearly ten years now. our society pushes "coupledom" a lot. this idea, that if you're alone, then you're lonely, is a myth. i was lonely when i was with someone. loneliness is a part of the human condition. you can be alone in a crowd, or when you're with friends or family. i think that the feminist movement swept me off my feet. i don't know if i'm a lesbian. i don't think i am, and it breaks my heart. i'd love to be a lesbian. hey, i've been trying for years! it makes sense to me to be a lesbian, but, if indeed the theory is true, that it's not a choice, but that we are born into our own sexuality, then i may not have been born a lesbian, and it has taken me years to come to grips with that. maybe we're born into different ratios of bisexuality.
many thanks go out to holly near for a wonderful conversation!