This column was designed to introduce us to different people in the LGBTQ community. This week is a little different in that I hope to introduce you to a person, place and event. The person is musician and activist, the amazing Holly Near, the place is SisterSpace, and the event is a virtual concert raising money for the Virginia Giordano Memorial Fund.
I’ll start with the place. Do you yearn for the days when the word community made your heart swell a little bit? When it was fun and exhilarating and sometimes secretive to go out to an LGBT space? For me, I reminisce on the days when we had 2-3 lesbian bars to go to, when (mostly) women’s concerts were where I would go to hear women like Cris Williamson, Phranc and Holly sing about their love and desire for another women (sorry Katy Perry, they kissed a girl long before you), and when women only festivals happened several times a year.
Sadly, all the lesbian bars are now gone, most of the music has gone mainstream, and we don’t really congregate like we used to. The one exception would be SisterSpace, an organization that runs a 3-day weekend for women and has been doing it consistently since I was just a lass. Sadly, the pandemic did what no political climate managed to do, and last year the festival was cancelled. This year is also a wash, however — and here’s where I introduce the event — for those nostalgic for such times or for those who love good music, SisterSpace has called on some of our favorite entertainers from past and present for a big virtual concert this Friday, April 16th. The proceeds go to the Virginia Giordano Memorial Fund, which has been created to support up-and-coming women artists and to train VGMF interns for professional jobs in sound, lighting, stage management, and more. It was created in honor of Virginia Giordano, a prolific women’s music producer who shaped the women’s music movement in NYC and beyond.
Giordano successfully promoted better-known artists such as Sweet Honey In The Rock, Holly Near, Ani DiFranco, George Winston and many more to spread their messages of positive change in venues like Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Beacon Hall and promoted talented lesser-known performing artists and helped grow their careers. As a woman in a male-dominated business, she gave many women their entree into the music industry, both on stage and behind-the-scenes in business and technical positions. Her influence on local and national artists and the music scene was incalculable.
The virtual concert features a roster of outstanding artists – Ani DiFranco, The Onliest, Barbara Higbie, Be Steadwell, Cris Williamson, Crys Matthews, Heather Mae, with this week’s Portrait, Holly Near, as MC, as well as a special greeting from Judy Collins!
I could go on and on about Ms. Near, but she wanted to talk about the event and the magic of SisterSpace. You may know Holly Near from the song that has become an anthem in the LGBTQ community, “Singing For Our Lives,” but if you want to learn more about the pioneering artist, check out her profile on PBS American Masters. A singer songwriter with over 30 albums under her belt, Holly Near has used her music to bring peace and change throughout the world.
In addition to performing, Holly was one of the first women to create an independent record company. Her goal was to promote and produce music by politically conscious artists from around the world.
Who was Virginia to you?
Virginia was someone dedicated to making sure that those of us who were doing lesbian, progressive, feminist women’s music would and could get good venues to perform in. She made sure that we weren’t always performing in the basement of a church or union hall. Those are not bad places. She was perfectly willing to do shows at welcoming churches and LGBTQI centers, because they were important safe spaces, but also she wanted to elevate us. It made us feel respected and seen and validated. And she knew that women coming to see us in beautiful settings was good for them as well. I don’t know that any of us would have been able to play places like Carnegie Hall if it hadn’t been for her. She also produced a diverse group of people like Sweet Honey in the Rock and Ani DiFranco and people like me! So does Sisterspace, they’re a very bottom up politic and it is very conscientious. They don’t just add in a little color at the top, they’re very aware that power comes from being a decision maker and that different cultures make different decisions and if we’re wise, we’ll enjoy those decisions. So both Virginia and Sisterspace are the real deals.
What’s something you admire about her?
She was fun, and when situations got stressful she was able to look at them pragmatically and with humor. Then there was the time when she found out that someone who was working for her was taking money. It broke her heart, but she realized that we’re only human and that our mistakes don’t make us bad people. We all have issues and it’s often the result of internal stresses. She didn’t involve the cops or rag on the person. There were consequences but she handled it internally and then figured out how to proceed with sisterly security going forward. It was very moving to me. She was a person with a lot of integrity. She wasn’t afraid to talk about money. Sometimes people have such extreme reactions when you talk about capitalism, but she didn’t think that money was a bad thing. Some felt that money was the enemy but she’d say, no, money is power. It gives you the ability to do things, we just need to figure out how to work with it differently.
You’ve played all over, including other women’s festivals like Michigan, what makes Sisterspace special?
It’s all volunteer so they can keep the budget small and, as a result, keep the prices low. It’s a really lovely space! There’s a peacefulness about being there, you walk around and there are people camping and swimming or sitting under a tree reading or writing in a journal. In another spot you might hear a band rehearsing for their performance that night on the main stage, which was named after Virginia! And a lot of people of color working behind the scenes and in tech.
I’ve been to other festivals and I feel there’s a much more relaxed atmosphere at SisterSpace. And yes, it’s a lot more inclusive all around, not just different ethnicities and races, but of different gender expressions. As a performer, you’re there for a few days, rather than just the one and done of a concert. Do you enjoy being more accessible to your fans?
I’m pretty accessible even at my concerts. I always go into the lobby and talk to people, sign autographs and take pictures with people but at SisterSpace, it’s less formal. I could be walking around and see someone sitting against a tree, looking a little overwhelmed, [laughing] which is easy to do the first time you go to a women’s festival! I mean there are people who have never been in a space with more than 3 women at a time! I’ve been in woman identified spaces for over 50 years, so I forget that it can be emotional your first time. If you’ve never been in a woman identified space and seen the warmth of women embracing each other when they arrive on the land, or seen women who accept and have pride in their bodies in all forms, you come here and, woah, it’s all open, you don’t have to keep anything secret, that’s massive the first time you experience it. So if I see someone looking like a deer in the headlights, it’s fun to walk over and sit down and say hi. They might not even know who I am, and we’ll talk about identity and fear, how to come out to family. All those things that are part of a lesbian experience that are unique and difficult and wonderful. I’ve had some sweet conversations.
And performed and listened to some great music.
Yes, when you add the music to the mix, it’s what makes it all fluid. The music is the minister, it is the Goddess holding up the whole thing. It’s the magic and the hand to hold as you walk into a place in your life you’ve never been before. And there are a lot of older lesbians who are there to hold your hand as mentors as well. They don’t wear signs that say, “Hi, I’m a mentor,” they’re just around, modeling what has come before, and at SisterSpace there are all these young pups who are just amazing! They don’t even know of a time when they couldn’t be themselves. [Laughing] It’s great! They have a confidence that’s just delightful to be around.
It’s my mission to try to get some younger people there. I think it’s great that younger people are able to be so much freer than past generations, but I also think they’ve lost some of that sense of community because they’ve been able to assimilate into the larger society. I think SisterSpace is a throwback in some ways to what’s missing.
Yeah, I think you’re right. You go away having had a visceral experience that you might not have known existed. I remember after 9/11 I was booked at a college to teach and perform, and when I went to do the concert a tower went out and we lost all the power. I’d been telling everyone to come experience the show, so I didn’t want to cancel. So we went outside and everyone sat on the steps and I stood at the bottom and it was so cute, they all pulled out their flashlights and shined them on me and I did the show from there. The point is that afterwards someone came up to me and said, “Wow, l I’ve never experienced anything like this. Is this what my mom meant by a hootenanny?” The idea of people singing together — for people who haven’t done that — is just a jaw drop. Festivals allow that kind of experiential introduction to community. You might have a singer on the stage singing about body shaming, like Heather Mae might do on Friday, or a song about all the people who have died from police violence like Chrys Matthews might do, or a song about the environment from a woman’s point of view. It’s like a Master Class, one mind-opening experience after another. Now, there are artists that don’t give a damn about any of that who just turn up the volume and dance and that’s fine too. But I know that SisterSpace is very careful about booking in a spiritual, a political and environmental experience for people. It’s all theater and if a producer doesn’t make an effort to do that, it doesn’t happen. SisterSpace thinks all those things through so it’s not just by accident when those moments occur, okay? Theater is a great way to introduce people to themselves.
True. When you’re not on stage, what do you enjoy while there? The food? The pool? The White House?
I like going into the commissary, and I sit at a different table every time. Sometimes it’s with people I haven’t seen in years and that’s wonderful, but other times I’ll just go up to a table and say, “Can I sit here?” like I’m a little kid in the school cafeteria! It takes a little bit of effort on my part because even though I’m a public person, I can still get shy about that. But I make myself do it because I always experience something new. And I have to admit, I also love watching the pool from afar. I don’t like to swim in pools, but I love sitting up on the balcony or on the hillside and watching the frivolity. Some people are reading and some sun bathing, others are playing pool volleyball or pretending to push each other underwater; people just unleash their inner kid and it’s fun to watch. It’s also a great chance to hang with my musicians. Usually when we’re touring we’re in a hotel, we do a soundcheck, we do the show, and then we go to the airport. It’s a constant state of motion. Last time I was at SisterSpace, I was there with Tammy Hall and Jan Martinelli and we ended up leaning against a pickup truck talking for an hour. Those are the kind of relaxed exchanges that happen there that are so valuable to me.
One of my favorite experiences also happened in the cafeteria. I was eating with a posse of friends and I noticed an older woman sitting by herself. Because I try to know our history, I whispered to my friends, “That’s Barbara Gittings, who is like the Godmother of LGBT rights, I’m going to invite her to sit with us.” She did and we had a great time and we kept in touch from then until she passed away.
What a wonderful story.
And speaking of wonderful things, let’s talk about the concert. I guess one of the benefits of having a virtual concert is that we’ll hopefully get people from around the country, or the world who might not have been able to attend in the past but can now get a taste of what SisterSpace is about and to support a great cause. What does it mean to you?
Well, we’re all worn out from watching virtual events. I’m exhausted, I have a hard time getting myself motivated to go to one more wonderful thing but in this case I encourage everyone to take a deep breath and say, “okay, this one is worth it,” because a lot of amazing performers are going to be there and everyone is working to present something exceptional. And it’s so important to support artists right now. I really hope that the women’s community will plug in and participate because the chat box is always really fun! It’s a way of saying hello and reconnecting with folks and supporting the view of SisterSpace and through Virginia Giordano, a way of remembering who we are and that we are not a community without music and art to tell our stories. If one is feeling lonely or if you’ve missed going to clubs or playing volleyball or women’s book clubs, this is a great way to reconnect. I know I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones. And hearing some great music!
For more info on the concert visit www.facebook.com/SSODV/.