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Love In Abundance: A Guide To Women's Music

Tracy Chapman, shown here at the 39th Grammy Awards, is included in our starter kit for women's music.
Timothy Clary
AFP via Getty Images
Tracy Chapman, shown here at the 39th Grammy Awards, is included in our starter kit for women's music.

If the first time you ever heard the phrase "women's music" was during the episode of the Amazon Original show Transparentin which the main character, a transgender woman, attends a music festival and finds herself enmeshed in a debate about gender and the right to inclusion, you know something about one aspect of a larger story. Women's music is its own genre, with a history that goes back more than 50 years. It was founded and has been carried on by artists who, in their own way, are constantly bucking against the patriarchy — whether singing about non-heteronormative love, or not being quiet and instead singing out about injustice, or doing all of the above while refusing to abide by antiquated "feminine" beauty standards. Its story is complicated and it continues to change. While its historical controversies could fill a '90s-style feminist zine, today — as trans women and more women of color begin to share the stages at its many festivals — those ideas remain its bedrock. And it deserves recognition for opening so many doors across multiple genres.

In May of 1969, a self-proclaimed "big loud Jewish butch lesbian" named Maxine Feldman wrote about the very injustices and indignities that, one month later, would lead to the Stonewall Riots, the uprising credited with kickstarting the modern LGBTQ rights movement. In the song "Angry Atthis" (which Feldman, who loved word play, noted was a double entendre meaning "angry at this") Feldman sang, "I hate not being able to hold my lover's hand / 'cept under some dimly lit table afraid of being who I am / I hate to tell lies, live in the shadow of fear / We run half of our lives from the damn word 'queer.'" And thus, women's music was born.

Women's music is music (of any genre) written by, for and about women (and, more often than not, women who love women; while that predominantly meant people who identified as lesbians in its early days, there are plenty of contemporaries who identify as queer, genderqueer, etc.) In the '70s, a group of lesbians and feminists realized that there was a market for this music, so they formed Olivia Records, a label founded specifically to center women artists as well as women who worked in the roles that help bring music to the masses (engineers, producers, executives, etc.) The label's first full-length release was I Know You Know by Meg Christian. In her "Song to My Mama ," Christian sings of her strength and freedom as she explains to her mama why she has not bound herself to a man. It was a game-changer, with over 10,000 copies sold its first year and 70,000 overall (no small feat for an indie label now, let alone then). So the women of Olivia Records released The Changer and the Changed by Cris Williamson in 1975. It single-handedly solidified the genre and made Williamson one of the most iconic figures in women's music.

Olivia Records would release more than 40 titles and sell over a million copies during its 20 years in operation. After the record label declined, Olivia reinvented herself as a and remains successful. Bridging the founders' love for women's music and their love for women, you can often find both iconic and up-and-coming voices in women's music singing songs for the women of Olivia as they travel around the world.

Changer, as Williamson often calls it, was so successful that, in 2018, Williamson and Olivia Records co-founder Judy Dlugacz accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Executive category at AmericanaFest. "Today, out LGBT artists have the innovative work of Olivia Records to thank in part for opening the doors and creating a cultural phenomenon," the Americana Music Association said in a press statement.

The decades between the inception of Olivia and the mainstream breakthrough of Melissa Etheridge, an out lesbian, on a major label contain a wealth of women's music history and iconography — including artists like Linda Tillery, another Olivia Records artist. Women's music has always been about raising consciousness and, before intersectionality was a common concept, Tillery was doing her part to start that conversation. And if Cris Williamson is the most iconic artist in this style, Holly Near may well be the most influential. Her career has spanned four decades with no end in sight. If the roots of women's music are '70s feminism, social justice was the soil nurturing those roots, which is why artists like Sweet Honey in the Rock, who (to my knowledge) only ever had one lesbian-identified member, were so wholeheartedly embraced by fans of the genre. And last, but most certainly not least: Ferron. If you need instant women's music street cred, mention her name. She has, like each of the aforementioned women, influenced a generation of songwriters — like Jamie Anderson, Tret Fure and Bitch — who have then themselves extended that legacy by influencing and inspiring others, all taking to heart the lyrics in Ferron's beloved song "Testimony": "You young ones, you're the next ones and I hope you choose it well."

As the women's music community continued to diversify and extend beyond just white, middle-class lesbians, so too did the genres contained within the women's music umbrella from Shelley Nicole's blaKbüshe and Hanifah Walidah to Krudas Cubensi and Lady Ace Boogie.

As you begin your own personal deep dive into women's music, I'm going to leave you with some of my lesser known favorites, many of whom are so young that they (like myself) weren't even born when Olivia was created or when Changerdropped. Remember that the artists curated for this starter kit are just that: the start of what, I hope, will be a fulfilling journey of discovery. Follow that Spotify rabbit hole from Linda Tillery to Mary Watkins to Gwen Avery and you might find Nedra Johnson or The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster. Take the train from Holly Near to Emma's Revolution and you might just end up listening to Pamela Means or Ellis Delaney, or to an entire generation of young, social justice singer-songwriters from various races and various points along the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

The bravery it took to sing songs like "Angry Atthis" pre-Stonewall — to be unapologetically authentic despite an entire world working day in and day out to convince you that women aren't as strong, or smart, or capable as men and that coming out was a death knell to any career — is the stuff of folklore. I'm so honored and proud to have met so many of these amazing women, and I'm even more grateful for the doors they opened up for artists like me. So to all of you women who are still knocking down doors with their music-activism the way Holly Near did and does, still singing of women loving women the way Cris Williamson did and does, all while being loud and proud the way Maxine Feldman was: thank you.

The Cause

Maxine Feldman, "Angry Atthis"

"Angry Atthis," written in 1969, is the song that started the women's music movement.

Meg Christian, "Song For My Mama"

The inspiration for the Meg Christian album that would be Olivia Records's first full-length release is found within the lyrics of this song about fully embracing her life as a lesbian.

Cris Williamson, "Sweet Woman"

"A little passage of time 'til I hold you and you'll be mine / sweet woman, risin' so fine": Cris Williamson, arguably the most iconic of the freshwoman class of women's music alumnae, sang those words in 1975 in her song "Sweet Woman" (from her album The Changer and the Changed).

Linda Tillery, "Don't Pray For Me"

"Don't Pray for Me" was written by Mary Watkins (whom you should also know) in response to Anita Bryant's anti-gay crusade "Save Our Children." It throws the kind of shade that would have made Marsha P. Johnson proud.

Holly Near, "I Am Willing"

Holly Near's voice and presence are more commanding than ever. Her songs and the wisdom contained therein are, in many cases, even more relevant today than when they were first released.

Sweet Honey In The Rock, "Ella's Song"

"We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes." Those words are etched in cement on The Land, the 600+-acre land that was home to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival for 40 years. They are lyrics from "Ella's Song" by social justice a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, a song Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon composed using words of wisdom from activist Ella Baker. Although the members of Sweet Honey in the Rock have changed over the years, their place among women's music aficionados remains just as cemented as Ella Baker's words.

Ferron, "Stand Up"

Ferron, like Holly Near, could easily have a starter kit of just her music, but her song "Stand Up" feels apropos considering the previously quoted lyrics and who is singing background vocals (The Indigo Girls and Tori Amos).

The Effect

Tret Fure, "Lessons From Home Plate"

With a career that has spanned nearly 50 years, Tret just released an album in 2018 called Rosesin November. Her song "Lessons from Home Plate" was written for her dad.

God-Des & She, "Never Give Up"

God-Des & She are a hip-hop duo whose music was featured on Showtime's The L Word. They use their platform to educate audiences about anti-bullying and the elevate the LGBTQ+ community.

Toshi Reagon, "How Long"

Following in her mom's footsteps and adding to the tapestry of women's music, Toshi Reagon sings music that is (as her website so eloquently states) a "celebration of all that's dynamic, progressive and uplifting in American music."

Ani DiFranco, "Fuel"

When I was in college, Ani DiFranco was all any girl I was interested in dating could talk about. With over 20 albums under her belt, she has already garnered legendary status among younger women's music fans.

Indigo Girls, "Kid Fears"

With their catchy melodies and lovely harmonies, the Indigo Girls brought women's music to more of a mainstream audience. Similar to Melissa Etheridge, who has been out most of her career, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray let the music speak for itself.

Tracy Chapman, "You're The One"

Tracy Chapman made her major-stage debut as an opener for none other than Linda Tillery at Boston's Strand Theater on May 3, 1985. (That's three years before she sang "Fast Car" for Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday). And, like Linda Tillery and so many others in women's music, Tracy Chapman graced the stage at the National Women's Music Festival very early in her career.

The Ripples

be steadwell,"Sage"

Carrying on the tradition of Sweet Honey in the Rock, be steadwell uses her voice to craft intricate compositions over which to sing. Women's music (and especially women's music festivals) have a strong Goddess and Witch subcultures, which makes this one a crowd favorite (or what the millennials would call "a banger")!

Chris Pureka, "Back In The Ring"

Chris Pureka is another one of those artists I could spend hours writing about. Her songwriting craft is #lifegoals. Her emotive vocals are just a mood of their own. She released Back in the Ring after a brief hiatus and it was so worth the wait.

Gina Breedlove, "Steady"

"Steady" is one of those songs that feels just as good now as it did the first time I heard Gina Breedlove sing it. Her music and presence are medicine.

Heather Mae, "Smoke Signals"

Reminiscent of the way Holly Near uses her platform, Heather Mae is carrying on the tradition of songwriting as a form of activism and a tool with which to reach and teach people. "Smoke Signals" (off of her latest album Glimmer with its mental-health focus) is meant to be a tool to help listeners feel less alone when dark times come their way.

LP, "Lost On You"

While already enjoying huge success in Europe, a viral video of "Lost On You" made LP an instant favorite among women's music fans. She has even performed on some Olivia trips.

Mary Gauthier, "The War After the War"

For her album Rifles and Rosary Beads, Mary Gauthier worked with veterans and their spouses/loved ones almost as a form of music therapy. The result was a stunning body of work that sheds light on, as the song suggests, the war that ensues once our soldiers come home.

Namoli Brennet, "Freedom Train"

"So we grasp, and we grope. / We survive on just hope and we roam across these plains / looking for that freedom train coming round the bend." I first heard Namoli Brennet at the Ohio Lesbian Festival one summer and fell in love with her nostalgic lyrics.

Melissa Ferrick, "Getting Over You"

You can hear Ani DiFranco's influence on Melissa Ferrick in her guitar playing, but Ferrick is very much her own artist. This is not nearly as iconic as her song "Drive," but is, nonetheless, one of my favorite songs of hers.

Reina Williams, "Love in Abundance"

Reina Williams is a singer, songwriter, rapper, producer, and beatmaker who channels her raw emotion into power. Her song "Ooh, Damn" always gets the festival women dancing, but the message in her song "Love in Abundance" is something we could all use right now.

Crys Matthews is a folk singer and songwriter based in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Crys Matthews