Just as baseball historians can only speculate about how black players would have fared in the absence of segregation in the major leagues prior to the arrival of Jackie Robinson in 1947, so music historians may ponder what status Cris Williamson might have assumed if she had emerged at a time when admitted LGBTI people were not subject to exclusion from major record labels. By the 1990s, openly gay women artists Melissa Etheridge, Indigo Girls, and k.d. lang were able to maintain major-label contracts and sell records in the millions (although none of them had
publicly come out when they were signed in the 1980s).
But when Williamson acknowledged being a lesbian in the 1970s, it relegated her to independent-label status and minimal coverage in the mass media, even though her lyrics made only minor reference to lesbian issues and her music conformed to conventional styles of pop/rock. She made a virtue of her exclusion, however. As part of the feminist movement, she became the leading light of the style known as "women's music," inspiring the formation of a label, Olivia Records, devoted to the style, and recording an album, The Changer and the Changed, that became one of the best-selling independent releases of its time. Thereafter, she continued to record and tour regularly, later maintaining her own label, Wolf Moon Records.
Williamson was born in 1947 in Deadwood, South Dakota. Her father was a forest ranger, and she grew up without electricity in Colorado and Wyoming, listening to music on a wind-up phonograph. Her musical idol at the time was Judy Collins, and Williamson developed a musical style and sound that was similar to that of Collins. She released her first album, The Artistry of Cris Williamson in 1964, when she was sixteen. She became a local musical sensation in Sheridan, Wyoming, releasing two following LPs afterward. Unfortunately, none of the songs from these early albums exist on youtube.
Williamson graduated from the University of Denver. She supported herself initially as a schoolteacher, however, during the same time, collaborated with other women who were also singer-songwriters and performing artists, and began to network with Holly Near, Meg Christian, and Margie Adam; all musicians who became women artists of stature, forming an entirely new genre of music, primarily about and for women.
This is how she describes her entrance into music: "I started when I was 16 and I didn't fall in with the feminist world until my mid-20s. Before that I was in rock 'n' roll, folk music, and standards. I took voice lessons. Nobody taught me to write a song. Politics taught me about politics. Living in a world where all our leaders were assassinated one by one. It entrenched me in the left. When I became a feminist, I further honed a humanist consciousness, which is now a feminist leaning. The overriding element that led me into music is the human condition, that we are all alike. That's why different styles of music appeal—it's either good music or not. I listen to everything. I'm widely read in music as well as literature. And, so my approach to music is to speak as though we were all creatures who come to a water hole, in a clearing, in the wilderness. And everybody deserves the water, and the water to me is music. And that's what brings us all human beings together. And I think music should bring people together and not drag them apart."
Her first mature effort, recorded for a national record label, was Cris Williamson, released by Ampex Records in 1971. It reportedly sold 11,000 copies. From that album, here's Shine On Straight Arrow:
Also, here's the opening track, Waiting:
Then, in an interview conducted by another young lesbian folksinger, Meg Christian (born 1946 in Lynchburg, Virginia), Williamson mused that it would be a good idea if someone launched a record label specifically targeted at gay women. Her notion quickly led to the formation of Olivia Records, which began in 1973 by releasing a single with Christian's version of the Gerry Goffin/Carole King song Lady on one side and Williamson's original If It Weren't for the Music on the other. Olivia's first LP release was Christian's debut album, I Know You Know (which Williamson produced), in 1974, and its second was Williamson's The Changer and the Changed (1975).
Here's Lady, by Meg Christian:
From Meg's album, I Know You Know, here's Joanna:
... And here's Valentine Song:
The Changer and the Changed was to women's music what Michael Jackson's Thriller was to the music industry in general in the mid-'80s, an album that sold far beyond the perceived size of the market, more than 100,000 copies in its first year of release. Eventually, it reportedly sold more than 500,000 copies, which would make it a gold album, although it has not been certified as such by the RIAA. (That does not disprove the sales estimate, however. Albums are not certified automatically; a record company must request certification and pay for an audit.)
The opening track of The Changer and the Changed is Waterfall:
There wasn't really an artistic reason that these albums shouldn't share the success with the albums by Carly Simon, Phoebe Snow, Carole King, etc, which were at the forefront of the mainstream in the same era. So, I guess the reasons were mostly political. Pity...
Also from The Changer and the Changed, here's Hurts Like The Devil:
... Here's Wild Things:
... Here's Sweet Woman:
... And here's Song of the Soul:
Meg Christian released Face The Music in 1977. From this album, here's Sweet Darlin' Woman:
... And here's the fun number Leaping Lesbians:
Williamson's next album, Live Dream, which also featured June Millington (formerly of Fanny) and Jackie Robbins, was released by the label The Dream Machine in 1978. Included in this album was Soaring:
Williamson's formal follow-up to The Changer and the Changed was Strange Paradise, issued by Olivia Records in 1980. The closing track is Native Dancer:
In 1981, Meg Christian released Turning It Over. Here's the title track:
In 1982, Cris Williamson released Blue Rider. Here's the title track:
... And here's Like An Island Rising:
Also in 1982, Cris Williamson released a children's album called Lumiere ...A Science-Fantasy Fable, which won an award from Parents' Choice. This was the first record on which Williamson worked with singer/songwriter Tret Fure, who engineered the disc; the two then became domestic partners.
In the fall of 1982, Williamson and Christian marked the ten-year anniversary of the founding of Olivia with a concert at New York's Carnegie Hall that was recorded for the two-LP set Meg/Cris at Carnegie Hall (1983). Here's the whole album for you:
Meg Christian released her last album for Olivia Records, From The Heart, in 1984. Cheap Thrills was one of the tracks that stood out:
... Happy Birthday was another:
Finally, from this album, here's Here From There:
She ceased giving live performances in 1984, and began studying Eastern mysticism; the result of these explorations were the albums The Fire of My Love and Songs of Ecstasy. She changed her first name to Shambhavi during this time and lived in an ashram in New York. In 2002, Christian restarted her association with Olivia Records, and began performing again for label events; her first appearance since 1984 was on a cruise ship arranged by Olivia.
Meanwhile, Williamson kept herself active; her next studio album, Prairie Fire, was released in 1985. Snow Angel, a holiday collection, appeared for the 1985 Christmas season. Wolf Moon (1987) contained songs with "wolf" references (including novelist Virginia Woolf and recently deceased folksinger Kate Wolf). From this album, here's Goodnight, Marjorie Morningstar:
Then came a country-oriented duo album with Teresa Trull, Country Blessed (1989). Live in Concert: Circle of Friends (1991) was Williamson's first solo live album, recorded at a concert in Berkeley, CA, marking the 15th anniversary of The Changer and the Changed. In addition to new performances of songs from that album, it contained both new originals and covers such as James Taylor's Millworker and Leonard Cohen's Sisters Of Mercy. Here's the latter, performed live for the Denver Women's March, a few months ago:
In April 1994, Williamson and Fure released the first of three consecutive duo albums, Postcards from Paradise. It was followed by Between the Covers (February 1997) and Radio Quiet (March 1999), both released on Williamson's own Wolf Moon imprint because Olivia Records had switched businesses from music to travel, becoming Olivia Cruises and Resorts.
Williamson and Fure broke up as a couple in 2000, and Williamson reflected on the split on Ashes (September 2001), her first regular solo studio album in 14 years. She then teamed up with women's music veteran Holly Near for the duo album Cris and Holly (H&C Records, September 2003). Her next solo album, Real Deal, appeared in February 2005. It was followed by Fringe in November 2007. Here's the title track:
... And here's Tumbleweed:
Williamson keeps making music to this very day, her last three albums being Winter Hearts (2008), Gifthorse (2010), and finally Pray Tell (2013). From the latter, here's Sleeping Tigers:
We close with Cris Williamson's thoughts on music:
"Music is a prism of the heart. If you pass the pain through that prism, it's refracted through fractals of emotion. One of those can be anger. One of those can be incredible pain, all embodied in music. It doesn't have to stay pent up. Once it's out, it's out."
"Some people are more inclined towards down. I'm more inclined towards up. So, when I listen to reggae, that's revolutionary, spiritual, and danceable. It's anchored in the offbeat—the bass on two and four. All music is just patterns: musical patterns, word patterns. It's how you arrange the patterns that leads to your style. My friend Bonnie Raitt is a great blues player, but I always feel exalted when I hear her play—she passes it through that prism, and it's positive."
"Music can help heal the sadness of the world—it's clinically proven. People write me, and say 'you've saved my life.' Never forget for one minute, somebody may listen to your music, so be careful. What's the effect you want here? Do you want to unite people, or split them? I like people to think and I like people to come to their own conclusions. It's very philosophical. I don't start out without savior behavior. Save yourself, before you save the world, as if you saved the world. It's existential. The Buddhists say 'You can't clean up the world but don't stop trying. Don't suffer over your own suffering.'"
"The harder song to write is the happy song. It's easy to write the sad song. When you're happy you don't need to write one. You're just being in the world. It's when we feel alienated that we have to write. So we can belong somewhere. We're caught between the devils and angels. It's cellular; it's visceral. Give people a place to perch. Do I want them to understand it? Yes. It doesn't mean I don't have personal, eclectic mythology, but I try to put the jewels in the right setting, so people can grasp your meaning. They don't have to understand your whole thing. The songs that last forever are simply made, they're simple stories—people sneer at that. But that's the music that lasts. That's Dvorak who used the folk melodies. Obama is like a folk song. He's the best of us right now." (The interview was given while Obama was in power.)