I dedicate this story to my dear friend Ella - I'm sure that she'll enjoy it. Be well Bionic Mama!
Our last subject, Rod Stewart, as well as our weekly fixture, Bob Dylan, are well known to practically everyone. Today we'll be talking about a lesser known woman who is a singer, songwriter, actress, and social activist. She also used to have a love affair with another woman that we presented a few weeks ago.
Born in Ukiah, CA in 1949, Holly Near's career began at age eight when she sang in public for the first time at a talent contest put on by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Her a cappella version of Oh What A Beautiful Morning from the musical Oklahoma brought the house down and sparked her dream to become a singer/dancer on Broadway.
Throughout high school, Holly sang in all the school productions and, in her senior year, she won the coveted leading role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. She also sang with a folk group, the “Freedom Singers,” that “covered” many of The Weavers' arrangements. Living in the small, rural town of Potter Valley in Northern California, Holly was unaware that the original “Freedom Singers” were putting their lives in danger in the South as they sang for the Civil Rights movement. Nor did she know that Bernice Reagon was one of the founders of this group and that many years later, Holly and Bernice would become peers and great friends. Likewise, she could not know that in future years she would tour with Ronnie Gilbert from The Weavers, share many stages with Pete Seeger, and work with Veterans Against the War.
Near's activism began early in her life, hearing her parents, Anne and Russell Near, discuss world events over their morning coffee before heading out to work on their cattle ranch. Holly and her three siblings were included in these discussions and their opinions and questions respected and answered. Her parents were active in their local community: Anne set up a much-needed kindergarten in Potter Valley and Holly's father was elected to the school board and worked to end corporal punishment.
Early in high school Holly joined a group whose goal was to get the military draft board off the campus and another group who fought to change the dress code so that girls could wear pants to school. The first effort failed. The latter taught her the value of long-term struggle. By the time she was a senior, girls were allowed to wear pants on Friday if there was a football game!
After high school, Holly moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA. As a freshman, Holly won the role of Sister Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls and, as part of a fellow student's senior project, Holly was invited to play opposite him in a scene from the musical, 110 In The Shade. She played Lizzie Curry to his Bill Starbuck. A number of talent agents saw the performance and a month later, Holly had an agent. She left UCLA to begin her career. That was 1968.
Near's professional career began in 1969 with a part on the television show, The Mod Squad, which was followed by appearances in other shows, as well as in films. She was briefly a member of the musical comedy troupe, "First National Nothing", and appeared on the troupe's only album, If You Sit Real Still and Hold My Hand, You Will Hear Absolutely Nothing. From that album, here's the single, Purple Song:
... And here's the flip-side, I Got The Answer:
Holly appeared in a few films before landing a role on Broadway in the radical musical Hair. One night, just after the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970, the cast gathered before the show to mourn the dead students. Against all union rules, they agreed to deliver a protest from the stage by pausing the show to make a statement. This was, after all, an anti-war play. Holly remembers that night, "I didn't even know where Kent State was. I didn't know where Cambodia was. Even with my family's interest in the world, my experience was still very limited. It never occurred to me that within a few years I would travel to Viet Nam as a peace delegate and a guest of the musician's union. I couldn't know that Dean Kahler, one of the badly injured students, would ask me to write an anthem for Kent State, which I would sing at the annual memorial event on May 4, 1974, a song called It Could Have Been Me." At the event Near met civil rights leader, Julian Bond, and singer Judy Collins.
Here's It Could Have Been Me:
After leaving Hair, Holly returned to Hollywood where she did a small but lovely scene with Seymour Cassel in John Cassavettes' film, Minnie and Moskowitz. She also performed guest parts on the television shows All In The Family, Room 222, The Bold Ones, and The Partridge Family, to name just a few. However, none of the parts she got were singing roles.
Then Holly auditioned for a slot in the Free The Army (FTA) tour. She got the part and within the week, she was on her way to New York with the FTA cast to do a fundraising concert at the Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center - with special guest Nina Simone! The Free The Army show consisted of a series of skits based on the writings of Viet Nam veterans who were opposing the war and racism from within the military. The cast wrote and performed the skits, which were interspersed with songs and poems. The most visible and well-known participants were Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.
On her return, Near did a few more acting jobs. She played Billy Pilgrim's daughter in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, a powerful film directed by George Roy Hill and released in 1972. But mostly, she began to write songs. “Armed” with a new repertoire, Holly began to sing in and around Los Angeles. One venue was the famed Ash Grove where she double-billed with Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee as well as Bill Evans! She sang at The Ice House in Pasadena and the legendary Troubador in West Hollywood; and she sang at a fundraising event with Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt. Holly was finally getting to be a singer.
She began to make the rounds to music producers and record companies to see if she could get signed. Across the board she was told to change the lyrics to her songs—they weren't “pop” enough for them, that is, they were too political. Undeterred by this rejection, Holly decided to make one record on her own, to document the political songs she had written. So Holly founded Redwood Records in 1972. Without realizing it at the time, Holly created what was probably the first independent, artist-owned record company started by a woman. Redwood Records survived for nearly 20 years and recorded dozens of US and international artists whose work was too political for the mainstream.
Her first album, released in 1973, was called Hang In There. From this album, here's No More Genocide:
Her second album came a year later and was simply called A Live Album. From it, we've already heard It Could Have Been Me. Another song from this album is Started Out Fine:
Before long, Holly was known, not only to the peace and justice movement but also to the women's movement. She was writing lyrics about women's lives from a global, as well as a personal, perspective. In under a year, Holly met dozens of women who were not only writing feminist and, sometimes, lesbian songs, but they were building a movement. Excluded from the mainstream music business, women were starting record labels, building a distribution network, and working with newly formed women's bookstores to get the music out across the country. Cassettes, carried in back pockets traveled around the world, some in secret to places where it was life threatening for such ideas to be discussed.
In 1975 Holly was invited to join Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, Margie Adam, Lily Tomlin, and the Alice Stone Ladies Society Orchestra to do a fundraiser in LA for the Women's Building. A year later, Meg, Cris, Margie, and Holly did a seven-city tour of California called “Women On Wheels,” which was the first major tour of feminist and lesbian artists. Although Holly was not gay, she witnessed firsthand the homophobia that was directed toward these women. Near decided not to say she was straight just for the comfort of it. While listening to Meg Christian sing Valentine Song, Holly fell in love. This was an unexpected turn of events but as was her nature, she faced the music.
Across the country, Holly became closely identified with the lesbian movement and was, perhaps, the first out lesbian to be interviewed in a popular magazine when People magazine ran a story on her work. Holly made a point of saying the word "gay" when she sang at national and international peace gatherings, just to get people used to hearing the word. It was dangerous territory but Near felt she wanted to be out about all her beliefs, whether they concerned war or class or race or gender. She did not want to be the keeper of secrets.
In 1976 she recorded an album with Jeff Langley called You Can Know All I Am. The opening track was It's My Move:
This was followed by Someday One Will Do:
Another good one was Gotta Let Go:
... As well as Damn The Poets:
Holly sang where others would not. She went to war-torn El Salvador to sing at a music festival for peace. She and the other musicians were followed by death squad cars and had to keep strict curfew. In Washington, DC, she joined with Lebanese and Palestinian artists for a concert in support of children in Lebanon. For years, no other non-Arab artist would perform at the event except for Pete Seeger. Holly performed a duet with Simone Shaheen as they turned Near's Appalachian-styled Mountain Song into a cry for peace in the Middle East.
She instigated national tours that focused on issues of nuclear disarmament and clean energy, and defended women's studies on college campuses. She did concerts and rallies that supported the United Farm Workers, striking nurses, ending the death penalty, and raising awareness about racism in schools.
Holly was often asked to write songs for particular movements. One such song, Hay Una Mujer Decaparecida, became an anthem of solidarity work with Central and Latin America. A women's group in San Francisco had sent Holly a list of the names of women who were missing as a result of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Moved by the desperate fates of the women, Holly wrote the song, whose title means, “There is a woman missing [in Chile].” At the beginning of the song she calls out the women's names. It is a haunting piece and often audiences would sing out the names with her. Chilean exiles would come backstage and say that one of the names called was a sister, a mother, an aunt, a sweetheart. Near says, “I remember hearing that Allende had been killed. I didn't know who Allende was. I didn't even know where Chile was. But before long I found myself hanging out with Chilean exiles, hearing the music of Violeta Parra and Victor Jara. I learned that Victor had been murdered by Pinochet thugs, that artists were targeted. The music always took me where I needed to go. I followed my ignorance. I went where I was afraid.”
The song appeared in Holly's next album, Imagine My Surprise (1978). With her, Ronnie Gilbert, a former member of the Weavers. It's a spine-chilling song.
From the same album, this is Fight Back. Here she is, live at The Sisterfire Festival, 1982:
Throughout, Holly remained a consummate artist, appearing many times at Carnegie Hall solo. She also appeared there with the NYC Gay Men's Chorus; with the Chilean ensemble, Inti Illimani; and as part of a multi-artist event to raise money for children with AIDS when she sang with the Boy's Choir of Harlem. Holly loved working in collaboration.
Her next album was 1981's Fire In The Rain. Here's the title track:
Also in this album was Foolish Notion:
From 1982's Speed Of Light, here's Back Off:
Holly collaborated to produce a tour (in 1984) that presented Holly, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Ronnie Gilbert in a series of concerts. It became known as the H.A.R.P tour (after the initials of their first names). A live recording of the same name was released. That same year, Holly brought Inti Illimani to the U.S. to tour together and record a live album. She also toured in Australia, Nicaragua, and England. "This was the year that almost killed me. My back had gone out. I was wearing a brace. I was in such pain that it took me 10 minutes to get from sitting to standing position. This was the year that warned me. I was working too hard and trying to do too much."
Holly also recorded an album with Ronnie Gilbert called Lifeline. It opened with Harriet Tubman:
Here they are with Beloved Comrade / Two Good Arms, about the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti:
Here they are with Pastures Of Plenty:
... And finally, Goodnight Irene:
Holly's next album was also a collaboration, this time with Inti-Illimani, a Latin American folk music ensemble of political exiles from Bolivia & Chile. The album was called Sing To Me The Dream. This is the title track:
This is Te Doy Una Canción:
This is El Gitano:
This is No Estamos Solos (We Are Not Alone):
This is La Pajita:
And finally, this is Gracias A La Vida:
She was going through a very productive period; in 1984 she also released Watch Out! From this album, here's Oh Come Smile With Us:
Another collaborative album was released in 1985. It was called Harp. Holly worked with Arlo Guthrie, Ronnie Gilbert, Pete Seeger and Jeff Langley. Here's Jacob's Ladder:
Here's Wimoweh (Mbube):
... And here's Good For The World:
In 1986 there was another album with Ronnie Gilbert called Singing With You and in 1987 Holly's first solo album in years, Don't Hold Back. Here's the title song:
In 1989 she released Sky Dances. On this album, Holly was grieving her friends dying of AIDS. Here's the title track:
In 1990 she released Singer In The Storm. From this album, here's The Great Peace March:
Here's Singing For Our Lives:
... And here's They Dance Alone (Cueca Sola), with special guest Mercedes Sosa:
In the early '90s, Holly wrote her autobiography, Fire In The Rain...Singer In The Storm, which she and her sister, Timothy, turned into a one-person musical of the same name. Holly performed the show in several cities including a run at The Mark Taper Forum in LA and at the off-Broadway Union Street Theater in NYC.
Finally, Holly slowed down. She moved back to Ukiah, California and for the first time in her adult life, had a garden and a line to hang her laundry on to dry. “I was able to spend time with my mother and help raise my nieces and nephews and a step daughter!” Near created Calico Tracks Music and used her time at home to reissue her older recordings in historic collections. In a small local studio, owned by Spencer Brewer, Near recorded a tasty collection of standards from the '30s and '40s with John Bucchino on piano. Spencer also introduced her to Alison de Grassi who has been her assistant and production coordinator ever since.
In a 2013 interview with the Advocate she was asked the following question:
You came out as a lesbian in 1976 and were probably the first out lesbian in People magazine. But you were later in a long-term relationship with a man. How do you identify yourself now? Or are you just beyond identity politics?
Her reply: "I'm comfortable with all the ways in which we can be as long as it is nonviolent. Identity is an interesting thing. It is important to use words like lesbian and transgender for as long as people are being killed for those names. Just as it has been important to use words like black and Chicano and Arab and indigenous and Hawaiian. There are many reasons to identify when one's legal rights are challenged and one's very being is insulted. We need to keep using the words until the sting and the danger subsides. I used the word lesbian whenever possible when I first came out - even in countries where the interpreters didn't have a translation for the word. Using the word opened up important conversations and brought homophobia to the surface. Personally? When I think of my various identities, I think of feminist, artist, global peace activist, elder-in-training, and if I were partnered with a woman, then lesbian would be one of those identities. However, I doubt I would partner with a lesbian who wasn't a woman-identified feminist. When I was with a man, I did not think of myself as straight or bisexual. I thought of myself as woman-identified and monogamous. I'm no longer partnered, but I have friends so it is hard to call myself single. I find words to be very tricky. Maybe someday a word will come along that has my name on it. But regardless, I have been very much a part of the lesbian community since the early '70s. I can't imagine myself without the lesbian community. So, what do we call that? I don't have the words. Maybe it is called love."
In 2006, she released Show Up. From this album, here's Somebody's Jail:
... And here's Bound By The Beauty:
Finally, in 2012, she released Peace Becomes You. Here's a small excerpt of the title song:
... And here's We're Still Here:
I will close this story with Holly's answer to the Advocate's question concerning the legacy of the women’s music movement.
"I am very moved by the legacy and take it seriously. There were lesbians and feminists doing music all over the country and the world. We didn't all know each other, but each one of us skipped a stone and the ripples began. If I had been asked in 1975 if I thought we would soon have out lesbian singers and comedians working in the music industry, winning Grammys, showing up at events with our sweethearts, producing and directing films with positive lesbian images that are distributed by Hollywood companies, seeing gay characters on many TV sitcoms, having gay people in Congress and legislatures and on the bench, having out professional athletes, experiencing marriage equality, and on and on - well, I would have been happy with the fantasy, but I’m not sure I would have believed it possible in such a short amount of time. It is worth pausing to celebrate. I believe the songs we wrote and sang that traveled around the world contributed a great deal to the achievements of the past 40 plus years, not only regarding sexuality and gender but race and class and disability, in all the ways women struggle when they fall in love with one another."