A couple of days ago I got to thinking about a summer day back in the 1980s when a group of women put on an all-day women’s music festival on a hillside next to a junior high school in Takoma Park, Maryland. I was there with my friend Victoria Eves, a professional videographer, and ran sound for the video she made of the event.
I couldn’t remember the exact year, or the name of the event, but, as is our wont these days, I googled, and not only found that the first Sisterfire event happened in 1982, but the video Victoria made that year. I even have a credit as the sound recordist. This website has a vimeo of it set up.
It’s an hour-long video that captures some of the high points of an amazing day. I got tears in my eyes watching it. All those wonderful musicians, the enthusiastic audience scattered over the hillside, the feminist activism that underlay everything that went on.
We were all so young then. We were all so ready to go out and claim our places in the world. And to change it.
We were, in fact, very much like the young activists I meet today. And yeah, for those of you who pay attention to generational things, both the performers and the audience were mostly Boomers, though since some of them had kids there were some members of Gen X running around as well.
Sisterfire represented a lot of the best of second wave feminism.
The performers were both well known — Cris Williamson, Margie Adam, Holly Near, Ronnie Gilbert, the incomparable Sweet Honey in the Rock — and much less so: Women of the Calabash, The Harp Band, Rotumba con Pie.
There was sign language interpretation with every announcement and every song, much of it done by the late Shirley Childress, who performed for many years with Sweet Honey.
Many of the performers were proud and out lesbians. Many of them were women of color. Pretty much all of them were both high level professional musicians and activists.
The audience was much whiter than the performers — one of the issues of the times. I imagine it included a higher percentage of lesbians than average, but you can’t tell that by looking. It was summer and pretty much everyone was wearing shorts and t-shirts or tank tops. (I didn’t see any images of women who’d taken their shirts off in the video, but it might have happened.)
I titled this after Cris Williamson’s powerful song “The Changer and the Changed” because watching the video reminded me of how powerful the experience was. That was the first time I ever heard her sing it. A couple of years ago I got to see her at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley when she was doing a 40th anniversary tour based on that album. That, too, was a reminder of those times.
I knew Victoria from some training I did in a women’s martial arts school, so this time is associated with martial arts for me (as so many things from the late 70s on have been). I’m sure I was ready to pump my hand in the air when Holly Near sang “Fight Back,” except that I was doing my best to keep my eye on the sound levels and trying not to get distracted.
Listening to Holly sing that song now evokes the ongoing struggles women (and many others, since these days our concepts of gender are much broader) have with male violence. It is a sad note that the song has not lost any of its relevance.
One moment that made me cry — both this time and I suspect at the event — was when Holly brought Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers on stage. That was a link to an earlier activism tied to music, an important one.
The video — and if I remember correctly the event — ended with Sweet Honey in the Rock. I have seen Sweet Honey many times — I don’t think Sisterfire was my first experience — and I have never not been moved and overwhelmed.
Music and activism. The two things have always worked together well.
I look at this video and once again I see the kinship between the artists and activists of my youth and the ones of today. None of us are perfect, but all of us have a vision of something a great deal more than what our culture keeps pushing toward us.
At the time of this event, Reagan was tearing apart much of the progress that had been made in our government. We see the results of that destruction everywhere today. Unfortunately we’re re-fighting some of the old battles — voter suppression is one of the most obvious examples. So are abortion rights.
But we are still fighting.
The linked article that includes an embed of the video gets into the history — and the controversies — that accompanied the event over the years. That’s familiar but frustrating history. It’s useful to know, but if you, like me, need a dose of inspiration these days, you might want to skip the write-up and just watch the video.
I promise the video will inspire you, regardless of whether you’re someone who remembers those times or someone who could be the grandchild of any of the performers.