THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I don’t remember when I became politically conscious of the notion of feminism, but I was already there in my heart and mind.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, July 2021
JW: Today is July 22, 2021 and may I have your full name and when and where you were born?
DS: Deborah Rachel Silverstein and I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which is in Western Pennsylvania, on January 16, 1949.
JW: Tell us a little about your life before the women’s movement.
DS: I’m the daughter of Eastern European Jews, who on my mother’s side ended up in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. My dad was born and raised in Philadelphia. After graduating from dental school at the age of 21 during the Depression, he took a job for room and board in a mental hospital in Western Pennsylvania. My mother grew up in W. PA, in the town of Johnsonberg. Her father, David Friedman, a Lithuanian immigrant, had the town dry goods store. After the Second World War, my parents ended up settling in Johnstown, which is in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Johnstown had a thriving post-war Jewish community. The synagogue was the center of my family’s life. Growing up, the kids my age were the largest group of Jewish kids ever. It peaked at my grade, and it declined after that. Which meant that there were probably about 20 or 25 kids my age, and that cluster was the center of my world. I went to public school, but Jewish kids were in the vast minority there. My parents were both college educated. They were liberals. It was not an overtly politically involved home, but atmosphere was strongly liberal. I had a strong Jewish identity, but I was always a rebel, at heart. I was the family rebel.
JW: Give us an example.
DS: I think I burned my high school diploma in the driveway, not sure why, but it represented dissent about something for me I was the middle child, and the non-conformist.
JW: What got you into the women’s movement?
DS: Well, I spent my first two years of college at a small women’s college in Pittsburgh called Chatham College. I left there in 1968 and transferred to the University of Michigan as a junior. My parting memory of Pittsburgh was standing on the balcony of the dorm that I lived in, I guess it would have been May of ’68, looking down over Fifth Avenue, which ran across the entire city, and seeing the army tanks driving up and down Fifth Avenue and the fires burning in the distance, after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. I left my little women’s college where I had to wear skirts to the dining hall, etc., and transferred to the middle of the Revolution and Ann Arbor.
I don’t remember when I became politically conscious of the notion of feminism, but I was already there in my heart and mind. In Ann Arbor, it was all around me. I didn’t join any organizations in Ann Arbor. I was very shy, and socially timid in many ways at the time. I was on the periphery. I know it just kept bubbling all around me. I had friends who were in SDS. I majored in anthropology, and I was also a budding folk singer, so I was sort of on the edge of the folk music scene.
JW: What issues were of most concern to you?
DS: I wouldn’t say I was an activist at that point. I was just absorbing and being exposed to feminism and the anti-war movement and identifying deeply with that.
JW: Tell us a little about your music career. Did that take you more into feminism?
DS: I stayed in Ann Arbor for three years after I graduated, and in 1973 I moved to Boston. I had some friends who were living here. I knew there was a thriving folk music scene here. I figured I’d move to Boston and stay for a few years and who knows? Do something after that.
I never left. Shortly after I got to Boston, I stumbled upon an announcement about a course that was being offered through Cambridge-Goddard. This was an offshoot of Goddard College, which was based in Vermont. Cambridge-Goddard offered master’s degree programs in various politically left identified subjects.
One of the courses being offered was a feminist perspective on women’s identities in traditional American folk music. That completely spoke to me because I was a young feminist singing roots music. I had written a couple songs before I left Ann Arbor. I didn’t think of myself at that point as a songwriter, I was mainly singing trad songs. I went to the initial meeting of this class, it was held at the Cambridge Women’s Center.
I’d only been in Boston for a few weeks at that point. That was my first contact with the Cambridge Women’s Center, which was one of the original women’s centers in the country. It had been established, by the way, just a few years earlier, in the aftermath of the takeover of a Harvard Building. A wonderful documentary movie was made about that called Left On Pearl. Rochelle Ruthchild, is one of the producers and a friend of mine.
So, I showed up at this initial meeting at the Cambridge Women’s Center. I met the professor, Lannie Liggera, and her one officially enrolled student, a woman named Marcia Deihl.
I didn’t really have an interest or need to take an official Master’s degree program. I just started participating in this class. We met at Rounder Records which was in Somerville at the time. Rounder Records was a roots music record company established by three Tufts University friends. They lived together in a commune and taught themselves how to collect traditional music and make records. The three of them, Bill Nowlin, Marian Leighton and Ken Irwin would travel around the country and record old roots Americana musicians. Marian was interested in Lannie’s project. That’s why we were meeting at Rounder Records. Then another unofficial participant showed up, Katie Tolles. Katie had also just moved to Boston. Then Kendall Hale, who was officially registered in a different Cambridge Goddard class joined us. Turned out, all of us were singers and musicians.
Within a couple of meetings, we started playing music together and formed a band. We called ourselves the New Harmony Sisterhood Band. We got the name New Harmony from a 19th century utopian community in Indiana. The initial members were Lannie Liggera, Katie Tolles, Marcia Deihl, Kendall Hale and me. About six months in, another woman joined named Pat Ouelette. Pat was a bass player who had moved to Boston from Connecticut, where she had been part of the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band.
There we were, the six of us. As soon as we started playing music together, we were invited to come and play at rallies and classes and all kinds of events. Boom, it was just immediately happening. 1973 was the beginning of the women’s music scene in various places around the country.
New Harmony was in Boston. There was the band in New Haven. There was a Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band, too, I believe. And there was a whole women’s music scene in California, which is where a group called Olivia Records formed. Kristin Lems was in Champaign Urbana starting a big Women’s Music Festival. The following year New Harmony Sisterhood went out and sang at the second National Women’s Music Festival.
So that was how my life exploded into the feminist music world. That’s how we perceived ourselves, that’s who we were, cultural workers, political, feminist musicians.
At the same time, I started singing in a different group with men and women, called the Red Basement Singers. We met in the basement of the Red Book Store in Cambridge. Very intentionally, I started writing songs for these groups to perform.
Marcia Deihl, the official student in the Cambridge Goddard course, had to write a masters thesis. She decided to create a song book, a collection of contemporary and traditional songs about women viewed through a feminist lens.
Marcia asked me to participate on this project. We met another woman who lived in Vermont, Joyce Cheney who also was interested in the book project. Marcia, Joyce and I worked together for a year writing a women’s song book. It was a collection of historical and contemporary songs about women, a feminist song book. And it got published, and it’s in the Library of Congress. We called it All Our Lives, which is the name of the first song I wrote for New Harmony Sisterhood. We got a couple of publishing offers. Random House was interested in it. And a small radical feminist press based in Baltimore was interested, Dianna Press. We made the decision, for political reasons, to go with Diana Press. A few people saw this book, I suppose, as opposed to thousands.
The book is a beautiful document. We collected photographs which are scattered through the book; almost every song has a photograph attached to it, many of them beautiful, historic photos along with scores and lyrics and a short commentary about each song. I think at least three of my songs are in the book. It’s in the Library of Congress
JW: Would you be comfortable singing a verse of All Our Lives?
DS: Sure. I wrote this song in 1973. It’s a country sounding tune, with guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo and bass accompaniment.
“The men listen and then say, I’m sympathetic, Babe. I know what you women have been through all your lives. But I’m not the one to blame. I didn’t write the rules to this lousy game. But you got nothing for us men already on your side.
Well, you want to hear some sweetness, not just streams of angry words. You really dig the music, but the message is too tough. It seems like we’ve forgotten about happiness and love, You think we’ve said what we had to say, but enough’s enough.”
That’s a feminist country tune.
JW: You went on to continue to write music?
DS: I’ve been writing music all my life. New Harmony stayed together for six years. We broke up in 1980. We made one record, And Ain’t I a Woman, from a song Lannie Liggera wrote, based on the famous quote from Sojourner Truth.
That album was produced by Paredon Records. Paredon Records was a small, radical left wing record company run by singer, Barbara Dane, and Irwin Silber. Their whole record collection eventually got absorbed into Folkways and Folkways got absorbed into the Smithsonian Folk Music Collection. So that album is now in the Smithsonian American Folk Life Collection. A number of my songs are on that album. That was the New Harmony era.
Simultaneously, I went and got a master’s degree in counseling in 1975 at Northeastern University. When I finished that program, I joined a women’s feminist therapy collective called Focus Counseling. It was originally called Focus Counseling and Consultation for Women and Their Friends, a euphemism for lesbians. Focus was established by six women in late 1973, and I joined in 1975. That was my psychotherapy practice home for the next 40 plus years.
These were my parallel lives. I had a music life. And I was a young feminist therapist. I have more to say about my work as a therapist, but I’ll shift back to the music for now.
After New Harmony broke up, I went in a more traditional bluegrass direction for a time. I’m not part of the Americana mountain music heritage by birth, I’m an Eastern European Jew by birth. But I grew up in the mountains in Western Pennsylvania. My musical affinities were very old timey, ballad and bluegrass oriented. I became part of the local blue grass music scene and formed a band with some men.
We called ourselves Fire on the Mountain and played together for a couple of years, using some of my songs. I was a big fan of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard’s music, which I brought into Fire on the Mountain. Hazel and Alice brought feminism into old time bluegrass music, recording some albums on Rounder Records.
After Fire on the Mountain, I started developing my own solo career. Some of those same musicians became my backup band. And I started getting my own gigs in the Boston area.
I was primarily writing and singing my own songs. I got a record contract with Flying Fish Records based in Chicago. It was a small independent record label producing Americana, singer-songwriter musicians. Flying fish was eventually absorbed by Rounder Records. That album was called Around The Next Bend. It’s all my own original music. A lot of it is politically oriented: feminism, social justice issues, politically left.
All through this time, I was supporting myself with my work at Focus Counseling. About eight years into my practice, social workers in Massachusetts got licensed to collect third party insurance payments, and my MS in counseling degree didn’t count. Musically, I was at the point where, as a folk musician with an album, I would need to start going out on the road to develop an audience beyond the Boston area. That life involves living in a car, driving around the country, sleeping on people’s sofas, singing in Unitarian Church coffee houses and occasional small folk clubs. It’s a nomadic, penniless life, and many people thrive on it, at least while they’re young
I’d reached a terrible crossroads. I could write a book about that moment in my life, trying to decide what to do. What I decided was to go back to school and get an MSW. It was a very hard decision for me to make, kind of a heartbreaking.
Shortly I finished the MSW program, I married a man. I had been in relationships with women as well. But I married a man. I became a mother and was raising two daughters. I didn’t do a lot of music for a while. When my youngest was two, I was invited to join a group of women who were forming an a capella group. We became Taproot. We were together for 6 years and made two recordings together, including a number of my songs in the repertoire.
At one point, Taproot was invited to participate in an annual Holocaust Memorial Service. I wrote a song for that service called “Am I My Sister’s Keeper,” which we recorded on one of our albums.
When Taproot broke up, the first time, I started, I turned my attention away from music and I started doing visual art, working mainly in watercolors and mixed media. I created a piece for a Boston Jewish Arts Collaborative show that was going to feature altered books, using my song, “Sister’s Keeper.”
I found an English language copy of Mein Kampf, and I embedded the words of “Sister’s Keeper” into the text of the book book. I did that by ripping narrow strips of red silk. I have all this dupioni silk. It’s a nubby raw silk which I’ve used over the years for making Tallit.
I cut little holes into the strips of blood red silk and pasted them over the text of the book so that the lyrics of the song appeared through the holes in the silk. Subsequently, this piece was in a national show of Jewish Women Artists at Columbia University where it won a First Place Commendation.
I focused on making visual art for almost ten years, doing hardly any music at all, Until I had a sort of spiritual experience that was connected to my work as a therapist. Around 2010, I got interested in a therapy model, called Internal Family Systems Therapy, or IFS. The model has intellectual roots in parts of mind, neurological theory, meaning we’re not just one unified entity; we all have multiple parts of ourselves and identities, et cetera. It’s been developed into a working therapy model which I have found to be very powerful and effective.
I was attending a training workshop. There were six of us in a practice session together. We were given the instruction to identify a ‘part’ of yourself, bring your attention/awareness inside, and listen to what that part want to tell you. I decided to choose my voice. And my voice literally screamed, “Where did you go? Why have you abandoned me? Why aren’t you singing? I want to keep singing. I want to sing again. Why won’t you listen to me?” For a long time, I had felt sort of relieved of the burdens of dealing with the music world which, even in folk music, is still part of the entertainment industry. But I walked out of that practice session feeling overcome with the desire to be singing again. The problem was, I’d left the circuit, gotten off the train, others had taken my seat and the train was years away down the track. I wasn’t part of the scene anymore.
I decided I had to do this. I made a commitment to myself that I was going to start anywhere, anytime I had the opportunity. I wanted to get back into it. I would use every opportunity I had to let people know I was looking for new people to pay with. I hated doing it, but I made myself. By an amazing set of circumstances, I met a woman at a subsequent therapy training program. We were therapists, strangers introducing ourselves to each other. I told her I was a dormant singer, trying to get back into the game. She said, “my husband is a musician, between bands. I’ll tell him about you.”
Six months later, her husband called me, came over and fell in love with my music. We started playing music together. I hadn’t written anything in a long time. I started writing songs again, and we eventually formed a new band. His name was Eric. An old friend of mine, a bass player from way back in my bluegrass days, who was named Eric, joined the band. I wrote enough new material for a record, “Precious Time.” The record producer, whose name was Eric, joined the band and I had my band of “Erics” Our repertoire was a blend of ballads, bluegrass, political commentary and humor.
JW: How would you say your awakening as a feminist in those early years affected your life?
DS: I can’t separate my feminism from the life that I formed. I can’t separate it from the life that I’ve lived. It infused my music, it infused my therapy career, the community I became a part of, it infused all of my significant relationships with women, men, friends, lovers, it infused my parenting. It’s been a defining principal. I raised my daughters from a feminist perspective, and they are both reflections of that. My feminism and my political affiliations infuse everything I’ve written.
I do have one more music related thing to say. One of the original women in my original band, New Harmony Sisterhood, the official student of that course, and one of the people I wrote the book with, Marcia Deihl, stayed in Boston as did I. e never shared a band again, but occasionally we’d work together on a music project. About seven years ago, she got a gig singing music at a National Women’s Radical History Conference at Boston University. She asked me to come and do that with her, and sing songs from second wave women’s music.
In the week leading up to that conference, without intention, I ended up writing a song that I called “Riveted.” It’s about the post-WWII women, my mothers generation. The women who got forced out of their income producing work at the end of WWII, decommissioned to suburbs, etc. I’ve thought a lot about what a sucky generation it was to be a woman. My mother, with her college education, was a small town, stay-at-home mom, a frustrated, angry and depressed woman.
And I was her daughter. I’ve thought a lot about that. I wrote the song, “Riveted,” leading up to the performance that Marcia and I were doing, and I sang it at the conference. People resonated with it. Afterwards, I started thinking, oh, there’s a play hidden inside this song. I thought, well, I’m not a playwright. But maybe I can find a playwright and I’ll write the songs, it’ll be a musical
For a couple of years, I played with this idea and talked to lots of people, trying to figure out how to proceed. One day I was meeting with a new friend who was both a writer and a musician and had written plays. We spent a couple of hours together. At the end of our conversation, she said, “Alright, Deborah, it’s a great idea. I’m not going to do it. I have my own things to do. This is your story, you have to write this yourself.” And I said, “I don’t know how to write a play.” Eventually I thought, well, okay, I’m going to write the play. Flash forward six years, I have written the entire musical: full length script and 15 songs.
The musical is called Riveted. and it’s fiction. It’s certainly informed by my lived experience, but it’s not my family story. The primary characters are a very elderly woman who I call Rosie, her adult daughter who I call Betty, which was my mother’s name, and Betty’s adult daughter Emma. Over the years, I’ve worked on it with three different dramaturges, and I’ve had two staged readings. I’m thrilled to report that it ids going to be produced by an Asheville, NC (my new town) theater company, Magnetic Theater Company. We’ll be doing a staged reading workshop in November, 2022, and a full production in 2023.
I do have one other thing I’d like to mention, which is related to my life as a therapist. I don’t know if you are familiar with any of the writings of Jean Baker Miller or Carol Gilligan? People are more familiar with Carol Gilligan’s name than Jean Baker Miller’s. But Jean Baker Miller was really the matriarch of what became known as the relational model or self-in-relation model of psychological development., a feminist influenced model.
I’ll try to tell you very quickly, and it’s relevant for a particular reason. Traditional psychotherapy, Freudian therapy, psychoanalytic therapy, were all based around the notion of separation and individuation. This was considered to be the pinnacle of psychological maturity and development. Women were characteristically viewed from this perspective as less emotionally sophisticated or developed people because women tend to place stronger value in attachment/relationships than men.
The whole concept of attachment versus separation is an underpinning of the traditional model. The notion of being intertwined with and affected by the other was considered less developed, less mature.
Jean Baker Miller founded a research Institute at Wellesley College, called the Stone Center. She and the women who worked with her developed the philosophical developmental perspective called self-in-relation or relational theory. This emphasizes that the capacity to stay connected and related are highly developed, valuable emotional capacities; that healthy, emotional, mature development is an integration of both the capacity to know yourself and to know the other and stay in connection with the other in a responsible and healthy way.
I matured as a therapist myself in the stew of those conceptual ideas. I also became a mother with this knowledge in mind. I adopted my first daughter in the late 80’s, when opening adoption was evolving, in contrast to the traditional closed adoption model. I met people who were involved in the open adoption movement, and that was the type of adoption I and my husband, at the time, chose to pursue.
I met my daughter’s birth mother. We maintained ongoing contact. We followed the same path in the adoption of my younger daughter. Because I was a clinician and a student of the relational frameworks, I found myself thinking endlessly about the contoversies surrounding closed adoption versus open adoption.
There was all kinds of literature, serious psychological literature stating why having any contact between the birth family and the adoptive family would be emotionally disastrous. For all concerned. Well, I was living this experience, and knew this to be untrue. I developed a theoretical model comparing the psychological concepts of separation and individuation and closed adoption versus the relational model and open adoption. I wrote a paper.
I wasn’t an academic and had no research credentials. So I found a man in Boston who was an adoptive parent and a PhD psychologist who was teaching at Suffolk University, Jack Demick. He had been doing research in a similar vein. It resonated with the theory I’d written. We collaborated on a paper integrating his research and my theoretical framework. It got published in the journal, “Family Process” in 1994.
JW: I really appreciate the conversation, and so many different strands. And I thank you so much for the time.
DS: Thank you so much. It feels good just to know I made a contribution.