Holly Near

“I don’t think I’ll ever see the world or read a newspaper or see a film or read a book or have a conversation with an elder or a five-year-old without it going through this lens of the last 40 or 50 years of my involvement in feminism.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, December 2021

HN:  My name is Holly Near. I was born in a little town called Ukiah, California, on June 6, 1949 and raised in Potter Valley, which was nearby but didn’t have a hospital.

JW:  Please tell us a little about your childhood, your family configuration, ethnic background, that sort of thing.

HN:  We were raised on a little farm/ranch in Potter Valley, and my dad pretty much raised Hereford cattle, and also some sheep and turkeys. And we had milk cows. We ate off the land, except for vegetables. My mom would make jam and things like that. At first, when she moved there, she decided she was going to be the kind of ranchwoman that would make everything. But after a while, she realized the amount of time that it took to make all those things when she could go down to the little local market and buy it, it didn’t make sense. It would be better for her doing other things. It would be larger contributions to the family, to the ranch.

I have an older sister, Timothy, a younger sister, Laurel, and a brother, Fred. We didn’t have neighbors that were children. So in the summertime, we had each other to play with, and we romped around the mountains and the hills quite a bit. We didn’t have television, so we entertained each other and we entertained our parents.

We put together little shows, and there was always a piano, a guitar, mandolin, ukulele, and percussion instruments. Later, my father got very interested in stereo when that was first invented, so he bought two speakers and a record player and a Wallensak tape recorder. And he hooked it all up. It was kind of a hobby for him after he’d been out ranching all day. He got some microphones and we started recording our songs, and making records to send to my grandmother, who lived on the East Coast.

That was my first introduction, both to music as well as to the world, because living out there, when my parents would order records off of catalogs, they came from all over the world. They were Theodore Bickel and Miriam Makeba and Edith Piaf and we started to understand that the world was much bigger than our little world. And what it really helped me to do, I think, was to approach the world with fascination rather than fear. And I think music can be a great introduction to other cultures and other people.

It just arms us in a certain way, takes us to that heartbeat, which is in the rhythm and to the melodies which are the wind and the birds. And there’s just something, for me, not everybody maybe felt that way, but for me, the music helped me not be so small in my thinking and my feeling. That was a long answer to your question.

JW:  That was great. I assume all that led you to your music career ultimately.

HN:  It’s very hard to know, in hindsight, how to connect those dots. But the biggest part was that I was born with a voice. If I hadn’t been born with this voice, there’s all kinds of other things I could have done with that knowledge, with music and with curiosity. But I’d opened my mouth and this voice came out with a great pitch. I had pretty good control over it, even from a very young age. A music teacher moved into Ukiah. Her name was Connie Cox, and she had been a teacher as well as a nightclub performer in San Francisco.

Her husband got a job up in Ukiah, and she followed him, which took her away from this cultural garden of San Francisco and brought her into this tiny little town, small town, lumber town, farm town. She started a little studio to teach kids. I’m guessing she’s not alive for me to ask her, but she was probably bored to tears. There was a talent show that the Veterans of Foreign Wars put on. I love that connection. I was eight years old. I sang a cappella, “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” from a Rogers and Hammerstein musical.

Connie was accompanying someone else there. When she was at the sound check, she came up and said, “Would you like me to play for you?” And I said, no, I’m fine singing. But we did actually have a good conversation, and I started studying with her from the time I was about eight until I was 16. She had been a teacher and mentor for Johnny Mathis in San Francisco before he took off to Hollywood. She had a lot of pizazz, a lot of style, bleach blonde hair, very buxom woman.

She was an unusual character for us to see in our little town. But she wasn’t so adamant about me singing scales and that kind of preparation, which was really good, because at that age, a child really shouldn’t over scale their voice. They should really discover its natural form. And she invited that a lot. What I learned was style and what to do with my hands and how to move my voice through a song and interpret the lyric and all those wonderful, juicy things that came into play later on when I was older. It was as if they had been installed in me. I barely had to think about it.

JW:  When did you get involved in the women’s movement?

HN:  My family was progressive, so that helped. I guess it would be things like I didn’t understand what happened to Native Americans. We were living on Pomo land. Later, it was the anti-war movement, trying to stop the war against Indochina, Vietnam. Boys from my high school going and a couple of cases coming home and committing suicide because they were so anguished by the whole thing. When I went to college at UCLA, it was 1967-68 and the Black Panthers. There was a lot going on in the political world.

Almost any way I turned I would have been startled. I went to a Nina Simone concert at Royce Hall at UCLA with probably a handful of white people and the place was packed with Black people. And me coming from a little farm town was unusual in and of itself. Then Nina sang. I had heard rage sung before by Janis Joplin because she came to sing at our high school. But Nina’s rage had a social depth to it that was different than Joplin’s. Well, they both had social depth.

Nina just took my brain and shook it and said, there is so much you don’t know, right? Don’t even try to pretend you know what you’re talking about. When she sang songs like Mississippi Goddam, I had to go figure out what was going on in Mississippi. The music pulling me into the places I would go. I did film and television, and I went to New York, and I was on Broadway in Hair, not at the beginning but filled in a part a couple of years after it had been going.

When I came back to California to do another film, do some more TV, a friend of mine said, “Have you heard of the FTA show?” I said, “No, I don’t know that.” It stands for Free The Army, although that’s not what the soldiers called it. Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and a lot of entertainers were working on it, writing sketches and songs based on the writing of soldiers who were returning from Vietnam. There was a large movement of soldiers who were resisting war and racism from within the military.

The government did not want people to know. But men were being thrown into stockades for their resistance. There were some Black men. If they did the power handshake, it could be insubordination. I went to the audition because one of the women from the FTA tour had to back out. I walked in. It was a big house in Los Angeles, and everybody was doing things like getting lists together to order long underwear and getting passports together and visas and going down these lists.

Somebody said, “Can I help you?” “I’m here to audition.” And they said, “Well, Jane’s busy right now. But here, would you take these flyers and fold them and collate these letters?” “Wow. Okay.” This is a really different audition than I’ve ever had before. Not sort of like the big black leather desk at Columbia or something. Anyway, I worked for about an hour and then Jane came in with a sandwich and said, “Okay, lunch break, let’s see what you can do.”

She had me sing a song, had me dance, and had me read a sketch. And she said, “You’re great. We’re going to leave next Monday. You need to get your passport in order. You need to get warm clothes. We’re going to be in Japan in the winter.” And she said to her assistant, Ruby Ellen, “Help her with her list and all that and see you soon.” I called my family and I said to my dad, “The Philippines has martial law there. I could probably die.” And he said, “Well, you could die if you walked out on the street and got hit by a garbage truck. That’s not the way to make decisions. You have to decide whether this is what you want to do.”

That was an interesting question. What do you want to do? Do I want to go back and keep auditioning and doing film and television? My career was starting to roll, but this just sounded great. This sounded challenging and exciting. I called Jane back and said, “Yes, I’m with you.” We went to Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa, Japan. All places that had US bases, rest and recuperation and training centers before and after sending people to Vietnam.

You asked about when I got involved in the women’s movement. It was in the Philippines and Hawaii, mostly, those first two stops. Because the women were organizing there, saying that when the US put a military base on the farms that they grew up on and they had to move and go into the cities, a lot of the women turned to prostitution to support their families. We started meeting with not only soldiers who were resisting from within, but the women from the countries we were visiting which had revolutionary struggles and much from a woman’s point of view about how war lands itself on top of women, on top of their integrity, their families, their culture, their food, their identities.

This one woman we talked to was a prostitute in Manila. The organizers who advanced this tour were amazing. The conversations they’d set up for us, these things don’t just show up. Somebody makes it all happen. But she said that she worked as a prostitute. She’d go to the ships when they came in to Subic Bay in the Philippines, and she would have sex with a soldier and he’d give her money. And she would say things like, have you ever heard of the GI movement?

She’d let the soldier know that there was a resistance movement, and then she would take the money and she’d send half to her family and the other half she’d get to give to the revolutionary organization she was working with. That one little story, which maybe took 30 seconds, completely undid my brain. I’d never heard of organizing in that context where it’s not just you go and sign up and work for Another Mother For Peace, which I did, and I loved by the way. I thought that was a great organization.

But there were people who got hurled into their organizing choices because of what happened to them and how much of what was happening to these women had to do with the military. My first introduction to what is the “military-industrial complex” happened on that tour. Business, military, sexism, racism. Black men there who are getting treated differently than white men. White soldiers who were saying, yeah, I do this and this happens. He does that and something else happens.

There’s a movie out called FTA (Free The Army). A lot of those conversations are in that and there’s a companion film called Sir, No Sir which is about the resistance of the soldiers. There’s some of the FTA footage in that as well. That was my college. I went to UCLA for about six months and then went into studying the military-industrial complex.

I learned so much. One of the people I learned from, aside from Jane – who must have been 35 at the time, we were kids, babies, I was 21 – was Len Chandler, who had been a civil rights songwriter singer. He played the guitar and was so vibrant, had a toolbox of songs for every moment which I had never understood. No matter where we went, we would build our stages out in these fields. We’d set up the sound, the crews and the performers, and everybody would work on everything, get the mics set up and the lights and thousands of soldiers would show up.

We were told, “A couple of hundred, if you’re lucky.” Thousands of soldiers, so much so, that sometimes the military would hand flyers to the soldiers and say the event was over here. We’d hear that and we’d have to wait for them to go over and say, “No, it’s over here.” They wouldn’t let the soldiers off one ship until we left the country. They knew that what we were doing was very effective because I wasn’t sure when I took off what that song looked like.

But, yes, it was very effective, and the government worked really hard to keep it a secret. Len Chandler did great songs about civil rights, about insubordination, about liberating oneself from colonialism and racism, and all very upbeat. He played the guitar and I didn’t have any songs. I was assigned two songs that were written by Beverly Grant. One was called I Can’t Be Yours and Still Be Me. And I thought, why is that in this show? But, boy, did that audience get quiet because the men felt it in relationship to the military, and the women felt it in relationship to the men.

It was quite something. And Rita Martinson sang a beautiful love song that she wrote called Dear Soldier, We Love You. That had about a couple of thousand men weeping. How many people from the anti-war movement, they were being fed all this stuff about how the anti-war movement hated soldiers. And here you had this very visible anti-war show saying, we love you. Beautiful.

JW:  I’m assuming that led you into songwriting.

HN:  Yes, you’re absolutely right. I came home and I said, I don’t have any songs. I’d written songs when I was in high school, but they were sort of hippie investigations into teenage heartthrobs or something. When we were in Japan, we took time off to go to the Museum in Hiroshima. I came out of that pretty devastated. There was a Japanese man, one of our guides waiting for us, and I’m sure this wasn’t the first experience for him watching people like me fall apart.

He said, you weren’t even alive when this happened. He said this not in a sophisticated way because he was speaking in a second language, but what I got out of it is guilt is not going to be very useful to you. You weren’t even there. The most important thing is to make sure it doesn’t happen again. These lessons, stories from each of these countries and places, added up to be the foundation for the work I did for the rest of my life.

JW:  Let’s move to the women’s songs.

HN:  Some of the anti-war stuff I already started seeing when I was writing that, that I was writing it from a woman’s perspective because we already had great singer songwriters who were writing it from the point of view of getting drafted. We had Phil Ochs, and we had Country Joe McDonald, and we had Dylan. But what did it mean as a woman? As it’s starting to come to understand things through the eyes of women-identified point of view, what does an anti-war song look like, sound like?

I was having to start. There were a few people who had written during the unions, the Mother Jones era. They had some songs about striking and the company store and things like that. Barbara Dane had been doing some work around race as a white blues singer. There were all the Black women like Nina Simone, who got into their stories way sooner than I was. Because I didn’t know what my story was. You have to figure those things out.

Then I met some women who were starting to ask the question more specifically than I had about what is women’s music? What is music that comes out of the female experience? Had I ever written a song just about a woman? Of course. But when I looked through it, there was always a male influence, a male character, a male power structure or something. The trick was to step away long enough to figure out if I didn’t have the pressure of some patriarchy foot on my neck, what would I be thinking for myself?

When I realized I hadn’t a clue, that was frightening, I was like, I’m a really smart person, and I don’t know the answer to that. I was meeting people like Meg Christian, Alix Dobkin, Maxine Feldman, Cris Williamson, Linda Tillery, Mary Watkins, Margie Adam, Bebe K’Roche. These sort of early women I look back at now as being iconic. Trying to listen to what were the questions they were asking. Linda Tillery was a huge force in Oakland, which is a couple of hours south of where I was born and raised, and she was working with Olivia Records, not only asking the question about woman identification, but also race and class.

How complicated can we make this question? Well, it’s already complicated. It is everything that we know and don’t know. At some point, I think we just realized that every generation is given a task, and this was ours. We were going to figure out music through a woman-identified point of view. Meg Christian coined the phrase “women’s music.” I started working with Mary Watkins, the African American extraordinary pianist, composer. She’s 80 now, and she’s still writing. In fact, she’s writing an opera with Clare Coss. I noticed you had interviewed or someone interviewed her for this, about some of the great Black iconic political heroes and heroines.

She’s been writing operas. But at the time when we were both younger, we toured together and I learned a lot about race from Mary. Not from a lecture or some kind of deep conversation. We got to Washington, DC, and she said, “I feel like I can take a deep breath, because it’s a Black city.” I had just been living in these cities that were white dominated, and it never occurred to me what that deep sigh would feel like.

We were in an airport once, and we had a long delay. So I laid down on the rug and put my bag under my head and fell asleep. When I woke up, I saw that Mary was sitting in her chair upright, and I went, oh, she can’t just lay down on the ground anywhere. She’ll be considered vagrant. Just the assumption of a Black woman lying on the ground. My lessons came from people, not because they handed me a book, but because somewhere along the way and maybe it was the farm because you have to pay attention to nature, I learned to be an active noticer.

I noticed things and instead of noticing them and letting them fly by, I noticed them, and I put them in my suitcase, in my toolbox. I’d be in a traffic jam, and I’d look over and I’d see Black people playing tennis and I’d go, well, that didn’t just happen naturally. That’s a result of a civil rights movement. I would name things so that I understood I was living in a historic context all the time. The good side of it is it’s fascinating. You never get bored when you’re an active noticer. The bad side is, you never rest. I’m exhausted all the time.

JW:  I would like to hear a little more about your music. Obviously, many women loved your music and identified with it. Please tell us about your music.

HN:  I started with what I thought I knew. When one of the earliest songs I wrote was called It’s More Important to Me, which is about two women speaking and one saying to the other, it’s more important to me that we be friends than we fight over a man. The idea of jealousy and the cat fight over a man. Why did I start there? I don’t know. With my investigation, that was one of the early songs that came out. There was another song that came out of Meg Christian asking me if I’d ever written a song just about a woman.

I wrote a song from my sister. That seemed safe. Start there. And I wrote a song about Timothy. I called it You’ve Got Me Flying, and it was about what it was like to grow up with such a beautiful, graceful, tall – she was about 5 foot 10″ and a half – sister, and to keep up with her, to be enamored by her. It was a love song to a sister. Then I got a little braver. I wrote a song with Meg Christian called The Rock Will Wear Away, where each of the verses is about a different woman’s life trying to struggle with survival, and the chorus goes like this: “can we be like drops of water falling on the ground?”

It’s been a long time since I sang this. But in the end, it says to be patient because the rock will wear away. It looks like the water is hitting on the rock. But the fact is, that thing which seems you can just put your hand through, like water, will actually make a hole in the rock. We can’t always know by looking which is the stronger of two elements. So that was one of them. I was asked to write a song in Los Angeles. There was someone out raping and killing women, mostly who were prostitutes and the city wasn’t paying much attention to it because they were prostitutes.

The women’s movement got together and did this big event. Women on stilts wearing huge black mourning dresses that went all the way down to the ground. They came in slowly through the crowds on these stilts. There was poetry. They asked me to do a song at the end of it that lifted everybody up. So, at the end, this woman comes in on stilts with a long red gown that goes all the way to the ground.

And I sang the song Fight Back, which I was asked to write for it. “And we’re going to fight back in large numbers. Fight back. I can’t take anymore. Fight back in large numbers together we can make a safe home, together we can make a safe home.” Those songs were written 50 years ago. But they were bold at the time. I look back and I think, well, that’s not all that radical, but they were. One was called, “Ooh, there’s something about the women. Oh, there’s something about the women, something about the women, something about the women in my life.”

Now, how radical is that? Not very. But back then, to get a crowd of people, to get 1500 people in a legitimate theater. I just remember being in Cambridge, Sanders Theater, I think it is. It’s got pictures of all these men around on the sides who were the great educators; and 1500 women, just ignoring the fact that they were there and singing “there’s something about the women in my life.” It just hadn’t happened before. I’m thrilled that I got to be part of that, to be part of something that was breaking new territory, laying down bricks that the next generation was going to step on without even knowing there had ever been a time when there was mud there rather than a brick.

It’s very exciting to have been part of that. And then the lesbian songs. There was a tour in California called Women On Wheels, and we traveled to seven different cities in California, and thousands of women were showing up who had never even been with 20 lesbians in the same room much less a thousand lesbians in the same room. There were a few wonderful, brave men who came, but it was mostly women. I remember standing in the wings, and they were stomping and screaming like they were in some sort of levitating ecstasy, that their show had already begun.

Even today, there’s such a fear of women being together, that if we gather, someone will pull out the discrimination card, because it’s intolerable for some men and some straight women, I think, to imagine what happens in a room of all women. I just had spent some time with Lakota Harden, an Indigenous woman from California, and she talked about how curious that was to her when she was coming up, because in her tradition, they are the matriarchy. Nothing gets done unless the women agree it’s a good idea.

They’ll let the men go off in the sweat lodge and work out all the details. They’ll be the chief, and they’ll be the warriors, and they’ll do all of that, but whatever they work out, they bring it back to the women. And the women can say, no, that’s not going to work. Or yeah, we’ll go with that. And she said the men were just not upset by that. They’d been raised by powerful, strong women. They’d been raised in a matriarchy.

When Lakota was talking about having met men from a Northern European tradition or from a Spanish tradition or whatever who were so offended or terrified by the power of women, she was like, “I don’t know how much has changed in terms of getting rid of patriarchy, but I know that we’ve created a lot of organizations and systems and friendships to protect us from it.”

Those are two very different things. We’re not rid of it. But we’ve learned how to defend ourselves and to work around it and through it, with the support of one another and with the allyship of men who have also been raised by strong women and who understand that their lives are better when women’s lives are better. It’s as simple as that. Everybody’s better when we’re better.

JW:  You’ve continued your activism, right?

HN:  Yes. It’s shifted form a little. I’m 72. I don’t want to go out on the road and do one-nighters anymore. I did that for 50 years, and Covid has supported that decision. I’ve shifted to doing an archival project I’ve been working on since 2019, interviewing women from the Oakland, California, area who were part of building Women’s Music and who brought to the table a different narrative than the one that got started of Holly Near, Cris Williamson, Meg Christian and Margie Adam. It’s a much bigger and more complex story. As much as I loved how the four of us sounded together, and I loved the concerts we did together, it’s not to take away from that, but it’s not the only story. I started by interviewing four women in Oakland, and I couldn’t stop. I’ve interviewed 23.

That’s what you’re doing, because we can learn from each other’s stories, and it’ll be done by the end of 2021, and it will live on a website out in the world. It’s free to everybody. I will slowly start to notify women’s studies programs, if they still exist. And I’ll let the Oakland Library know and various other libraries that do work around race and class and gender and social media.

The great part about working on this was that I had a wonderful philanthropist who made it possible. I don’t have to sell it. If only two people watch it, I don’t have to go out there and make it pay for itself. It’s exciting, because it turns out I’m a pretty good interviewer, which I didn’t know, but I’ve been interviewed a lot, so I knew what I liked and didn’t like. Also I listen for 55 minutes. I’d have a page this big of questions. I’d ask one, and then the page went off. You’re experiencing that right now, aren’t you?

JW:  Indeed. That’s the best part, really. The final question is one which you kind of answered it already, but what would you say your involvement in these women’s issues meant for you personally and we know professionally, but whatever you would like to say, just to close.

HN:  I don’t think I’ll ever see the world or read a newspaper or see a film or read a book or have a conversation with an elder or a five-year-old without it going through this lens of the last 40 or 50 years of my involvement in feminism. I have to say that alongside of that, because feminists were not born really understanding all the issues any more than any of us did, the fact that the women of color, the working-class women, the lesbian feminists have come in and what might feel to some of the more middle of the road feminists, like an invasion, it’s actually been the lifesaver of the woman’s movement.

If we did not have all those voices pushing at us to get it right, feminism would just be a little thing. I’m very fortunate to have been part of an era where as much as those battles were exhausting and hurt and painful – and boy, did we hurt each other so many times. I remember being in situations where my lack of experience and my lack of understanding of the person I was arguing with, my inability to be quiet and just listen and not have to defend, not knowing all that, I got hurt and I hurt people.

I’m much more informed now, so I can have those conversations and they’re uplifting rather than painful. I’m glad to be able to go into my elder years with that. I don’t think I will ever tour again, but I’ll do an occasional festival, a special event where I can just go in and sing. I’m not going to give up the idea of music or teaching through music, using the music as a way to communicate. But I think it’s going to shift.

I think things shift as you get older. I went to see June Millington the other day, and she and I are both cancer survivors, and everything shifts when you start dealing with health issues and you try to get out of the car and everything hurts. I’m not happy about my body getting old, but it’s never been a surprise that it was going to happen. My dad used to say, “If you agree to come to this planet, you got to agree to leave, that’s just how it goes.”

One other thing I just want to say in terms of support, is that if one isn’t born into support like I was, then build it, find people who can be a new family, who can be a new group of people who support. It’s hard to be out there alone and to be dealing every day with a family who’s telling you you’re not good enough, you’re crazy, you’re off the wall. We don’t have to be stuck with that. We can build family and the people around us who support us that may or may not be birth family.

My first pianist from high school was Jeff Langley, and for eleven years we worked together in and out of high school. We toured together. He and I went by ourselves to Vietnam as guests of the Musicians Union and the theater people there in the northern part of Vietnam. He was so supportive, both in our songwriting, but also watching me and realizing that I knew where we needed to go next. And he wanted to be there. That was just amazing. Then at some point, he and I both felt that I was getting so involved in the feminist and lesbian feminist communities that it would be good for me to work with some women pianists. He had been putting off his career for me for a long time. He was a classical composer.

I started working with Mary Watkins, and he went to Juilliard, and we stayed friends the whole time. I bring this up, because just a few weeks ago, he left this planet. He called me a couple of weeks before he died to say goodbye. There’s something so wonderful about a person brave enough dealing with issues of life and death to say goodbye. I’m able to cope with him not being in this world because we had that kind of conversation. Beautiful man and wonderful co-composer. He was the pianist for the first Holly and Ronnie Gilbert tours. He was a wonderful arranger and accompanist and friend. We are at that age where more people are going to start saying goodbye to each other.

JW:  Do you have a message for younger women as we wrap up?

HN:  Pick up where we left off. Don’t be afraid to look at the legacy that’s been left. At the same time, don’t get stuck there. Take it to the next place. You’re going to have a lot of older women wishing you were more appreciative of us because we worked so hard. But that’s not the job of young people, is it? The job of young people is to follow their own radicalism, their own curiosity. There’s a time in life where one starts – what went on before me. But usually that’s not what teenagers are asking. They’re very involved in their own “me,” not the me that went before. I think that’s right.

I don’t think we should ever say to young people, “You can’t do that. You don’t know enough about it.” I didn’t know how to run a record company, but I started one. I’d never even been in the studio to watch someone else make a record. But I knew that the mainstream wouldn’t record the songs I wrote when I got back from the FTA tour, one of which was called No More Genocide in My Name. That’s a Top 40 hit for you, right? In 1971, I don’t know if anybody had used the word genocide in a song before, so we were breaking ground. If I had listened to someone say, well, you really shouldn’t put that word in a song, what a shame that would have been. It’s much better to just explode with one’s instincts and then eventually realize that it will help to look at the legacy that came before. It’ll be useful.