My heart was moved when I was a teenager by the top ten—such hymns to the status quo as “Red Sails in the Twilight” (“We marry tomorrow and she goes sailing no more”) which I listened to avidly after school on my bedroom radio.
To these were added the old-time songs we learned at my girls’ school: “Gaudeamus igitur”—with is ominous description of old age and death; on top of that, the old Christian hymns, peculiarly inappropriate for girls—“Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and Kipling’s Recessional with its warning against “Lesser breeds without the law.” There was glory in singing those songs together, all 150 of us, and perhaps that is what led me to the new songs of the 1970’s.
That’s when Holly Near and Helen Reddy began to hit to charts, and Meg Christian and Chris Williamson. I’d already heard Joan Baez in a smoky bar in Cambridge but her folk songs reminded me uncomfortably of the Kentucky past I was at that point trying to leave behind. “Do you wear shoes?” uppity boys at Harvard used to ask me.
But Holly, Helen, Meg, and Chris! One summer, driving to the Adirondacks to begin my novel based on the life of the American poet HD at that blissful haven, Blue Mountain Center, I listened to their tapes over and over and over until I was in a daze of hope. Something could change. I could change something. It wasn’t yet clear to me what—that would come later. But my sense of power was enchanting, energizing, a little delusional, and brand-new…
Even today, Holly’s songs stir my core of rebellion: “Something changes in me when I witness someone’s courage,” or her spine-chilling memorial to the killing at Kent State: “If you can die for freedom I can too”—the first political event to figure in one of my novels, where a genteel wedding is disrupted by the matron of honor’s insistence on talking about Kent State (Matron of Honor, Zoland Books).
Where are these songs today? What teenaged girl listens to them on her bedroom radio—or rather, on her iPod? They were dangerous then, they are dangerous now, because those singers insisted on our responsibility, as women, to fight injustice.
Reddy’s “I Am Woman” was immediately disparaged—“I am woman, hear me roar”—but what she was insisting on was our power and our responsibility to “work for freedom, freedom, freedom.”
Perhaps we no longer believe we can roar. Does that also mean we have given up all responsibility for the world in which we live?
Only Aretha in all her size and dignity continues to appear on the big stages; she will not be suppressed, or forgotten, or ignored. But the white song sisters who meant so much to me years ago have been eclipsed by all the later forms of pop, none of which seem to have much room for the open rebellion, the love of fight and flight, that is so important for women to maintain, if only in a tiny corner of our souls.