Hymn By Hymn Extra: Singing For Our Lives

I have to begin by saying that I had a lot of amazing moments yesterday in my “Great Proctors Adventure.” Proctors in Schenectady is an incredible and creatively generous arts space that brings in national tours, features music, lectures, movies, comedy, and offers space to a variety of organizations. All while being one of the best corporate citizens I’ve seen. So it was a pleasure to spend about 10 hours there yesterday.

It started with Italian pastry, then to Fun Home, which would have been enough, as I saw part of my own life’s story played up on the stage in this funny, beautiful, creative, heartbreaking, soul-healing show.

Then there was dinner with my nephew, his boyfriend, a colleague, and his spouse. And then a concert, back at the GE Theatre at Proctors for a concert honoring 50 years of the Eighth Step, which has been an important part of the regional folk scene.

Now I wanted to go to the concert back in August, before I knew what it was, because I knew Brother Sun was on their farewell tour and would be playing. I mentioned it to band member Joe Jencks, who texted back “so we are part of a bigger lineup and may only play a few songs.” I replied that “it would be good to see you if you only played one” and I was off to buy my tickets.

When I got to the sales page on the website, I learned that the bigger lineup would include my friend Reggie Harris, who’s working on his first solo album, and … be still my heart… Holly Near.

So here we go: from about age 10 to age 17, I attended Camp Little Notch, a beautiful Girl Scout camp near Lake George, NY. The activities were varied and plenty, and there was always music. Some of the songs we learned were old camp songs and old Girl Scout songs and old folk songs. But some of the songs we learned were by women … or more accurately, womyn, who produced amazing music – largely folk – in the 1970s. Artists like Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, Margie Adams, and Holly Near were singing the truth of their lives, their woman-identified loves, their feminism. And I learned these songs at camp. And then I bought the albums these songs came from.

As a teen, not sure what was going on for me in terms of sexual orientation (and bi the way, now I get why it was all so confusing), I found amazing comfort and joy in Cris Williamson’s Changer and the Changed, and Holly’s album Imagine My Surprise – especially “Something About the Women” and “Riverboat” – which we sang at camp, and “Rock Me In Your Arms” and “Simply Love” – which I learned from the album.

Later, as she struggled with her own bisexuality, and as she continued to find her voice and her purpose, her public work informed my own struggles and explorations. I am not a rabid fan, but she’s top on the list of influences in my life, and so the news that she was performing in this concert made an already excellent choice even better.

So…back to last night, realizing that while I have heard her sing in videos, on tv, and on recordings, I had never heard her in person. And just as Fun Home brought me back to those early years, growing up in the 70s, trying to figure out life and love, so too did Holly’s performance. She sang mostly newer songs – she too is working on a new album – and brought back a couple of older pieces from the 80s and 90s.

And then (and this is why it’s a Hymn by Hymn Extra), she led us in “Singing for Our Lives” – what we call “We Are a Gentle, Angry People” in Singing the Living Tradition.

We sang the first couple of verses, and then she began to speak. I must say that once I realized what she was doing, I started transcribing furiously on my phone, so this isn’t exact, but it’s pretty close:

“I wrote this song when Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated. We originally sang ‘we are gay and lesbian together’ but then we were surrounded by the support of allies and so I changed it to ‘we are gay and straight together.’ And now we are learning more and more about gender and sexuality and it now requires many more syllables than I can fit into the song, and so let us now sing ‘we are all in this together.”

In that 30 second riff, she updated her lyrics to expand the circle of love that this song holds.

We’ve talked a lot in the course of this practice about expansive language and who gets to change it. It didn’t happen on the post for this song, but in at least two different Facebook posts, there have been debates about the “gay and straight” language that lives in STLT. It meant the world to me to hear her rewrite her lyrics herself to meet the moment.

And yes – back to me – it meant the world to me that during intermission, Reggie introduced me to Holly, and I got to tell her about Camp Little Notch and my work now as a minister, to tell her how deeply she has touched my life.

And to thank her for these new lyrics, which I hope you will consider using the next time you sing this song.

One response to “Hymn By Hymn Extra: Singing For Our Lives”

  1. Wow, I bought ll those albums, too. Except that I was in my late 30s and early 40s, still trying to figure out my sexuality. I LOVED those songs!!! And I’ve seen Holly Near in person several times (it helps to have lived near L.A.), always loving her. Delighted to read this!

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