Radical Harmonies

By Mockus, Martha | Women & Music, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Radical Harmonies


Mockus, Martha, Women & Music


Radical Harmonies. Dee Mosbacher (Executive Producer/Director), Boden Sandstrom (Coproducer), Margie Adam (Associate Producer), June Millington (Associate Director). San Francisco: Woman Vision, 2002. Videodisc (88 mins.).

RADICAL HARMONIES, AN EXTRAORDINARY documentary film, chronicles the women's music movement from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. Executive producer/director Dee Mosbacher and coproducer Boden Sandstrom have assembled a treasure trove of archival film, video, television footage, and still photography along with contemporary interviews with women musicians, producers and festival organizers, sound engineers, photographers, distributors, journalists, and sign language interpreters, all of whom played critical roles in creating and maintaining the feminist convictions at the heart of "women's music." Their impassioned testimony leaps off the screen. Fans of vintage women's music will cheer the ample presence of Margie Adam, Meg Christian, Alix Dobkin, Ferron, June Millington, Holly Near, Linda Tillery, Mary Watkins, and Cris Williamson, revered here as the energetic founders of women's music and (except Christian) still actively involved. (Watkins and Tillery performing "Natural Woman" together is to die for.) Younger women musicians and bands such as Toshi Reagon, Ubaka Hill, Bitch and Animal, the Butchies, the Hail Marys, Sexpod, and Tribe 8 are also given their due. Even relatively well known independent artists Ani DiFranco and Amy Ray insist on the importance of the women's music movement to their own careers. While the music and musicians command center stage throughout the film, the blatant sexism and exclusion of women in all areas of the music industry are also represented. Radical Harmonies enthusiastically portrays the liberatory power of women's music for everyone involved in its creation, distribution, and reception. However, though the film acknowledges the persistent conflicts around racism and separatism, Radical Harmonies shies away from a deeper analysis of these issues.

Radical Harmonies begins with an interesting collection of responses to the question, "What is women's music?" demonstrating right away that there is no agreed-upon definition. According to Ubaka Hill, "Any woman who is in her center and wants to speak a truth about her experience through the form of music--that is woman's music." Others claim it is not so much a sound or a type of music but "a consciousness, a sense of ourselves, who we're talking to and what we're talking about." Margie Adam and Cris Williamson both admit they were not sure what "women's music" might mean when they started writing and performing in the early 1970s--it was open to invention and revision. The generic definition that this is music by, for, and about women emphasizes sensibility over sound but smoothes over the more radical charge of "feminism" and "lesbianism" that "women's music" consciously embraced. Not surprisingly, lesbians were the leaders of the women's music movement. As photographer/filmmaker J.E.B. (Joan E. Biren) puts it, lesbians were the "penguins in the desert," and Radical Harmonies celebrates them without apology.

Historically, the documentary links the emergence of second-wave feminism in the late 1960s to the existing movements for peace, labor, and civil rights, which had also produced compelling music. Ronnie Gilbert (of the Weavers) and Malvina Reynolds are identified as influential models for women's music, as are Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock. Sexism within vernacular musical cultures in general pervaded ideological and material conditions, making it extremely difficult for women to find supportive teachers and rehearsal space and to negotiate recording contracts. The political energy of the larger women's movement as well as specific events like the Joann Little case were important sources of motivation in the early days of women's music. (1) In addition, all-woman rock bands such as the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band, the Deadly Nightshade, and Fanny that appropriated rock and roll and criticized its sexism helped enable the women's music experiment. …

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