Music that changed everything for me
Holly Near come into my life in 1978 and opened my eyes to a new world
I remember the exact moment Holly Near roared into my life. As the Executive Director of a 24-hour walk-in crisis center in Michigan, I had what I thought was a deep understanding of domestic violence. In my mind, a woman could stay with or leave her violent spouse—a personal choice based on financial and other resources available to her. And despite whatever interventions we engaged in with her, chances were that even if she left for a while, she would eventually return to him. I had no analysis of the larger political/societal issues embroiled in her decision. Until, that is, I attended a domestic violence seminar at Columbia University in 1978. Twenty-five women, dressed in jeans, t-shirts, or loose-fitting tie-dyed dresses sat in a circle on the floor as one of the leaders reached over and turned on the cassette tape player sitting next to her on the floor.
I can still hear the booming voice reverberating around that circle. The voice emanating from the tinny cassette player speaker defied its limitations. It arose acapella from deep within the woman singer’s soul. The room closed in, the other women in the circle disappeared, and I found myself completely focused on that black box. I could hear her fear turn to anger and then resolve even if the words had not guided me there.
By day I live in terror
By night I live in fright
For as long as I can remember
A lady don't go out alone at night, no no
A lady don't go out alone at night
But I don't accept the verdict
It's a wrong one anyway
Cause nowadays a woman
Can't even go out in the middle of the day, safely
Can't go out in the middle of the day
And so we've got to fight back
In large numbers
Fight back, I can't make it alone
Fight back, in large numbers
Together we can make a safe home
Together we can make a safe home
© Hereford Music, Written and composed by Holly Near
Listen to the complete song Fight Back on YouTube
As the voice trailed away and the leader flicked the tape player off, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my jeans trying to make sense of what I had just heard. “Who is that?” I shouted a little too loudly.
I could swear several women answered in unison, “Why, it’s Holly Near! You’ve never heard her before?”
No, I had never heard her before, but that moment changed my life forever.
I came to understand that it wasn’t personal choice but societal pressure, sexism, and misogyny that played a more significant part in what a woman did or didn’t do in violent situations. The solution lay not only in stronger psychological skills and more personal resources, but also in women joining forces to force men to stop the violence.
After that domestic violence seminar, I became a Holly Near groupie, going out of my way to see her live wherever that might be. As I came to know Holly’s music and the movement she created with it, my analysis moved from the personal to the political, and I began to see everything, not just violence against women, but the environment, war and peace, nuclear power, substance abuse, relationships, injustice, racism, ableism, and homophobia, from that perspective. Although I had been on protest marches before, it was through Holly’s inspiration that I became politically active, and I began trying to live into the vision of a world that I’d always dreamed about but had no tools for realizing.
After meeting me at concert after concert, Holly began to recognize me, and after participating in multiple workshops she led at various times and places over the past almost five decades, I feel comfortable calling her a valued friend, albeit not as mutual as I might like, but nevertheless, one who has impacted my life beyond recognition.
At my memorial service, whenever that might come, I hope that someone sings her song, I Am Willing, right after someone says a few kind words about my life. That song is the closest I’ve found to articulating my life’s philosophy.
I am open, I am willing
for to be hopeless would feel so strange.
It dishonors those who go before us
So lift me up to the light of change.
© Hereford Music, Written and composed by Holly Near.
Listen to the complete song “I Am Willing” on YouTube
Holly Near opened my eyes to the “light of change” and once opened, I found it impossible to close them again.
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