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Eden Built by Eves: The Culture of Women's Music Festivals, 1974-1999

Eden Built by Eves: The Culture of Women's Music Festivals, 1974-1999

by Bonnie J. Morris
Readers take an exhilarating insider's journey through women's music festivals in the lesbian subculture complete with candid backstage interviews and photographs.


Readers take an exhilarating insider's journey through women's music festivals in the lesbian subculture complete with candid backstage interviews and photographs.

Editorial Reviews

B Wright
A remarkable archive and deeply felt cultural history of that unique lesbian experience, the women's music festival...Hats off to Bonnie Morris.
Library Journal
Purported to be the first and only examination of women's music festivals, Morris's book attempts "to capture the images and voices" of women who "return over and over to the various festivals where an authentic lesbian culture is created." According to Morris, women's music festivals have been an integral part of lesbian culture for the last 25 years. Morris has been there from the beginning, chronicling the events in photographs, recordings, and interviews with performers and festival-goers. She shares her archives and experience from a historical viewpoint (she's a history professor) as well as a personal one (she's a lesbian). A history of the festival movement is included along with quotes from festival-goers and a "lexicon of festivalese." The book includes mainly self-portraits of the performers, who talk about their experiences as lesbians and musicians. It's something of a hodgepodge, but little has been written about this phenomenon, making the book a welcome additional to gay and lesbian collections in academic and larger public libraries.--Rosellen Brewer, Monterey Bay Area Cooperative Lib. Sys., CA

Product Details

Alyson Publications
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.03(w) x 9.01(h) x 1.05(d)

Read an Excerpt

Filling Up the Jam Jars With Festival Preserves
I create myself as a mythical hero, and I don't think this is any less accurate than any other projection of reality.
--Alix Dobkin
Women's voices are a moral template, the narrative of survival. And all who listen are changed forever.

I grew up in the 1960s, listening to women's folk music recordings by Judy Collins and Joan Baez. My mother played these albums over and over in our California living room when she did her modern dance exercises. I became convinced that both Judy and Joan were simply artistic extensions of my own mother. As a result of my early exposure to women artists of the 1960s folk and antiwar movements, I saw women as the moral and musical authorities of what was then a male-dominated and commercial "protest" genre.

By the time I reached puberty, I also knew I loved women; I wrote love letters and sent poems to girls I had crushes on. When my family moved east, I began attending an alternative school where women's studies courses were a regular part of the curriculum, and thus I found academic feminism at age 12. As a bookworm, I learned about lesbian culture through Ms. magazine and novels, but like most baby dykes of the mid 1970s, I found few popular songs expressing my feelings for other girls. When at 14 I formed an intense relationship with my best friend, we had no music for our special connection other than the mainstream pop songs on the radio. I stood in the light spill of women's music just once, not realizing my anointment: There was an arts festival called Womansphere held near my home in October of 1974, and there, as a lonely 13-year-old prowling Glen Echo Park, I walked right past Meg Christian, Margie Adam, and Cris Williamson's performances in my haste to purchase a woman's symbol necklace.

Then one day in 1975, home from school with the flu, I heard a radio advertisement for the new Deadly Nightshade album. These three women sang unabashedly feminist music and had just released a song called "High Flying Woman." Their voices filled my yearning bones. Within three years I discovered Cris Williamson's album The Changer and the Changed, and when I finally came out at the age of 18, I plunged into the burgeoning culture of lesbian music albums, concerts, and festivals.

In August of 1981, I attended my first women's music festival. I had just received a beautiful Minolta camera for my 20th birthday, a gesture of love from my parents, but I decided not to bring the camera with me to Michigan that first time. I was concerned about carrying such a valuable item into a crowded festival where I knew no one. And so I have no pictures of myself as a "festie virgin," of my first immersion in the culture that has been my home ever since.

When I arrived in Hesperia, Mich., that summer, I found myself joining a festival culture so responsible and caring that I mentally kicked myself for thinking I or my camera might not be safe. Lacking the means to make a photographic record of my first impressions, I wrote frenzied journal entries describing everything I saw and heard: the land, the music, the women dancing sensuously beneath green summer trees. On the last night I slept in a group tent and joined an all-night sing-along with women from all over the world. As dawn broke, I pulled out my journal and passed it around, asking any woman who might be interested to write her festival impressions in my notebook. Then on the long bus trip home, I read with increasing delight the sisterly words that others had entrusted to me. It was my first clumsy attempt at starting a festival yearbook.

Now, 17-plus years later, I have collected a full archive of festival herstory through my working tools: journal, camera, tape recorder, eye, ear, and other senses. These personal archives of recordings, photographs, and documents capture the images and voices of women from all corners of the globe -- women who, like me, return over and over to the various festivals where an authentic lesbian culture is created and sustained by our own efforts. In the long winter season between festivals, I rest beneath my quilt and look at my scrapbooks or listen to these tape recordings of crackling campfires, rain on a dome-tent roof, stage announcements, the shrieks of raffle winners, and the sounds of 9,000 women laughing together in a field.

More significant than my own personal rejuvenation, however, is this maintenance of a true record of festival energy. Conflicts, scandals, new music, weather, work, and stage personalities determine the character of each separate festival, but these instant villages of women, chronologically added together, build a lesbian nation well worth remembering as we tumble toward a new century. The women's music festivals are a culture as tribal and ritualized and sustaining to the participants as any spiritual movement, and this is because the diverse contributions of the women involved have forged a sum of art and politics that is richly nourishing.

From spring to fall, women fill up their jam jars of inspiration and memory with festival preserves to last all winter long. Perhaps no sentiment is more commonly heard than "I live off this week all the rest of the year" or "I'm here again to have my batteries recharged" or "Only in festival time do I get to experience total personhood." Festival season means regeneration as well as recreation. We go because festivals offer the possibility of what our lives could be like year-round if we lived each day in a matriarchy actively striving to eliminate racism and homophobia. Living tribally one season per year, all of us share a life together in that concentrated bank statement of time, a wealth of women's culture(s) as the bottom line of accumulated principal. Like the period of weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year, festival time is a packed family celebration on which the emotional year turns in heart and memory. And for the most part, we "festiegoers," producers, performers, and technicians, must serve as our own biographers, declaring our festival stories and memories to be important and revolutionary -- because mainstream society refuses to acknowledge our gatherings, our contributions, our music, our ideas.

It is high time we had a book of our own. And in my heart this book was envisioned as a vibrant and soaring tribute to all our work, not as a dry scholarship of festival culture. I write frankly from my biased perspective as a festival veteran and insider -- "Dr. Bon" to my friends and festival audiences. At different festivals I have been a stage performer, a backup singer, an emcee, a workshop presenter, a coordinator, or an anonymous paying festiegoer; these contrasting roles have enabled me to study festival work and politics from nearly every angle. My perspectives here are those of a woman immersed in festival culture from age 20 to age 36, the time turf of energy and committment.

But I also earn my living as a women's history professor and since earning my Ph.D. in 1989 have learned to define my festival research as serious work. To this end I owe tremendous debts of gratitude to those festival producers in the United States -- Deedy Breed, Mary Byrne, Michelle Crone, Lin Daniels, Lee Glanton, Janet Grubbs, Wanda and Brenda Henson, Kim Kimber, Maile Klein and Marina Hodgini, Tam Martin, Boo Price, Robin Tyler, and Lisa Vogel -- who have granted me trust and affection in creating the means for my involvement as a festival herstorian.

Few universities regard festival culture as a legitimate subject for study and preservation, and carving out the academic writing time for this project has been an exercise in being out and proud as a lesbian scholar. Despite the explosion in women's studies and lesbian publishing, academia retains a homophobic and misogynistic climate. A handful of institutions offer graduate programs in women's history -- but just try to find a lesbian voice in the curriculum. Regrettably, to find employment as a professor of women's history, one must write about topics which will not alarm the men (and straight women) who hire historians and fund or publish our research.

I spent six years in graduate school working toward my doctorate in women's history. During those years, which roughly corresponded to the blossoming of festival culture all over the country, I lived two lives. I sat in university classes where a lesbian perspective never appeared in our assigned readings; I learned through my training as a future history professor that the development of my own women's community did not count as "real" history and was unthinkable as a serious research project. Nevertheless, when I was not on campus I was at festivals, at women-identified concerts and performances, at lesbian conferences and camp outs and celebrations -- my journal and camera and tape recorder purring back to me, Yes, this is real. This is herstory in the making. And I realized that I, as participant, could both create and record the phenomena of this movement, even if the history texts of higher education forever deny our events, growth, and change.

I might have remained a split personality -- my festival work and published lesbian writing kept on a wholly different resume from my scholarly work -- had I not forged an alliance with Toni Armstrong Jr., the editor of Hot Wire: The Jorrnal of Women's Music and Culture . Writing for Hot Wire, the one publication dedicated to exploring the highlights of festival culture, I found my name on a masthead with other writers who were all laboring -- unpaid -- to give back to the women's community the best writing and research we could offer. Toni, our editorial dominatrix, expected no less than perfect journalism, confronting me at a critical moment in life (I had just spent a year teaching at Harvard) with this question: "Why don't you consider writing for the women's community your primary work? The community needs writers. If you value festival culture, why aren't you publishing your perspectives in your own community?"

I was flabbergasted to be taken seriously as a festival writer, and my alliance with Toni soon became a pretty terrific spiritual partnership. This is an acknowledgement I must make, as it is Toni who asked festival artists and producers the hardest questions, assigned writers the most difficult Hot Wire articles, and called for the highest standards in festival journalism. Since the final issue of Hot Wire in fall 1994, we as a festival community have been without a primary published medium for celebrating artists and workers alike. Some of Hot Wire's legacy is recapped in the chapters to follow, and throughout this festival herstory I quote heavily from Toni's experienced wisdom. In utilizing Toni's excellent festival photographs to enhance this book, I have also learned anew the difficult price of homophobia: We selected no "crowd" shots of happy women at festivals, lest we unwittingly print the face of a woman who, so revealed, might lose her job or her kids. The photos herein are primarily of artists we know, who could clearly give consent.

There is sufficient material in my own festival archive -- and in the knowledge of the savviest producers and the veteran performers and workers -- for several books; this is just the first, and I have all my life to write more, I hope. Writing this first volume has been an act of homage to the artists, techies, and festival friends I deeply love. I should be on my knees for every line I write, as though in reverent prayer; in such posture my chin would just barely rest atop the writing table, as it did when I was a toddler pulled hypnotically toward large school desks. Perhaps we are all striving for that mingled feeling of awe and belonging in our work, that sense of being a cog in something larger than ourselves. I do indeed regard this luxury of participating in and recording festival culture as a sacred calling, and am privileged to join my heart line with those women who first picked up a bass guitar, a stage light, a production lineup, a sound board, a soup kettle for 5,000 -- all those women who collectively declared, We can do this.

Bonnie J. Morris
Washington, D.C.

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