Monday, June 8

It Won't Take Long

I dare you.

I dare you to resist the power of this music, of this poet, of this writer, of this soul, of this woman.

I dare you to resist the American cult of popularity. Or at least to analyze it.

I don't care if you don't like folk music. This isn't about entertainment. As I say to my daughter, as maybe you say to yours, it isn't always about what you like. Sometimes, it's about what's good for you, what's important, and what's true. And real. It's about power. Power lost, power stolen, power embodied.

I'm not saying you should listen to it--that's up to you. I'm saying you should know it, like what I wrote about Bob Dylan. At least some of it. One song. Maybe you even do know it, and you just don't know.

I don't care if you are one of the people who think that "women's music" was a phenomenon, an artifact of a more segregated and oppressed time, a thing that is largely in the past (that is, if you've heard of "women's music", despite the fact that it's where Melissa Etheridge came from). I don't care if you think it's whiny, or self-serving, or something that only belongs to and in the homes of old lesbians who have at one time toyed with separatism, who talk too much about feminism (apparently no one has told them that that's all over), who have not shaved their legs or underarms since, oh, say, 1980. I don't care.

Yeah. This is preachy. And arrogant. I know. I don't care about that either. Some things are worth fighting for, and when you're fighting, you're not always cajoling and compromising. This is one of my protests.

In the United States, we do not show appropriate reverence to our artists and our poets. Our Great Ones. Every four years or so, we trot one out and they read a poem at an inauguration, and we all say "Wow." Do you know who the current poet laureate of the United States is? Do you know that we have a current poet laureate? Do you know that she's a lesbian? Does it matter? (oh, man, the times they are a-changin')

We smile, and laugh, and nod as we accept the notion of "starving artists", without questioning why those two words need go together. Well, of course a singer-songwriter or a poet or a stone-carver doesn't make much money, as if poverty is a choice of one who is called to their art. Of course? Why?

It bothers me. In the United States, all too often we follow who we are told to follow, we eat what is put in front of us. Yes, even you. Yes, even me. In large part, we do so with willful ignorance of the path. It troubles me that we pay painfully little attention to how those people, that music, that news story, that food, came to be in front of us, how we have quietly been guided to select them. Those who try to talk about it are called names--isn't that the American way--like "cynical", "politically correct", "anarchist", "overanalytical". They're told they think too much or they have too much time on their hands. Of course, that's only until we get sick, or there's violence in our communities, or someone hands us a poem or a CD that changes our lives.

Of course, there's the "right" music, food, writers in any given community--it's not universal. Mary Oliver is a great example of this. Don't get me wrong. I have been moved by some of her poetry, and there are many whose lives she has changed. At the same time, in certain communities (like, say, mine), she is often "the one". The Poet. As if there are not others lesser known who write just as beautifully, as movingly, as painfully, as evocatively. How many people do you know who have spent hours in a poetry book shop or the poetry section of a bookstore, leafing through the books, wondering at the amazing talent (and sometimes the lack of it) on those shelves? Not many, I'd bet. I'm guilty of the same thing, of course. I hear something on the radio, or a friend passes a powerful poem along, and there I am, in line at the local bookstore, buying a copy. I bemoan it in myself as well. Maybe it's laziness?

Here's a question. And, I suppose, an answer. We read books that Oprah tells us to read. Why don't we read books that Audre Lorde told us to read? What accounts for that?

I guess all I'm saying is that we accept things too easily. And in doing so, we miss nuggets of pure gold.

Ferron is one of those nuggets. She is a bonafide genius, a brilliant artist living and working and writing and singing among us for more than 30 years, and damn few know who she is.

Rolling Stone magazine called her a "culture hero" and referred to one of her albums as "a thing of beauty", likening her to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. "Cowgirl meets Yeats", they said. I don't know about the cowgirl part, but I get what they mean.

In Boston, at one time, she played to an audience of 2000 in the Opera House. The Boston Globe said of her "Someday, they will call Dylan the Ferron of the 60's". Yup.

And so why doesn't everyone know who she is, or know at least one of her songs? Well, I don't need to say it. She has said it herself. Hell, it's been in print. Here's how Ferron explains it:

"I can remember that the New York Times listed Driver as one of the top albums of 1994. Then, the ensuing article was all about Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. I was on a plane flying home when I first read it. I was so happy, but I couldn't tell the guy in the seat next to me about it because under the photo of me was the caption 'lesbian singer-songwriter.' Neither Dylan nor Mitchell had been identified this way. Perhaps, they felt that I would have taken it as a sign of disrespect if they had not said 'lesbian,' but they didn't understand that this was not what I was selling. I was selling a way of thinking — a way of getting through a knot in your life."


The fact is that we ignore the genius of some and we idolize the genius of others, and the difference has nothing to do with...well, anything. Well, anything other than those silly little things called sexism, racism, and homophobia.

Yeah, it's preachy. I'm kinda angry.

I'm angry that I live in a culture where certain people are "in" and others are "out" and that it bears no particular relevance to their abilities, talents, or genius.

I'm angry at the violence that is done to our children, to women, to minorities of all stripes, some of which is perpetuated by the absence of their authentic voices in our daily lives. I'm angry that there is a head table, and that asking to have one of yours represented at the head table is presumptuous. I'm angry that people laugh, albeit in recognition and reminiscence, when I say that I go to Ferron's concerts. "Wow! Is she still around? Whoa, that brings back memories. I saw her in 1984!". Me too. Do they say that about Bob Dylan? Bruce Springsteen? Do I laugh when they say they're going to see the Indigo Girls or Tracy Chapman or Ani DiFranco, all of whom were mentored by Ferron? Why, if they loved her in the 80's, have they not continued to support her work?

I'm angry that Ferron has been overlooked.

Which is why I am beyond words about the new documentary about Ferron's life. It's called Girl on a Road (the title of one of her songs), and it is currently making the film festival circuit. If it comes to your town, please go see it. Here is the trailer:

So today, I am praying, even though it's the kind of thing I don't often do. I am praying that this movie does not fade into obscurity. I am praying that it makes it on to public television, as it already did in Canada. I am praying that its audience not be limited to those who are already spellbound. I pray that it will move people to listen to and purchase her music. I pray that she gets the praise and recognition she deserves.

Since I seem to have been ending posts recently with some words on blogging, I suppose the thing to do is to use Ferron's own words, here from an December 2008 interview. I offer them to the fellow bloggers who read here.

"If you write, you have agreed to take longer to think because other people don't have time because they are doing something else. You're taking on a commitment in the same way that a shaman has agreed to take on the illness of the village and ground it. So, in that sense, artists are shamans. They have agreed to reflect and take on the illness of the culture and remind us of what we may have forgotten."

This is why I write.


Camlin said...

You don't have to dare me. I'm already there.

What a profound influence and mentor she's been to people like you and I, who showed up at a writing workshop she hosted, and went away transformed (well, at least I did).

I'm linking to this post. I hope you don't mind. It is beautifully written, and it says so many things that I have thought and felt about writing, and women in the music industry.

Thank you.

Robin said...

Transformed? Maybe. Seen? Whole? Alive? Yes.

There were a couple particular moments that sustain me. Ironic that neither had anything to do with writing.

I was sitting on the deck at the picnic table, out of the hot sun under the canopy, making pottery. She was in the driveway, headed to her van. She called out my name. I turned, and there was a gesture and an exchange that I can't explain. No words.

And then there was the one about "polishing up my own". That was good, too.

Some days, they get me through.

Camlin said...

I arrived on her doorstep during one of the most tumultuous periods in my life. I almost didn't relationship had ended, my brother had almost died, I was beginning the "coming out" process that seems to last forever. It was and wasn't my best writing, but... what resonates with me most were not the concrete things, the writing exercises, the words - although I love what I was the community, the way we shared our writing, her squint and head tilt as she carefully considered the writing that we shared, her thoughtful feedback...eating together, the flock of wild turkeys that walked past my bedroom window one morning,and wading through the river with my toes squishing in the mud. I put the parts of me together that I'd been carrying around, and I left as a whole person.