Singer, songwriter; record company executive
Many of America’s native art forms, from folk songs to pop ballads, relate the emotional life of women. Holly Near is becoming famous for bringing her feminist perspective to the full range of American sounds as she becomes one of the most widely known representatives of “women’s music.” Raised in northern California, Near was active in politically percieved performance of the early 1970s, from the rock musical “Hair” to Jane Fonda’s Free the Army tour of Vietnam. She became a popular folksinger in the 1970s, writing both music and lyrics to her songs. Near chose to establish her own label, Redwood Records, rather than follow a major recording contract into pop or rock. Through women’s music catalogues, such as Ladyslipper, sales at performances, and word-of-mouth, Redwood has managed to achieve success and stability. Imagine My Surprise, although considered Near’s most women-identified recording by Ladyslipper, sold so well that it was named 1979 Album of the Year by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors.
Although best known as a solo vocal stylist, she has recorded with ensembles that represent the performance and/or political mode appropriate for specific songs, among them the reggae band Afrikan Dreamland (in “Unity” on Speed of Light), the Chilean group Intilllimani (on Sing to Me This Dream), and the Appalachian instrumental quartet Trapezoid (on Watch Out). Near’s most famous collaborations have been with the celebrated veteran of folk music, Ronnie Gilbert. They first worked together in 1980, when Near taught Gilbert her “Hay Una Mujer Desparecida,” a process that was included in Wasn’t That a Time, a film about the reunion concert of Gilbert and The Weavers. They sang together on two albums—Singing with You and Lifeline —and made a successful 11-city tour in 1983.
Near told Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times why she believed that the duets with Gilbert were so succesful: “I remember as a child seeing the Weavers perform and there was this woman who just stood there, threw back her head and sang…. So I went home and threw back my head for the next while. Ronnie has a huge voice and so do I. We can sing at the top of our lungs and not hold each other back and also understand that’s not always appropriate.” A critic for the New York Times described the atmosphere as “as much like a revival meeting as a pop concert.”
In 1985 Near joined Gilbert, fellow Weaver Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie for a concert tour and recording both titled Harp, singing Weavers songs and her own “Foolish Notion.” She can also be heard on three anthology albums—the soundtrack of Woody Guthrie: Hard Travelin’ (singing “Pastures of Plenty” with Gilbert), Bullets and Guitars (songs for Central America), and Reagonomics Blues (singing “I Got Troubles”).
Active in political performance during early 1970s; became folksinger and songwriter during early 1970s; owner and operator of Redwood Records, c. 1973—; has performed as a soloist and in collaboration with Ronnie Gilbert, 1983-85, and with HARP (Ronnie Gilbert, Arlo Guthrie, and Pete Seeger), 1985.
Awards: Imagine My Surprise named album of the year, 1979, by National Association of Independent Record Distributors.
Addresses: Office –Redwood Records, 746 W. MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, CA 94609.
Her solo concerts are almost always benefits for political or environmental causes. She performs a wide variety of music, ranging from her own songs and narratives to the classic ballads of the 1940s, including “Stormy Weather” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Near frequently brings a new perspective to those songs, as Stephen Holden thought when he reviewed a 1985 concert: “She led the audience in a rendition of ‘I Can’t Give You Anything but Love’ that treated the song as a folk anthem rather than a Tin Pan Alley standard.” Her voice and vocal control are often admired in reviews, as Robert Palmer did in a 1979 New York Times review: “An engaging singer, with excellent control of texture and dynamics from the top to the bottom of her broad range … she can be enjoyed for her purely musical qualities and her ability to transmit the depth of her feelings without resorting to stridency.”
Hang in There, Redwood, 1973.
Imagine My Surprise, Redwood, 1979.
Lifeline, Redwood, 1983.
Sing to Me the Dream, Redwood, 1984.
HARP, Redwood, 1985.
Singing with You, Redwood, 1986.
Don’t Hold Back, Redwood, 1987.
New York Times, December 16, 1979; June 13, 1982; October 2, 1983; October 13, 1983; December 15, 1985.
Village Voice, April 26, 1983.
Holly Near has built a distinctive career by using music to champion deeply felt political causes, often before anyone else had dared to do so. Although her musical career took flight in the early 1970s, her commitment to the topical song recalled the political folk music made popular by artists like Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton during the 1960s. Over the course of her thirty-year career, Near has recorded more than twenty albums, performed thousands of concerts, and taught master classes on songwriting. "Her life exemplifies the rewards that come from using your gifts in the service of your beliefs," wrote Lee Russell in Mountain Pride Media, "of forcing the world to meet you on your own terms."
Near was born on June 6, 1949, to leftist parents and grew up in a rural community in Ukiah, California. At eight, she performed at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars talent show and began taking voice lessons. In high school, she joined with two friends to form the Freedom Singers, a Kingston Trio-like group. Her musical taste was also shaped by her parents' extensive record collection that included everything from singer Paul Robeson to Judy Garland. "When I was a child I made songs up," she told the Arts and Healing Network (AHN), "and I sang all through childhood for community organizations, service groups and school events."
Near signed up for classes at the University of California Los Angeles in 1967, but only remained at the college for a year. She relocated to New York City to study singing and dancing in 1968, but soon returned to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. She appeared in her first film, Angel, Angel, Down We Go in 1969. In 1969-70 she received a part in a Broadway version of Hair, and 1971 received roles in two films, Todd Killings and Minnie and Moskowitz. Near also worked frequently in television, making appearances on The Partridge Family and All in the Family.
Near also dived head first into the political ferment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, joining with actors Donald Southerland and Jane Fonda for a controversial tour of Southeast Asia in protest against the Vietnam War. She returned in 1972 as a member of the Indochina Peace Campaign and was inspired her to start writing topical songs.
In the early 1970s, long before it became the norm to do so, Near founded Redwood Records and released her first album, Hang in There in 1973. "[Hang In There] is also notable for introducing Near, probably the first protest singer equally interested in folk music and show music," wrote All Music Guide's William Ruhlmann. Her liberal political views were evident from her first album, and she became known as an early practitioner of "women's music." (Women's music issues include feminism and lesbianism.) "Holly Near," wrote Pamela Murray Winters in MusicHound Folk, "practically gave birth to the genre known as 'women's music.'" Over the decade, Near released a steady stream of albums including A Live Album, You Can Know All I Am, and Imagine My Surprise.
As the 1980s dawned, Near became even more prolific while simultaneously committing to new causes. She teamed up with Ronnie Gilbert, one of the founding members of the Weavers, to release Lifeline in 1983 and Singing With You in 1986. The pairing of the two politically-minded artists seemed a natural, especially in relation to the fact that Near had dedicated her second album to Gilbert. "The singers were forceful and complementary," wrote All Music Guide's Ruhlmann, "no surprise since Gilbert is a major vocal influence on Near." Near continued to cover contemporary issues including gay and lesbian rights, apartheid in South Africa, and the AIDS epidemic. She joined the HARP concert with Gilbert, Pete Seeger, and Arlo Guthrie in 1984 (the concert's name was constructed from the first letter of each artist's first name), and the music would be issued as Harp: A Time to Sing! "These albums stand as testament of the people—past and present, activists and songsters alike–who worked tirelessly," wrote Beth Isaacson in Sojourners, "to call attention to, care for, and mend this broken world."
Near published Fire in the Rain ... Singer in the Storm: An Autobiography with Derk Richardson in 1991. In 1993, Near worked with her sister, Timothy Near, to turn the book into a play, Holly Near: Fire in the Rain. "Her autobiographical show "is a warm, stirring, but never overly sentimental, portrait of Near, her music, and her personal growth," wrote Martin Schaeffer in Backstage.
Near has faced a number of challenges related to her radical views and the difficulty of managing one's own record company. "Throughout her twenty-year singing and songwriting career," wrote Susan C. Cook in American Music, "Near has been judged too political a musician for pop music, too feminist for politically committed music, too straight for lesbian-identified music, even too studio-produced for those used to her live album format." In 1982 she broke with a number of so-called "pure" feminists within women's music when she employed a male—guitarist Robben Ford—and co-wrote a song with Jeff Langley for Speed of Light. While Near weathered many storms, Redwood Records experienced financial problems during the mid-1990s, eventually going out of business.
Near also faced her most personal crisis in 2000 when she began recording Edge. "I was having vocal troubles during most of the recording," she told Alex Teitz in Femmusic. "I kept having to put off doing the vocals." Near, however, finished the album, her first of original material in nearly 15 years. "Near has produced an album to rank among her early recordings," wrote All Music Guide's Ruhlmann, "and with an unsatisfactory election result (from the viewpoint of her and her supporters) coming in the same season as the record's release, it couldn't have appeared at a better time." Near remains an active performer with a busy concert schedule, touring broadly and working to support artists from Third World countries. "It is a testament to Near's drive and political vision," wrote American Music's Cook, "that years later she is the one still before the public with her message intact."
For the Record …
Born on June 6, 1949, in Ukiah, CA.
Performed in movies, plays, and television programs, late 1960s and early 1970s; founded Redwood Records, 1973; released solo albums on Redwood, 1973-1989; released Lifeline and Singing With You with Ronnie Gilbert, 1983 and 1986; wrote autobiography, Fire in the Rain ... Singer in the Storm: An Autobiography, 1991; converted Fire in the Rain into a play, 1993; recorded Edge, 2000.
Addresses: Record company—Appleseed Recordings, P.O. Box 2593, West Chester, PA 19380, website: http://www.appleseedrec.com/.
Hang in There, Redwood, 1973.
A Live Album, Redwood, 1974.
You Can Know All I Am, Redwood, 1976.
Imagine My Surprise!, Redwood, 1978.
Fire in the Rain, Redwood, 1981.
Speed of Light, Redwood, 1982.
(With Ronnie Gilbert) Lifeline, Redwood, 1983.
Sing to Me the Dream, Redwood, 1984.
Watch Out!, Redwood, 1984.
(With Ronnie Gilbert) Singing With You, Redwood, 1986.
Don't Hold Back, Redwood, 1987.
Sky Dances, Redwood, 1989.
Singer in the Storm, Chameleon, 1990.
(With Ronnie Gilbert) This Train Still Runs, Abbe Alice, 1996.
With a Song in My Heart, Calico Tracks, 1997.
Edge, Calico Tracks, 2000.
And Still We Sing: The Outspoken Collection, Calico Tracks, 2002.
(With Ronnie Gilbert) Lifeline Extended, Appleseed, 2002.
Walters, Neal and Mansfield, Brian, editors, MusicHound Folk, Visible Ink, 1998.
American Music, Spring 1994, p. 109.
Back Stage, October 22, 1993, p. 30.
Sojourners, January-February 2002, p. 62.
"Fire in the Rain ... Singer in the Storm: A Review," Mountain Pride Media,http://www.mountainpridemedia.org (August 16, 2004).
"Holly Near," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (August 16, 2004).
"Holly Near, Singer, Songwriter and Activist," Arts and Healing Network, http://www.artheals.org/ (August 16, 2004).
"Place for Emerging Women in Music," Femmusic,http://www.femmusic.com/ (August 16, 2004).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
NEAR, Holly. American, b. 1949. Genres: Autobiography/Memoirs, Songs/ Lyrics and libretti. Career: Progressive feminist singer, actress, and writer. Singer-songwriter and recording artist, c. 1972-; founder of Redwood Records, 1972-. Actress in motion pictures, television programs, stage productions. Publications: (with D. Richardson) Fire in the Rain…Singer in the Storm (autobiography), 1990; The Great Peace March, 1993; (with T. Near) Fire in the Rain…Singer in the Storm (play), 1991; Singing for Our Lives (songbook), 1994. Contributor to books.