Because of a song: Holly Near celebrates Oakland's women's music scene with new online archive

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Tuesday January 3, 2023
Share this Post:
a composite gallery linkin got bios of multiple women musicians on the 'Because of a Song' website
a composite gallery linkin got bios of multiple women musicians on the 'Because of a Song' website

Music is one of the connecting forces for women in the Women's Movement, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. Women's music legend Holly Near called the music made by women musicians at the time a lifeline.

"Women were so desperate for this music," said the 73-year-old lesbian singer-songwriter. "This was survival music. This was lifeline music."

Recently, the Bay Area Reporter spoke with Near about why she created the archive devoted to the Oakland women of the Women's Music Movement and its importance.

Oakland was a hotbed of women with drums, guitars, microphones, and lesbian-feminist willpower that made things happen. It drew women from all over the country to the "Sunny Side of the Bay" to make music in the 1970s and 1980s.

It is this burst of musical energy that Near sought to capture in a new free online archive, "Because of a Song" that debuted November 30 at

"It was kind of like our own little Paris," Near said in describing the Oakland scene at the time. Women came from all over and formed collectives and co-ops, shared rides to cultural events and protests, learned trades at school, and more to build community and their lives.

Quoting her friend and co-producer Tess Hoover, Near said, "'Lesbian feminist music may not have been why we came to Oakland, but it is why we stayed.' It was a kind of glue that allowed women to come and be in a room —whether it was 30 women in a restaurant or 1,000 women in a concert hall— to look around and be surrounded by 99.9% women and probably 98% lesbians. That was an experience back then that no one had ever had before. It might be hard to imagine that now, but back then it was just a completely unique experience. It was very, very powerful and the music was a really big part of it."

Holly Near (photo: Sandy Morris)  

Near recalled that women's music had a similar effect that feminist publishing did on the women's movement. "Music was a way to articulate feminist and lesbian feminist politics in a non-rhetorical way."

Oakland was an epicenter for the Women's Music Movement, but it wasn't the only place, Near acknowledged. The movement sprouted in many other cities around the world.

"There were people in Germany and in Denmark and in Canada, down in Australia and all over the place doing this, but this at least is a little window into it," Near said. "If anybody wants to pick it up where I left off and add their own stories to it, that will be great."

They can't do it on the website itself, but they can leave a trail or post their stories and photos on Because of a Song's Facebook group.

Leaving a trail
It all started with curiosity and a realization in 2019. Near was curious about her friends, Linda Tillery and Mary Watkins, two important San Francisco Bay Area women musicians based in Oakland.

Tillery formed the Grammy-nominated Cultural Heritage Choir and has sung and drummed with big-name bands like Huey Lewis and the News and Santana, who also have Bay Area roots.

Watkins's compositions have influenced not only women's music but multiple musical genres and crossed over into theater.

Near wanted to hear and capture their perspectives on the Women's Music Movement that they were all a part of during the 1970s and 1980s.

She also realized that they were all getting older. Unaware of an impending pandemic in 2020 and her own second battle against cancer this year, she sat down with her friends and interviewed them.

Near didn't know what she would do with the recordings. She just knew their stories needed to be recorded and saved.

"I just felt like I wanted to have a conversation with them about what it meant to be part of women's music," she said, "and in particular, 'What did it mean to contribute to that while living in Oakland?'"

composite photos on the archive website  

The conversations were so interesting that she ended up interviewing 23 women musicians from Oakland's women's music scene.

It was her nephew, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, who was working at an art gallery in Los Angeles at the time, who came up with the idea to create an online archive fashioned in the form of a gallery.

Near liked the idea and started enlisting her friends Susan Frazier, Hoover, and Kate Peterson, who became the core team that created the online gallery. The project took shape and attracted an anonymous benefactor who financially backed what became, "Because of a Song."

The result is a treasure trove of the Women's Music Movement of the era. It features more than 30 hours of filmed conversation and four short films featuring key figures Linda Tillery, Carolyn Brandy, Mary Watkins, and Melanie DeMore among many others. It also has a curated resource room, a listening room of more than 600 songs in six playlists, a captioned photo gallery of nearly 200 images, and more.

"I wish we had filmed more of ourselves in the early '70s," said Near. "I don't know why we didn't. There's not a lot of great footage of early concerts."

Earlier this month, Near hosted an online discussion, "Because of a Song; conversation with Holly Near & Friends" with Carolyn Brandy, Melanie DeMore, Tess Hoover, and Elizabeth Seja Min on December 4.

The women reminisced in the 70-minute conversation about Oakland becoming a magnet for women musicians of all types during the era and how they built community and networks, and taught each other how to produce records and concerts. They also expressed their gratitude for women's bookstores, centers, and all the people who welcomed them into their homes and hearts long before the internet and social media.

Near also discussed the importance of the archive in simply acknowledging the women in Oakland who played a significant role in the Women's Music Movement. She also wanted to create a resource for academics to future women musicians to be inspired.

The movement was very much DYI. Near talked about starting her record label, Redwood Records, 50 years ago to release her first album, "Hang In There." She, like others such as Olivia Records, realized traditional labels wouldn't produce her music as they did Bob Dylan.

Similarly, Olivia Records was founded by Judy Dlugacz, Ginny Berson, Christian, Kate Winter, and Jennifer Woodul in Washington, D.C. to record and distribute women's music.

"If you're wearing blue jeans and a shirt, and your hair is long and you're gravelly and whatever maybe you can get away with it, but we couldn't," she said about singing anti-war songs and other movement music. "We looked at each other and said, 'We'll do it ourselves.' I don't think they recognized this as being a powerful force. They had no idea that it actually was empowering women and changing people's lives."

Near offered an apt reflection: "I look back and I say the Labor Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement that GLBTQ Movement, there is not a movement that happens without song. People start singing when they're scared."

Songs that saved lives
At the time when music and movements were being created, the songs and the movement was filled with purpose and lifesaving. The music served as a code based on the artist for other lesbians, but it was also healing for many people.

Near recalled a young woman who invited her parents to one of her shows. She said the young woman's parents were about to disown her because they found out that she was a lesbian.

"I remember meeting them because they came backstage afterward," she said, admiring how brave these parents were to go to the concert, especially with their misinformed idea about lesbians. "They walk in and there are hundreds of happy, smiling, well-dressed, laughing, and women singing along."

It completely changed their idea about who lesbians are. "You sort of helped us save our relationship with our daughter," Near said they told her. She said the change was because of her and "the hundreds of women who were in that room that said to them, 'Your daughter's okay.'"

"Because of a Song" went live at a time following a resurgence of the Women's Movement and two books, "An Army of Lovers" (2019) by Jamie Anderson, and "Olivia on the Record," (2020) by Berson, document women's music of the period.

Said Near, now that "Because of a Song" is live, "I just want to enjoy people discovering it."

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.