Sunday, October 28, 2007

WHO WERE THE WITCHES?

(The Witch Head Nebula, ancient supernova remnant or gas cloud illuminated by nearby supergiant Rigel in Orion, Eridanus constellation, IC 1128)

I always loved Halloween. For one thing, it upset my fundamentalist grandparents in ways they could never seem to sensibly articulate. And although I was under their spell for a while, they were also distressed by Christmas trees, and that was just plain crazy.

For another, there was that free candy.

I seldom got to go trick-or-treating. I was always sick through autumn and winter, with recurrent bouts of bronchitis or pneumonia. But Mama loved giving out candy, and made sure there was enough left over for me -- the good kind, little Hershey bars or Bit'O'Honeys or Nik-L-Nips, those miniature wax bottles filled with colored syrup.


The first (and last) time I got to go out trick-or-treating with my friends was when I was 11. In that small town, teenagers rampaged Halloween night, having saved barrels of eggs from a nearby chicken farm for six weeks without refrigeration so they became deadly stink bombs when thrown. They mostly targeted buildings, but we knew to run and hide when we heard the squeal of times and the roar of a pickup coming down the road in our direction.

Which we did, a few blocks from my house, galloping headlong across a lawn toward a grove of orange trees at the back. But in the middle of the lawn was a metal faucet protruding 18 inches from the ground, completely obscured by the dark. I hit it at full speed and fell in agony, not able to even comprehend what had tripped me up. The pickup screeched to a halt nearby and the bombardment began. I could hear the maniacal laughter of my older brother as he urged everyone on once he recognized me. I finally was able to crawl away into some bushes. Half an hour later, my friends came back for me and helped me limp home. I still have the scar on my leg from the deep cut of the faucet handle, and I was covered in bruises from the eggs.

Perhaps because of this, I didn't participate in the local Halloween shenanigans once I became a teenager myself. Candy went on sale half-price the day afterward, and that was good enough for me. Still, I loved the night itself, the current in the air. And at 17, I became a co-mother, and that made it all come alive again.

Then, in college, feminism and especially Lesbians taught the origins of the holiday, and I felt suddenly connected to my Celtic ancestors. It's the one pre-Christian people's holiday that successfully resisted their cooptation and destruction. (Which is why the Christian Right hates it so much.) I went to women's circles and covens sometimes, although as an atheist I wasn't about to trade in my new freedom for yet another tightly-structured form of worship.

(Prehistoric Amazon of the Steppes carving)

When I moved to San Francisco, the gay boys went bonkers on Halloween, which was also fun, though not completely my scene. I still preferred solitude and meditation in the dark hours of that night.

On Halloween of 1980, my Jewish roommate took me to a women's circle on the beach below Point Bonita in the Marin Headlands. We were there illegally and had to sneak in. There were a number of rather famous dyke writers, thinkers and performers there that night. (No, I'll give you no names.) Eventually we built a fire, which helped a great deal with the cold wafting from the foggy ocean. We sat around the fire and were led through rituals, all of which completely resonated within me. At one point, we were in a circle facing outward, looking into the swirly dark, while a woman dressed as Death walked around behind us, next to the fire. She would randomly lean against one of us from behind, sudden human warmth blocking the fire's warmth, and whisper in our ear "What must you do to be ready for death?" We were to turn around and answer her face to face. I don't remember what I said, I just remember the chill inside me as I faced my own mortality.

(The beach at Point Bonita where we gathered for our ritual)

That year I had four lovers, including the roommate mentioned above. I was desperately in love with her and unable to handle it. I behaved as badly to her as I ever have with anyone, and I lost her permanently. At the same time, my mother went in for emergency bypass surgery. It was a turning point that I couldn't manage. I don't seem to have quite forgiven myself yet. In my mind, it's connected to that ritual on the beach.

Whatever group of dykes I was with at Halloween, we'd always sing Bonnie Lockhart's anthem:

Who were the witches?
Where did they come from?
Maybe your great, great grandmother was one.
Witches were wise, wise women they say.
And there’s a little witch in every woman today!

Witches knew all about flowers and weeds.
How to use all their roots and their leaves and
their seeds.
When people grew weary from hard-workin’ days,
They made ’em feel better in so many ways.

When women had babies the witches were there
To hold them and help them and give them care.
Witches knew stories of how life began.
Don’t you wish you could be one?
Well, maybe you can!


Bonnie Lockhart began as a member of the Red Star Singers. Their recordings from The Force of Life (1974, Paredon Records) are part of the Smithsonian Folkways now, and you can listen to MP3s of them. The liner notes from their album also make for interesting reading (PDF file).

("The Force of Life" by Red Star Singers -- Bonnie Lockhart, Gary Lepow, Ron Rosenbaum and Mike Margulis -- Paredon Records 1974)

Another of Bonnie's songs that we sang at potlucks, political meetings, and rallies was "Still Ain't Satisfied", which feels still completely true for me today. If you do nothing else at this post, listen to Bonnie's passionate lead vocal on this at the MP3 here.

Oh they've got women on TV
But I still ain't satisfied
Cause cooptation's all I see
And I still ain't satisfied
They call me Ms
They sell me blue jeans
Call it "Women's Lib"
Make it sound obscene
And I still ain't -- woa, they lied
Cause I still ain't -- woa, they lied
Still ain't satisified.

I keep thinkin' there's some mistake
I still ain't satisfied
Cause every minute a woman gets raped
I still ain't satisfied
They say okay, put in a street light
But they lock us down, down, down
When we learn to street fight
And I still ain't -- woa, they lied
Cause I still ain't -- woa, they lied
Still ain't satisified.


If you're a feminist who hasn't been coopted by endless academic theories designed more to create thesis subjects rather than address effective activism needs, you understand there's one right gender in this world -- males who adopt all the garbage of masculinity -- and everything else is target for woman-hating. Everything else.

(Original Berkeley Women's Music Collective: Susann Shanbaum, Debbie Lempke, Nancy Henderson and Nancy Vogl, circa 1974, image from Queer Music Heritage)

Bonnie Lockhart went on to become a member of the Berkeley Women's Music Collective in its second incarnation. The original BWMC recorded their eponymous album with Olivia in 1976, with members Nancy Vogl, Debbie Lempke, Susann Shanbaum, and Nancy Henderson (Janet/Jake Lampert sat in on drums). Their first album included:

Gay And Proud (by Debbie Lempke): "We women been waiting all our lives for our sisters to be our lovers / Sing it with me now, ain't you glad we finally found each other?" (This song was included on the anthology album Lesbian Concentrate by Olivia.)
Take the Time (by Nancy Vogl): "This song was written for the first woman with whom I really felt a sense of sisterhood. We shared years of changes, pain, and learning, and a special love I will always remember....I'll love you till I die."
San Francisco Bank Song (by Susann Shanbaum): "Nobody even guessed she was gay, I've got a friend ... sisters trying to make their way alone"
Janet's Song (by Susann Shanbaum): "My momma said you better get out of here cause I think you and your friend are queer, and you know I don't want to start no great big fight but I know she stayed all night....This song is a journal of our coming out together. - We didn't know any lesbians and couldn't say the word for a year and a half. We just knew that we loved each other so much that it had to be the right thing to do."
and, my favorite, The Bloods (by Debbie Lempke): "You might think it's ludicrous / But when the moon is full I feel my uterus / And I know the time's a-comin', comin' soon / Men keep saying got to sleep with 'em but Lesbians got natural rhythm / There's a new day comin' when you got the bloods again/ Because you know your body is a-workin' all right / If you had self-help, you could watch all night / Get yer speculum at yer neighborhood clinic / Learn about your cervix and what's in it / There's a new day comin' when you got the bloods again."

(Flyer announcing East Bay performance of BWMC, circa 1976, image from Queer Music Heritage)

When I was part of the collective editing poetry for Common Lives/Lesbian Lives, at least a fourth of the poems we received each submission round had menstruation as a dominant or partial theme. It seems to be an essential step, "learning about your cervix and what's in it", as part of claiming and renaming your identity as a woman. Menstruation was the first calendar for human beings.

At Metaformia, the site currently linked to Judy Grahn (author of Blood, Bread and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World) there are the following tidbits available:

"Although on page 150 of Blood, Bread, and Roses it says that the word blessings comes from “blood songs” neither Debbi Grenn nor author Judy Grahn can come up with a source for this. Perhaps in a vernacular or old German dialect? Meanwhile Barbara Walker, who remains a fascinating source as long as we double check her voluminous entries, has what seems a solid source for the word blessings on page 110 of The Encyclopedia of Women’s Myths and Secrets. 'From Old English bletsain, earlier bleodswean, "to sanctify with shedding of blood.”' Her source is Michael Harrison, The Roots of Witchcraft, Secaucus, NJ, Citadel Press, 1974. page 129. Walker continues, 'It was the custom to consecrate altars by sprinkling them with blood, and to ‘bless’ individuals by marking them with blood, as is still the custom of foxhunters who ‘blood’ new members of the club after a kill.'

Nevertheless we love the sound of 'blood songs', especially as special songs were and are sung in honor of first menstruation and women’s bleeding times."

"Ragtime music —why is it called ragtime? Itinerant pianists, most of whom were black, spread a new, fast, vibrant musical form up and down the Mississippi Valley beginning about the 1890’s, or at least that is when it began to get some attention from the white world as a unique form. According to an African-American woman whose name I do not know, ragtime began in southern brothels and road houses. Whenever the sex worker women were 'on the rag' they tended to bleed together during the same few days, due to the phenomenon of menstrual synchrony, and so none of the women could work for several days out of each month. To compensate the economy of the house, during 'rag time,' the madam would urge the musicians to play more vigorously in order to induce customers to stay around dancing, eating, drinking and spending money. So the enthusiastic music the house musicians produced during those periods was called 'Ragtime Music'. When the new musical form spread out into the country at large over the next few decades, the menstrual meaning was left off, and now 'nobody knows' why it is called 'ragtime'. -- Tidbit was submitted by Keri Wayne, a graduate of NCOC Women’s Spirituality Program. She was told this story by a woman she met in Nebraska."

"On Synchrony: the body is a sensitive instrument; the onset of menstruation, the timing and even the amount of bleeding, is capable of 'entraining' with other rhythms, and to be sensitive to such factors as pheromones and sitting in moonlight (see Proctor’s article), dancing (see pp in Blood Relations, Knight), and even certain words (forthcoming in a future issue). Now we have a metaformic anecdote about singing a particular note in the scale, and onset of menses.

"Master singing teacher Dwayne Calizo (at New College of California), working with Sarah Starpoli, one of his woman students, discovered that giving her a particular exercise of eight bars with a tempo of 80 bpm to sing high G over high C would bring about her bleeding, if she was within 'any day now' in starting her period. He used the same technique with two other students, and the effect was the same. The bleeding begins about half an hour after the singing exercise, which he does with the students. And he is sure the same effect would occur if they did the exercise without his voice. -- Tidbit submitted by Dwayne Calizo."

Women need to be able to talk about our bodies and what's going on with us free of male intervention or discomfort. I'm not an essentialist, but biology does arise for us in self-definition at least once a month.

(Berkeley Women's Music Collective albums from 1976 and 1978 respectively, produced by Olivia Records)

By 1978's album, "Tryin' to Survive" (Olivia), the BWMC had Bonnie Lockhart singing and writing with them and she added Still Ain't Satisfied to their roster. The cover of this LP stated "We want to dedicate this album to all the women throughout time who have organized and fought for change and especially now to our Lesbian movement and the strength and spirit of revolution that is reshaping our world today." The songs on this disc included:

Nicole (by Debbie Lempke): Dreaming about and longing for 'Nicky'.
Seawomon (by Debbie Lempke): Lesbian fighting spirit.
Thorazine (by Susann Shanbaum): About attempts to 'cure' lesbians with medicines, as if they were insane.
Takes More Than Time (by Bonnie Lockhart): "We got to organize ourselves to stand a fighting chance",
Class Mobility (by Bonnie Lockhart): About rooted social norms.
and my favorite Darling Companion (by Nancy Vogl): "Oh my darling companion / How you can satisfy / Oh can't you hear me cry / When I think of how they lied / I can feel the fire raging / And there's no disguise / Oh my darling companion / How many girls have died / Without a woman's tender heart / And love along beside?"

(Berkeley Women's Music Collective circa 1978: Nancy Vogl, Debbie Lempke, Bonnie Lockhart, Susann Shanbaum, and unknown, from Queer Music Heritage)

By 1980, BWMC had split up and the musicians in it spread out to other projects. Nancy Vogl began playing with Robin Flower, and from 1978 to 1983, I don't think I missed a single one of their performances in the Bay Area. She was also partners with Holly Near for a while. Likewise, when Bonnie Lockhart helped form Swingshift, a women's jazz ensemble, I became a devoted groupie who sat in the front row night after night through the first half of the 1980s.

One write-up of Swingshift from the Vancouver Folk Music Festival states "Theirs is that rare and exciting combination of really good music with strong progressive content. The sounds of Swingshift cover a wide range, from solid, danceable rhythm and blues, to haunting and delicate five-part acappella harmonies, but always returning to the group's musical centre in jazz. And the jazz is solid and tasteful, whether it's a standard like Mongo Santa-maria's Afro Blue or Miles Davis' Nardis or one of the originals by the group's talented composers. Their combined musicianship enables them to communicate their politics with ease and power, whether singing about the struggles of black women in South Africa or celebrating gay pride."

In Swingshift originally was Bonnie Lockhart on piano and vocals; Susan Colson on bass; Naomi Schapiro playing flute and alto sax; and Joan Lefkowitz on drums. Later, Frieda Fine joined for vocals. Then Joan and Frieda left, and they added Danielle Dowers on drums, Inge Hoogerhuis on lead vocals. Bonnie is now recording children's songs and performs with Nancy Schimmel (Malvina Reynold's daughter) as part of the Plum City Players -- indoctrinating future generations into consciousness about female identity, class, race, and Halloween.

(Bonnie Lockhart currently, image from Bonnie Lockhart)

It was from Swingshift that I first heard a poem by Anibal Nazoa set to music by Juan Carlos Nuñez, a song which has become one of my favorites of all time:

EL PUNTO Y LA RAYA

Entre tu pueblo y mi pueblo
hay un punto y una raya.
La raya dice no hay paso
el punto vía cerrada.

Y así entre todos los pueblos
raya y punto, punto y raya.
Con tantas rayas y puntos
el mapa es un telegrama.

Caminando por el mundo
se ven ríos y montañas
se ven selvas y desiertos
pero ni puntos ni rayas.

Porque estas cosas no existen
sino que fueron trazadas.
Para que mi hambre y la tuya
estén siempre separadas.

(My translation) Between your people and my people
There is a dot and a line
The line says "you cannot go there"
The dot "the way is closed"

And so it is between all peoples
line and dot, dot and line
With so many lines and dots
the map is a telegram.

When we walk through life
we see rivers and mountains
we see jungles and deserts
but never lines and dots

Because these things do not exist
Unless they are drawn in
To keep my hunger and yours
always separated.


Now I live in a town that celebrates Dia de Los Muertos as fervently as it celebrates Halloween, which is great with me. It's another culture that managed to hang onto an older meaning despite white male Christian assault.


5 comments:

letsdance said...

Maggie, I keep learning from you. Thank you.
Jan

JD Doyle said...

Very nice piece, and thanks for th link to my QMH site. I have a tape by Swingshift, of four songs: "you're gonna miss me when I'm here," "love for real," "little B's poem" and "too cool to be"...featuring Lockhart, Schapiro, Colson, Lefkowitz, Grayboyes and Salisbury. It's not dated, any idea when it was released?

JD Doyle

JD Doyle said...

Oh, guess I should leave my email so you can reply....:)

qmheritage@aol.com

My November 2008 show will be full of obscurities, called "Lesbians on Cassette"...:)

JD Doyle

Malik Imran Awan said...
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Adi said...
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