Starting at age 12, I sang with the children’s chorus of the Cleveland Orchestra. I went on to sing in a variety of local and citywide choruses until I began singing professionally in my junior year of high school. Cleveland, in the late 70s, had a booming coffeehouse scene especially on the artsy East side. I played with my neighbor, a wonderful singer, guitar player and pianist. We were quickly embraced by the local music community and through them were exposed to the music of Appalachia, African-American Gospel & Blues, traditional music of Africa, Sacred Harp singing and contemporary songwriters focused on the music of resistance.
It was in those years I sang at my first demonstration, a benefit for the United Farm Workers. My oldest sisters had gone to college at a nearby state university, Kent State. In 1970, images of Vietnam were pervasive on the TV news throughout but the seeds of my political awareness were sown the day the 4 students were killed on the campus I had become so familiar with. I didn’t yet know, but the seeds of my own songwriting were being born as Neil Young sang, 4 Dead in Ohio. That song so completely captured the emotion of that day, it was year’s before I could stand to hear it. Perhaps I was pre-destined but 8 years later I also found myself in college at Kent.
My musical education was already being formed by Sam Cook, The Staple Singers, Sly and the Family Stone, Elvis, Pete Seeger, the waning days of the Beatles, John Lennon and Joni Mitchell. Though I loved music and played guitar and banjo, I didn’t play piano, I wasn’t interested in classical guitar or voice This made majoring in music problematic. I was intrigued to discover how many of my favorite songwriters were also visual artists. Ultimately, I followed in one of my sister’s footsteps and studied visual arts.
While at Kent, I was in various bands playing old-time & bluegrass music. I learned about Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard’s songs about the challenges of the lives of women in Appalachia and was reminded of the power of music from my childhood that spoke about issues of justice and peace. I began to hear music about the women’s and lesbian and gay movements from singers and songwriters like Holly Near and music from the Labor and Civil Rights movements from Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey and the Rock.
I began to seek out other artists focused on social justice issues like Bev Grant and Human Condition and Charlie King and Bright Morning Star. I met Sonny Ochs, Phil Ochs’ sister, and started singing his songs. I learned about Pete’s more political, original songs.
I was doing gigs and working as many jobs as I could to pay for college. I was going to school part-time, organizing a folk festival on campus and learning to build guitars on the weekends. Out of my experience organizing the Kent State Folk Festival, I was offered a full-time job organizing arts events at a newly forming National Park in the region that would be hosting the National Folk Festival. I quit school in my senior year and took the job. In my 2nd year, the Park, Service was going to make my job a permanent position and they offered it to me. I told my boss that I thought I wanted to explore being a songwriter so I took a week off work to go to a songwriting workshop at the Omega Institute in New York with labor organizer and songwriter, Si Kahn. I wrote a song that week that is still one of my most requested songs, Keep On Moving Forward. I sang that song at a gathering of political songwriters called the People’s Music Network. Pete Seeger was at that gathering and said, “that song was the best song he’d heard in 50 years.” Thus began a life long friendship and mentorship with Pete. That song went on to be sung at the NGO forum of the 4th UN World Conference on Women outside Beijing in 1995. It opened the Gay Games in Vancouver that same year, I sang it with Gloria Steinem and Lily Tomlin in the UN General Assembly at a report back on the 1st anniversary of the conference and again in 1998 in the General Assembly at Bella Abzug’s memorial service.
I continued to work with Pete Seeger over the years on many projects including his environmental organization to clean up the Hudson River, The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and was with the family at his bedside when he died in 2014.