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Holly Near - Friend of the DFC

Singer, songwriter and activist are just a few ways to describe the amazing Holly Near. She’s not only one of the most “powerful … singers of our time,” Holly has also been a champion for peace and feminism, combining music, activism and her “celebration of the human spirit” in her performances for over fifty years. 

Jumping In
Growing up in northern California, Holly lived on a small cattle ranch and didn’t have neighbors close by, so hanging out with her friends wasn’t an option. But “our parents were creative people who liked music, so we had access to musical instruments, a reel-to-reel tape recorder and lots of outdoor space to sing at the top of our lungs”. Holly remembers her family played and danced and “with no TV and encouraging parents, we were our own entertainment”. Her parents ordered records from a catalog so the family always had a lot of music in their house “from big bands to opera to folk music to jazz to musical theater - I took it all in.” She also found a mentor when she began taking lessons from a music teacher who lived in a nearby town. 

Holly’s childhood was rooted in activism because her parents were progressive. “I heard them discuss the world over coffee in the morning and I got my feet wet in high school working on a committee to try to get rules changed so girls could wear pants to school.” These early experiences proved to be “good practice” for Holly. “The anti-war and civil rights movements were swirling around me as a late teen/young adult. One can choose to ignore or jump in - I jumped in.” 

TV, Movies and the FTA
Holly was performing in ‘70s film and TV programs like Mod Squad, Room 222 and The Partridge Family when she heard about a traveling anti-war show called FTA – Free the Army. It was a road show for GIs designed as a response to the USO tour starring comedian Bob Hope. “They were auditioning for one more person - I got the job.”  The FTA tour traveled to Okinawa, Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines, and Holly “learned so much from the soldiers who were resisting war and racism from within the military and from local activists in each country who were protesting military occupation”.  

When she returned home, Holly began writing songs, but they were very different from those the music industry wanted, so she started her own record label. In fact, Holly’s Redwood Records was one of the first female-created independent labels. Holly remembers it as “so intriguing, exciting and a lot of hard work so that I never really made it back to my film and TV career.” Although it was challenging to be the head of her own record label, it proved to Holly that it was possible to work outside of the music mainstream. “When I felt overwhelmed I tried to remember that it is equally, if not differently, challenging to be in mainstream.”  

Music Heals
Having lived through the ‘60s and ‘70s and witnessed her generation and others rise up against oppression, Holly says resistance through music is nothing new. “There has been resistance to oppression for centuries. We each come into the world and then that is our time.

“People in struggle from most cultures turn to music and dance. As Linda Tillery told me when talking about her work, the music that came from her people in the black diaspora were songs of survival. Whether jazz or folk or gospel, it represents survival under incredible odds. Labor songs, feminist songs, lesbian songs – they all come out of necessity. Music heals, inspires, educates, lifts us up when we are at our lowest. The world has always been turbulent. I didn’t understand that when I was younger. I actually thought we could end war and abuse. Now I’m not so sure. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do everything we can to slow that trajectory towards destruction of self, others, planet, universe.”  

Holly believes each of us can do something, even a small gesture, to promote a more peaceful world. “One person might deliver Meals on Wheels. Another might work to protect one ancient tree. One might become the nation’s first black president. Somehow, all the bits add up.”  

Songwriting and Performing
The key to songwriting for Holly is trying “to remain open to learning as the world endlessly unfolds before us”. That means ideas and songs are always churning in her mind. “I notice things and think about things all the time, so the material is always in the works.” And when it comes down to actually writing the song, it isn’t a battle for her. “It often comes forward without a lot of struggle and looks like I wrote a song in a few minutes or a few hours, but really, I have been ‘writing it’ for years.”   

Performing live remains Holly’s favorite for so many reasons. “I love meeting a new audience, and depending on the venue and the context, it is always unique. And I don’t do the same set list night after night - I try to keep it fresh and spontaneous. After having worked for over fifty years in the social change music genre, my toolbox is pretty full, so it doesn’t require a lot of homework.” 

Because of a Song
Holly produced an historic website, Because of a Song, that documents women musicians in Oakland, CA who made a profound contribution to what became known as Women’s Music. She’s been working on the website archive since 2019 and it's now done and available to the public for free. 

The website features over thirty hours of filmed conversation, four short films featuring Linda Tillery, Carolyn Brandy, Mary Watkins and Melanie DeMore, a curated resource room, a listening room of over six hundred songs in six playlists, a captioned photo gallery of nearly two hundred images and much more.

Featured conversations include: Linda Tillery, Mary Watkins, Carolyn Brandy, Melanie DeMore, Rhiannon, Vicki Randle, Judith Casselberry, Ginny Z. Berson, Krissy Keefer, Lakota Harden, Lichi Fuentes, June Millington and Ann Hackler, Angela Wellman, Barbara Higbie, Elizabeth Seja Min, Ellen Seeling and Jean Feinberg, Sally Roesch Wagner, Peggy Berryhill, Patricia Thumas, Crys Matthews and Heather Mae, Timothy Near, Candas Barnes and Ray Obiedo.

And if you want to learn more about Holly Near, visit her website.

Photo by Jerry Rubino