Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Women Folk Singers and Hippie Dystopia: a Child's Conundrum

You've seen this dress before, in cooler weather, with 60s mod tights, boots, and a cape. I don't think this dress could be styled as anything other than a 60s look, but my take on it is different this time. This time, I was thinking of women's roles in the 60s folk music scene. On the flip side, I was also thinking of how horrifying it was for me grow up in the hippie scene.

So this is a tale of bohemian fashion, the reason for my aversion to all things hippie, and the gifts 60s folk music gave and still gives me.

When I put my outfit together, I immediately reminded myself of 60s female singer/songwriters, many of whom I still hold up as heroes and role models. Buffy Sainte-Marie, for example, continues to be relevant to my own life, from the comfort her songs gave me when I was an abused child, to the lessons I learned from her about Aboriginal history and rights, to her songs that my friend will sing at my wedding. And, yes, she's been a fashion influence too. She's got style!

But the scene in which she and other female folk singers rose to fame has a lot of crossover with the hippie scenes of the 60s and 70s, and that sometimes makes it hard for me to revisit the music of my youth, however much I admire it and its singers.

Me, at eight.

Born in 1970, I was raised by hippies. Virtually all the adults in my life were hippies.

I'm not talking about weekend hippies: men who grew their hair a long in their college years, women who wore some beads to parties, people who tried pot from time to time.

I'm talking about the real deal: communes (often bordering on cults), geodesic domes, outhouses, dirt, poverty, carob, Birkenstocks, matted hair, and lots and lots of drugs.

It was hippies who sexually abused me. Hippies who drugged me. Hippies who terrorized me. Hippies who sold me to the men who injured my back and caused my eventual chronic pain disability.

I know full well that not all hippies were the depraved criminals who abused me. I know that paedophiles will use whatever philosophies they have at hand to justify their immoral abuses of children. In my case, the philosophies at hand were those of hippies.

It went something like this: "We don't live by society's rules and restrictions. We're paving the way for a new way of living and loving. We should be able to express our love with whomever we want, including children, and express it however we want, including sexually. Children are sexual beings. Uptight society refuses to admit that and therefore denies children their freedom. We don't do that. Mainstream people don't understand. They're not enlightened like we are. You'd better not tell them what you do with us. They wouldn't understand."

I didn't understand either.

Check out the grown woman sharing a joint with the kid in the photo above. This sort of thing was commonplace in my world. I have experienced or heard of some horrid things done by hippie parents and care-givers: kids given LSD before kindergarten, fathers teaching their daughters how to have sex or shoot heroin, girls being told it would be an honour to marry the adult leaders of their communes, children going for weeks without a bath, kids being left home alone to fend for themselves for days, adults having sex in front of children, grown women becoming "lovers" with boys barely into puberty ... I could go on and on but I guess you get the idea. Many of those hippies and even their children didn't and don't consider any of this to be abuse. I do. I imagine you do too.

And because many hippies were also into the "back to the land movement," much of this abuse took place so far out in the isolated country that there was absolutely no chance of escape or help. No running water, no electricity, no phones. Nothing. It was not uncommon to be a long boat ride or hike from the nearest dirt road, let alone the nearest hospital, school, or police station.

I know not all hippies were like this, but these were the hippies I knew. I spent a long time hating hippies, all hippies.

Joan Baez
Yet, at the same time, a great deal of the music that came out of the hippie scene was a source of great sustenance for me. Joan Baez, with her sweet, beautiful voice, and her messages about the importance of peace and justice, was an almost tangible presence in my daily life. When I first heard the Beatles singing one of their songs, I was convinced that they were "doing it wrong" because, till then, I'd only heard Baez sing it.

Her heartfelt songs about humans suffering, and her longing for their release from that suffering, spoke to me deep into my heart. When I was about six, I thought that "That Poor Girl" (which is actually titled "In the Quiet Morning") was written about me! (I've been told it was written about Janis Joplin but I'm not sure.)

Dress: Tacera; Sandals: Wonders; Ring: Birks; Earrings, bracelet, shawl, and sunglasses: vintage
So my relationship with the 60s and 70s hippie movement is extremely fraught. I am by no means one of those "mainstream" people they so derided and am, I suppose, "counter-culture" or even "bohemian," but I am also, most emphatically, not a hippie. I've spent a lot of my life being careful not to look like one. The idea of looking like one sickened me.

Despite my love of vintage style, you'll notice that I very seldom emulate hippie style. I'm finding the recent "bohemian chic" thing pretty hard to take as the styles remind me of the ones I grew up with. I wouldn't normally even wear a cape like the one I wore on this day.

But I had an ulterior motive in wearing it, and it had to do with the very disability the hippies in my life caused in the first place.

You see, if you're a disabled chic in either a scooter or a wheelchair and you're wearing a short dress or skirt, you have a problem: people can see your underwear! I'm always trying to come up with solutions to this problem.

On this day, I thought I might be able to casually drape the cape over and between my knees to hide my underwear, without anyone realizing what I was doing. It didn't work. The damned thing kept slipping off. Twice, it got caught in my wheels, once when I was crossing a major intersection. It was really scary. I tried to hold my legs very still to keep it from slipping but this hurt my back.

Oh the struggles of the disabled that no-one thinks of until they face it themselves! Oh the causes of disability that occur to no-one ... until I tell them my story.

I had to quickly come up with an alternative solution for the visible underwear problem. This worked and, fortunately, the weather was not yet too warm for the cape.

Beau thought I looked sexy like this, so I hammed it up, showing my milk-white legs off just a little bit. I did actually get a compliment from a woman on the street. Imagine that!

After years with a focus on breasts and hips, suddenly, in the 60s, the legs were the thing, just as they had been in time of the last major youth movement: the 1920s. Check out the ethereal Joni Mitchell, showing off her gams here. She's another hero of mine, all the better because she's a fellow Canadian.

I've never thought of my legs as particularly impressive, but I guess they have their merits. If you favour shapely, ice-skater legs instead of lengthy, super-model legs, you might see some merit in my legs. Beau sure does like them! I have to admit that, being a mesomorph, I find that mine have maintained a surprising firmness despite both middle-age and disability. I guess that's something, anyway.

First for Beatniks, and then for hippies, the 60s were indeed a time of redefining female beauty and sex appeal from something of great artifice to something more natural.

While fashion forward, mainstream women were mincing around in girdles, stocking, and kitten heels, women in the folk scene sported bare legs, free midriffs, and "ethnic" sandals.

It was all about getting away from artifice and getting back to something more authentic: the authentic body (including the body's authentic hair), and authentic music. Folk singers first plumbed the archives of traditional folk music, the people's music, and then began writing their own music. Their more natural fashion choices were a reflection of this goal toward authenticity.

While other women were still wearing beehive hair styles or puffy, lacquered quaffs so complicated they could only be achieved in a hair salon, the folkies wore their hair long and straight.

(Agatha Christie had a great deal to say about this new trend, none of it positive. Her novels written in the 60s repeatedly refer to young women's hair as "greasy," "lank," and hanging like sheets in front of their faces.)

Of course, this look was only natural for certain women of certain ethnicities. As a Jewish woman, I'd have to put as much work into having straight hair as other woman were putting into their puffy styles.

I have heard that African American girls used to put slips on their heads to pretend they had long, straight hair. I did that too. I'd stand in front of the mirror and toss my silky locks/slip over my shoulder, just like Cher. Any uniformity of style, even if it's meant to do away with artifice and welcome the natural, will shut someone out.
Perhaps no folk singer's ethnicity better accommodated the style of long straight hair than Cree Buffy Sainte-Marie's. That hair! Wow.

And, while we're on the subject, those cheekbones! What a spectacular beauty, then and now.

But the utterly exquisite Joan Baez is no slouch in the beauty department either. She too had that long, straight hair so coveted in the bohemian scene. I, for one, was saddened when she cut her hair but I guess she preferred it that way: She's worn it short ever since. She even sings about it in one her songs, saying, "It's only when the high winds blow that I wish my hair was long."

And this brings me to an important point. The female folk singers of the 60s, most of whom wrote at least some of their own songs, were women who had a lot to say, and they would be heard! They weren't just women with pretty voices, they were women with a Voice, a message, and they weren't going to shut up or shut down.

Yes, many of them were also beautiful. One hopes that their beauty was merely incidental but one does wonder if they would have risen to such fame and popularity had they been more plain.

Canadians, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell
I think they themselves regarded their beauty as merely incidental and irrelevant to their musical output and messages. Certainly, they were not merely decorative in the folk music scene. They were not merely spectators and muses.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan
Nor were they merely girlfriends. Joan Baez was famous before her lover, Bob Dylan rose to fame. In fact, she helped him achieve that fame.

Still, I think female folk singers didn't get quite the fame and respect that their male counterparts received. I think they knew it. As Baez sings to Dylan, "I can stay here on my silver chair. You can stay there on your gold." She knew she was number two, but she made her peace with that.

The women of this movement were, I think, I hope, listened to more than women in the past. Feminism was hitting its stride, after all, and these women were a part of that.

They stood their own ground.

Mary, of Peter Paul and Mary
And they had a hell of a lot to say, about justice, peace, poetry, war, music, race relations, women's lives, etc. If nothing else, the subjects of their songs proved that women are not just interested in love, fashion and family, and that female singers are not only interested in singing about love. Contrary to popular belief, politics was a place for women too, and they jumped right in, voices loud and insistent.

Joan Baez was a particularly fervent activist and still is. She and I both seem to be wired that way, and incapable of shutting our mouths when we see an injustice that we feel must be righted. Others might look at us with confusion and concern. Baez sings that her mother reacted to Baez's deeply felt pain in the face of human suffering by asking, "Why do you carry the weight ... of the world, and maybe more?"

I first heard this line as a child. How could one not carry the weight of the world? I wondered.

Even in the midst of my own abuse, I was the one sticking up for the underdogs in class. I gave a speech on feminism in grade four.

That's me at fifteen, on the left at a peace march.
By the time I was in my early teens, I was an activist, often using my ability to write as my most effective form of activism. I guess that's never changed.

I am not known for keeping my mouth shut.

Nor is my cat, Milo.

Okay, I just wanted to show you my cat. Because, you know: cat! Plus, he matched my outfit that day.

Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Eric Clapton, and an unnamed baby amongst their booze, cigarettes, and pot. Photo by Henry Diltz
Perhaps because of the back to the land movement, perhaps because it was cheaper, a lot of the folk music scene was out of doors ...

... with everyone all able-bodied and hip ...

... sitting on the grass at festivals, concerts, be-ins, and "happenings." I was there for some of it and I mostly remember a lot of filth, sunburn, sunstroke, and the sweet, sticky smell of home-grown pot. That smell still immediately takes me back to my childhood, for better or for worse.

All that outdoor peace and love did make for some pretty pictures and it was to emulate that look that I lowered my aching body to the ground for these photos. 

Pete Seeger. Notice how comfortable children are with him. I've heard that he was very good with children.
Nowadays, we probably think of Pete Seeger as the grand-daddy of festive, rabble-rousing, outdoor concerts. 

He's certainly been an inspiration to me to pick up my pen as he picked up his banjo, and use my own voice for the greater good.

But, as Pete Seeger well knew, folk music had been fomenting political action at least since the 1930s. One of Pete Seeger's own heroes was Woodie Guthrie, who wrote and sang leftie, union songs in the 30s and later sang with Seeger and his pals in the 40s. 

Guthrie's famous guitar read: "This machine kills fascists." These were people who really deeply believed in the power of music to affect change. Of course those in the 60s political left looked up to them. 

Guthrie on the left, Dylan on the right.
It's pretty clear that, for a while, Bob Dylan practically wanted to be Woody Guthrie.

Arlo Guthrie
Later, Pete Seeger joined up with Woody Guthrie's son, Arlo, and the two of them toured together. I saw them perform together at a protest concert -- in a park, naturally -- in the 1980s.

Leftist women folk singers had fewer role models to look up to, though there were some.

Ronnie Gilbert with The Weavers. Pete Seeger doesn't seem to have joined the group yet. 
The first to come to my mind is the powerfully voiced Ronnie Gilbert who (along with Pete Seeger) was in The Weavers which was, naturally, black listed by the McCarthy administration. 

But, mostly, women were in uncharted waters here, creating their own path and hoping it was the right one.

Barbara Dane

People were listening!

Peter Paul and Mary
These women were captivating their audiences, not just with their voices, but with what they were saying with those voices. Most of them are still up there on that stage to this day.

But then, as now, sexism was not dead. There were also, of course, what I call the decorative "swirl girls" in the folk music scene.

See what I mean? Swirl girls, dancing with wild abandon up at the front of all the outdoor concerts, pretty obviously high on various concoctions, and pretty obviously ogled by the men who hoped to take advantage of the sexual revolution for their own gain.

Do please note the bemused little child on the right there. Is the dancing woman his mother? Note that the one man in a tie, the one African American man, is standing protectively near the child, and looking reprovingly at the abandon before him.
There were indeed men, and not just young men, who pretended to embrace the hippie movement, with its "free love" and drugs, because they figured they'd get laid. 

"My place or yours? Or right here?"
Playboy cartoon from the 1960s.
They were probably right. Playboy cartoons had a field day with it. 

Is this a sexual revolution or is this men preying on the naive innocence of young women trying to claim their sexuality in a sexist world? I've always wondered about that.

That's why I'm oddly happy to hear from Joan Baez that she was "quite promiscuous," on her own terms, picking up groupies as she felt the urge. She was a rock star of sorts and, just like the men, enjoyed the perks that her star status brought. I remember my grandmother reading her biography around 1990 and saying, "Boy, that Joan Baez sure was fond of men!" She was less disapproving then just bemused by the ability to be so casually and happily promiscuous. 

It certainly wasn't just the hopeful and political messages of folk music that were causing the swirl girls to swirl. There were a lot of drugs around, LSD probably being the one most responsible for all this swirling free loving fun.

You know what I'm saying, man?

Like, wow.

That kind of blind faith and utopian idealism in a new movement is not safe. Amidst all that drug-induced euphoria, great music, and great messages, there were children, some of them given the drugs, some of them used as props in their parents' acid trips, some simply neglected by parents too high, or too wrapped up in their own romantic dramas to properly care for their own children. I might have been the one on the right there, or the one on her father's shoulders.

Not all hippie parents were like that, of course. Probably the majority were not. But some were. And it was bad.

The scene did indeed change the world and many of those changes were good ones, but not all of them were. The movement was not without its casualties. Some of them were children.

I was one of them. 

One needs a healthy dose of scepticism in any new movement. I do think that the female folk singers of the time whom I most admire did have that healthy scepticism. Now, looking back, I think Baez's decision to cut her hair might have been her creation of a symbolic distance between herself and the hippiest of the hippie movement. She has openly stated that she never really was interested in the drug scene at the time. I think that shows in her radiant good health and beauty to this day.

She's still singing about important causes. She's still very much an activist. But is she a hippie? Was she ever a hippie? It's a question.

As for Buffy Sainte-Marie, she was never a really vocal supporter of the folk or hippie scenes, not that I know of anyway. She has become a powerful spokesperson for and educator about Aboriginal issues around the globe. And, yes, she too is still singing and still speaking out.

Was she ever a hippie? I don't think she'd say she was. I hope to get the chance to meet her and ask her some day.

In my critique of the effect the scene had on children, I am not asking anyone to dismiss the whole movement as bogus or worse. I'm just asking people to be a bit less utopian in their visions of what it was like then, not just for the young adults, but for their children too. Be happy for all the wonderful changes -- and there were many -- that the movement brought, but admit what went wrong too.

I've heard Joni Mitchell interviewed and she sure does have a thing or two to say about what went wrong, even as she remains one of the biggest heroes of the folk and hippie scenes. Her star status will not keep her from speaking her truth, about a variety of topics, including the negatives -- and the positives -- of the 60s.

Let's keep what was good. I sure as heck wouldn't want to go back to the 50s! But let's admit what was bad.

And then let's just gaze adoringly at Joni on the cover of the fashion issue of New York magazine and hero worship just a little bit more.

(I want to state clearly that (aside from a few people in the photo of me at a peace march) I do not personally know any of the people in these photos and am not stating or evening implying that they abused or abuse children in any way.)

(I'm sharing this with Not Dead Yet's Visible Mondays and Spy Girl.)