holly near

"Elders should not sit around and expect young people to come and sit at their feet." 

Singer-songwriter/actor/activist Holly Near has been in the public eye since 1969 when she began appearing in TV shows like Mod Squad, Room 222 and All In The Family. She was a cast member of the Broadway musical Hair, and in 1971 joined the cast of FTA (Free The Army) which was created by actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland along with antiwar activist Fred Gardner. The troupe toured the country in support of those fighting the Vietnam War and racism within the military. 

Following the tour Holly wanted to record an album of songs she'd written based on her experiences. But record companies weren't interested in songs like, 'No More Genocide In My Name'. Nor were they enamoured by her voice which they felt was too "big", "show-tuney" and not "pop". So she started her own label, Redwood Records. What followed was 20 years of albums by Holly and many other artists, highlighting music of Black America, Latin America and the feminist community. Along the way Holly has been able to work with artists like Dr. Bernice Johnson of The Freedom Singers (and later Sweet Honey In The Rock) and Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers. These women were influential to Holly's musical development and became mentors to her. 

But the friendship with Ronnie got off to somewhat of a rocky start, as Holly explained at this year's Folk Harbor Festival in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. 

"Apparently Ronnie's daughter had seen this album of mine that I had dedicated to Ronnie, and Ronnie was kind of pissed I had dedicated a record to her without asking permission! But she listened to the album and really liked it and wanted to meet me." 

Later on both women were scheduled to appear at a benefit concert so they worked up a song to do together. The combination was a big hit. 

"The audience was so enthusiastic about the presence of a younger woman and an older woman. She had the labour movement on her side, I had the feminist movement. It was the perfect timing and the right place. She was a lot of fun." 

What followed was three albums together, 1983's Lifelines, 1987's Singing With You and 1996's This Train Still Runs, along with the 1985 album HARP featuring Holly, Ronnie, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. 

As Holly observes having a mentor, and being a mentor, only comes after years of re-defining and re-discovering music. 

"It's not until you're 30 or 40 that you look at the past and realize what stones you had walked on to get to where you are because you're busy being where you are." 

Through her long career as an activist and artist Holly has been a champion for feminist and gay rights. The last few years has seen a growing pushback on the achievements gained. So is Holly disheartened by the attack on those battles won? 

"I never thought of them as being won. I thought of them as extraordinary successes that changed a lot of people's lives." 

In Holly's mind the more successful the movement is, the louder the extreme right is going to be. 

"Instead of feeling beat down, I feel we must have done something right!" 

The last number of years have been challenging for Holly when it comes to her health, going back to 2014 when she was diagnosed with cancer. Since then she broke her arm, dislocated her shoulder, had serious chemo/radiation treatments which caused fractures in her pelvis, and she had a stroke. 

"I had a lot of time to sit in the big chair and watch TV and movies and read books. But it's not how I want to spend the next 5 years or 30 years." 

Appearances these days, like at the Folk Harbour Festival, are to see if a different way of touring is possible. 

"I love the hour or two I'm on stage," she says. "Sitting in the wings I'm completely drained but when I walk out there it's like being an electric car. I plug into the audience and all of a sudden I'm charged!" 

For more on Holly Near, go to hollynear.com.