Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Folk music and the roots of activism

Linda Tillery takes a quick look back

TOGETHER AGAIN: Linda Tillery (right) will be performing with Nina Gerber at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in July. Credit: Xtra West file photo

Passing her on the street,one might not realize just how many stories Linda Tillery has to tell in terms of witnessing history. The truth is, this 57-year-old woman has performed with many legends of music-Wilson Pickett, Cris Williamson, Carlos Santana. And she did it all while living in an era when she and her peers had to fight for equal rights on three different levels: as women, African-Americans and lesbians.

Tillery first got into the music business by auditioning for an R & B band called the Loading Zone in the late ’60s. The kind of music the group performed was admittedly not her first love-she cites crooners in that regard-but their timely appeal allowed her to perform in opening acts for everyone from Janis Joplin to Cream. Following that stint, Tillery spent much of the ’70s as a percussionist/vocalist for hire, earning studio gigs with Odetta, Richie Havens and others.

Around the same time that Tillery was gaining increasing respect as a studio musician, a tiny, independent record label called Olivia Records was just getting off the ground. Imagine this: while the word “homosexual” still had to be whispered to avoid ostracism and physical harm, a small group of lesbians put their hearts, souls and life savings into a record label that provided them the opportunity to record music about women loving women.

Tillery recalls that period with much fondness. “I had never been in any situation where women were singing love songs to other women and expressing their longing and desire for a person of the same sex,” she recalls. “I had never been to a concert, although I certainly was becoming aware of people like Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, Holly Near.”

After watching the scene from a distance, it all changed for Tillery in 1976 when an all-woman’s band called Be Be K’Roche asked her to produce their next album. “I looked at them as if they had spoken to me in Martian. I had never produced a record before, but I said ‘okay, this is how you start.’ So I met with Judy Dlugacz of Olivia. We set the date and I went about producing this record. It was really an incredible, moving experience to be in the presence of women who were dedicated, who set about to do the best job that they could possibly do, and nobody said ‘you play like a girl.'”

Tillery admits that there were many highlights during her decade with the label, as an artist, producer and session player, but one of her favorite moments was her involvement in a musical counter-attack on the extreme homophobia of that period.

At the time, a singer named Anita Bryant, who was also famous for her series of commercials plugging Florida orange juice, reacted against a Florida county that passed a human rights ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. While Bryant campaigned loudly against queers who “recruit our children” the Olivia dykes created a protest-mixed-with-humour collection they dubbed Lesbian Concentrate. The entertaining and effective disc included the songs: “For Straight Folks Who Don’t Mind Gays But Wish They Weren’t So Blatant,” “Don’t Pray For Me,” and “Ode to a Gym Teacher.”

“We made this in Judy [Dlugacz] living room,” recalls Tillery, “and it was such a great time! We set up, started playing and it was the most fun I’ve ever had making a record. The label has an orange juice can with the words ‘Lesbian Concentrate’ on it,” she laughs.

Years later, Tillery’s musical focus suddenly changed when she saw the play, Letters From a New England Negro, in 1992. The songs in that show introduced her to some traditional African-American music. Led by her deep conviction, she decided to create a project that would help spread that history along with the kind of storytelling that she herself calls “survival music.” Tillery dubbed the outfit The Cultural Heritage Choir. “I can’t emphasize how important black music has been in my development as a musician and human being,” she explains. “The purpose was and is to present African-American roots music to as broad an audience as we possibly could. That we have achieved and continue to do.”

With spirituality so integral to the music, I can’t help but ask the question: has there been any repercussion from the religious community as a result of her being an out lesbian?

“I think that the African-American community at large is still grappling with how to accept homosexuality,” she says. “For a lot of people who consider themselves to be devout, homosexuality is not acceptable. What is not acceptable to me is someone who would call themselves a Christian who might express hatred or disdain towards another person. To me, negativity and Christianity really don’t have a place together. I don’t consider myself any less black because I’m a lesbian and I don’t consider myself any less lesbian because I’m black. I am who I am.”

While still touring regularly with her choir, Tillery is excited to perform a select few dates with her longtime friend, Nina Gerber, a guitarist who has played with famous artists including Ferron and Nanci Griffith. The pair will be performing together at this year’s Vancouver Folk Music Festival. While this is their first performance here in tandem, it is by no means Tillery’s maiden voyage to the Vancouver Folk Fest; she has previously appeared with Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra and also the Cultural Heritage Choir.

“The more we play, the more I like it, because it enables me to play music that I had been holding inside of me for awhile,” says Tillery. “I’m 57 years old now. There is going to come a time when I won’t want to be touring, so I’m in a period of self-expression. Working with Nina is great because it is just the two of us, so there’s a whole lot of room to be who you are. It makes it lots of fun and I am having a great time doing this…I’m having fun doing everything I’m doing.”