Meg Christian and Cris Williamson are musicians, songwriters, and icons in the Lesbian community. They are also important in the history of women’s music, a post-Stonewall genre of LGBTQ folk’s music performed by and for women, often with Lesbian themes.
Christian was born in Lynchburg, Virginia. She studied music and English at the University of North Carolina, and began performing in nightclubs in the Washington, DC area after graduation. She became a feminist after viewing a David Frost television interview of feminists Robin Morgan and Ti Grace Atkinson. Feeling that Frost treated the women disrespectfully, she wrote him an irate letter, which she later called her first political act. Christian’s new focus made her less marketable in mainstream clubs, so she began performing in alternative venues such as women’s centers and coffeehouses.
Williamson was born in South Dakota in 1947, and raised in Colorado and Wyoming. She recorded her first album, The Artistry of Cris Williamson, in 1964 with Avanti Records, and would release several more albums with various publishers. Williamson also gained fame for her presentation of self in comfortable, outdoors clothing. As important as Williamson’s songs (many of which explored same-sex love among women) was her public image, which gave a generation of Lesbians permission to dress comfortably in an era when highly stylized fashions for women permeated popular culture, such as miniskirts, go-go boots and feathered hair.
In 1973, Christian met Williamson, and together they help found Olivia Records, the first company dedicated to recording and marketing women’s music. Christian appeared on Olivia’s first single, her song “Lady” appearing on one side and Cris Williamson’s “If It Weren’t for the Music” on the other. She often recorded with other icons of the movement, including Tret Fure and Holly Near (with whom she had a three-year relationship). Christian toured extensively from the 1970s to the early 1980s, and recorded three further albums for Olivia: Face the Music (1977), Turning it Over (1981) and From the Heart (1984).
Williamson’s 1974 album, The Changer and the Changed, was released by Olivia and was a landmark in women’s music, selling 100,000 copies in the first year and eventually over 500,000 copies, making it one of the most successful independent record albums ever sold. In an interview for the Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife, folklorist Jan Rosenberg said, “Women were so affected by the sentiment of Changer and the Changed that they almost drove the needle through the album by playing it over and over again for affirmation, comfort, and community.” The cover shot for the album features Williamson standing confidently before a desert landscape, wearing overalls with her long hair flying loose, giving her iconic status among flannel-shirt (also known as lumberjack) Lesbians.
Williamson also released Strange Paradise (1978), Prairie Fire (1984), Snow Angel (1985), Wolf Moon (1987), Country Blessed (1989, with Theresa Trull), Circle of Friends (1991) and Postcards from Paradise (1993, with Tret Fure). Since the mid-1990s, Williamson recorded primarily with her own company, Wolf Moon Records, which also re-released some of her early albums. Her Wolf Moon albums include Between the Covers (1997; with Tret Fure), Ashes (2001), and Real Deal (2005). Williamson recorded an album with fellow women’s music pioneer Holly Near, Cris & Holly, for H & C Records in 2003.
Christian and Williamson’s Carnegie Hall concerts in 1983 and 1988 were remarkable not only for the performances on stage, but also for the feeling of community among the primarily female audience. She and Williamson appeared on stage and on their album cover in tuxedos, creating a mini-fashion trend when many audience members wore tuxedos to the 1988 concert. Christian and Williamson released Meg/Chris at Carnegie Hall in 1983.
Singing the Life
Christian has a distinctive stage presence, not hesitating to jump registers or address the audience directly. Many of Christian’s songs, including “The Rock Will Wear Away” and “Sweet Darlin’ Woman” have become Lesbian classics. However, her most enduring song may be “Ode to a Gym Teacher,” with its “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” guitar introduction and clever lyrics, such as the concluding line, “She’ll always be a player on the ballfield of my heart.” Christian incorporates a sense of fun into her performance, featuring humorous songs such as “Leaping Lesbians” (by Sue Fink and Jocelyn Grippo) on her recordings and in her concerts. Concerning Christian’s fondness for comedy, Rosenberg said, “Christian brought some levity to being a Lesbian. In the 1970s, the Berkeley Women’s Music Collective wrote lyrics reflecting the reality of women’s lives. One of their signature songs was called ‘The Bloods’ about menstruation. Meg Christian responded with a song called ‘Cramps.’”
Williamson plays the piano and guitar, and favors simple arrangements with other acoustic instruments on her albums, focusing attention on her voice. Her most popular songs include “Joanna” and “Song of the Soul.”
Best Interests of the Children and Shambhavi
Both Williamson and Christian have dedicated their lives to causes greater than themselves. Williamson continues to tour, record, and make appearances at many political and LGBTQ benefit events, performing with mainstream artists such as Bonnie Raitt to Jackson Brown. In 1991, she and Tret Fure founded a nonprofit organization for children with AIDS called In the Best Interests of the Children.
In 1984, Christian left the commercial music scene, embracing yoga and eventually settling in an ashram (Hindu spiritual retreat) in New York State. She adopted the first name Shambhavi and began studying Indian music, eventually recording two albums that include both original compositions and traditional religious songs: Fire of My Love (1986) and Songs of Ecstasy (1995). Christian resumed occasional performances for Olivia (now a Lesbian travel company) in 2002.
Peraino, Judith Ann. Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2005.
Pomeroy, L. Margaret. “The Song and Soul of the Changer.” Echo Magazine (October 2000). Available online from http://www.leftbankreview.com/echo/2ndQtr-00/page2.html, accessed July 2010.
Radical Harmonies. Dee Mosbacher, director. Feature Film, 2002. DVD from Wolfe Video, 2004.