Today we celebrate the 63rd birthday of a feminist pioneer and powerful social justice activist. Holly Near is best known for her activism music, but she is also an actor and teacher. She was born in Ukiah, CA in 1949 and began singing in high school (including a stint with the Freedom Singers). She began her acting career with a part on the Mod Squad and appeared in a number of guest roles in seminal 70s TV shows like Room 222 and The Partridge Family.
In 1970, Near was a cast member of the Broadway musical Hair. Following the Kent State shootings in May of that year, the entire cast staged a silent vigil in protest. The song, “It Could Have Been Me” (which was released on A Live Album, 1974), was her heartfelt response to the shootings. In 1971, she joined the FTA (Free The Army) Tour, an anti-Vietnam War road show of music, comedy, and plays, organized by antiwar activist Fred Gardner and actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. During her long career in folk and protest music, Holly Near has worked with a wide array of musicians, including Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Mercedes Sosa, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Harry Belafonte, and many others.
In 1972, Near was one of the first women to create an independent record company, paving the way for women like Aimee Mann decades later. Near’s vision was to promote and produce music by politically conscious artists from around the world—a mission that Redwood Records fulfilled for nearly 20 years. Often cited as one of the founders of the “women’s music” movement, Near not only led the way for outspoken women into the music world, but also worked for peace and multicultural consciousness.
Holly Near has been recognized many times for her work for social change, including honors from the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Organization for Women, NARAS, Ms. Magazine (Woman of the Year), and the Legends of Women’s Music Award. As a result of her travels in the Pacific with the FTA show, Near became a feminist, linking international feminism and anti-war activism. In 1976, Near came out as a lesbian and began a three-year relationship with musician Meg Christian. Near was the first out lesbian to be interviewed in People Magazine. Understanding the intersections of oppression, she added LGBT issues to her international peace work as she continued to present social change music around the world and at home.
As her life has progressed, her passion for social change has remained strong. She upset some of the lesbian community when she began a relationship with a man in 1994. Clearly comfortable with her own sexuality and understanding the fluidity of sexual orientation, Near has brushed aside the criticism. She says the label that truly matters to her is “feminist” and that her sexual orientation is “monogamous.” Truly an energetic and ambitious woman, her accomplishments are too many to list. Given her power and determination, it is clear that this list will only grow.