At the Michigan Womyn’s Music Fest

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“For one week in August every year, women only populate the largest town in Oceana County.”
— Deborah Lewis, “The Original Womyn’s Woodstock,” in

The Woman-Centered Economy, Midge Stocker, ed., 1995.

 

It’s only June, but I’ve already started to pack, and all over North America thousands of women are feeling the same hypnotic urge to assemble their tent stakes and bug spray, flashlights and plaid flannel. This August we’ll all be heading to Michigan again, some of us for the 28th year; and though the uninitiated remain skeptical—waiting in line for over-spiced tofu? attending confrontational anti-racism workshops amid wet hay bales? encountering one’s rabbi naked in a sweat lodge?—loyal workers like me can’t wait to pick up a hammer and plunge in again. Get the stages ready, scatter the wood chips to make trails, nail down the rugs for the campers in wheelchairs, fire up the simmering kettles of corn, and prepare for hours of political processing. Bring it on, set it up, for they’re coming to “the land,” and when the gates swing open on the first day of that August week somewhere north of Grand Rapids, the magic of Brigadoon—or “Wombstock”—is here again.

At 28, outlasting most women’s bookstores and many relationships, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is still going strong, and its sliding-scale work-exchange prices for a week of camping, concerts, and hot vegetarian meals remain the best deal in the world for lesbians who want a joyful immersion in dynamic music, crafts, and culture. Just beyond the three excellent stages, sprinkled by the ever-present threat of rain, are all the elements that keep Michigan both revered and vilified in the gay and lesbian press. Yes, there’s still nude mud wrestling, worker stress, Goddess worship, the Perseid meteor showers, kissing workshops, and an understanding that the front rows are deaf seating, with interpreters onstage. This is not the corporate Lilith Fair, the industry-underwritten Lollapalooza, however rad those rockfests claimed to be. Here, you have to do a work shift to get in. Whether you condemned the entire genre of women’s music before investigating it or were the first in the mosh-pit when June Millington played with Bitch and Animal last summer, whether you now harangue the festival to welcome transfolks officially or still revel in its longtime radical woman-born-only admission policy, you can’t write about American lesbian history without bowing before the house that Lisa Vogel built.

Festival culture, which began in the early 1970’s as a venue for radical feminist musicians operating outside of the mainstream recording industry, offered a rural alternative to the bars, coffeehouses and protest marches that were more readily available to East and West Coast urbanites. If we trust that Dorothy was right, Oz truly did turn out to be no farther than her own backyard. The Midwest, with its wide-open spaces and muscular farm women, spawned homegrown lesbian landscapes that have endured against all odds. The slightly older National Women’s Music Festival, which began in 1974, rests on its laurels as the first and longest continually meeting festival. But National has always met on university campuses. Its audiences have been guests of public educational institutions and thus have had to remain clothed. Its public settings have also meant that men were permitted in the audience (though generally not onstage as performers), and men were often visible in the campus dorms or as union techies in the concert theaters. The Michigan festival, which began in 1976, was by 1982 thriving on 650 acres of privately owned land, where the separatist ideal of uninhibited women-only space took root. Making the pilgrimage to the fern forest where one could party without a shirt became the rite of passage for political dykes of my generation.

Aside from popularizing the work of countless lesbian performers—whose loyal fan base led to greater mainstream recognition and bookings—the festival is also a workers’ community and a working-class success story. Nurtured by the vision of its then-19-year-old founder, Lisa Vogel, the festival was initially run as a collective, then a cooperative, then a company, and now as a private corporation. Staffed entirely by volunteer labor in its first years, the festival now distributes small salaries or honoraria to longtime coordinators (experienced workers helping to run such various crews as security, garbage, childcare, kitchen, and the performance stages) and to its reliable, outstanding stage production techies and sign language interpreters. Over the years, what evolved as uniquely “Michigan” has become standard practice at other women’s festivals and at many mainstream conferences: childcare, a sober support area, private and respected meeting space for women of color, interpreting services, accessible facilities for women with a range of disabilities, health care that includes homeopathic remedies, chemical and smoke-free areas, an expectation that racial stereotypes will be avoided and that the necessary hierarchy of work crews and staff will be diverse in age, race, class, ethnicity, ability, nationality—and style. The festival also has to accommodate the burgeoning needs of campers who, returning every year since 1976, are well over fifty and often bringing along their children.

The scale of preparation is immense. As a festival worker since 1990, I’m notorious for writing in my journal throughout the long work-crew community meetings. Now, looking back through those rain-splotched pages, I find this record of our labors: “We used 37,200 feet of twine.” “We used 1,250 pounds of ice in the worker kitchen alone.” “We ordered 4,416 rolls of toilet paper.” “Childcare had 60 girl toddlers under age four; our youngest camper was three months old.” “The main kitchen produced a total of 100,000 meals.” “We helped unload 150 craftswomen, including one who’s eight months pregnant.” “130 gallons of water were used for the Dance Brigade performances.” “The interpreters worked with 45 Deaf women from five countries.” “The massage crew gave over 890 massages…”

Few of the thousands of “festiegoers,” as they’re affectionately known, are aware of the intense workloads, romantic flings, and political standoffs that characterize the smoothly running worker village backstage. The shows begin on time, the rain crew expertly pounces to cover each stage when a single drop falls from the heavens, and healthy meals dished out by cute babes in aprons are just one part of the six-day ticket package. The division that could arise between the producers of lesbian culture (the workers and artists) and the consumers is mitigated by a mandatory four-hour work shift that’s required of all those attending. In this way the endless burden of cooking and cleaning is spread among the many. Lonely or bewildered first-timers plunge right into a bawdy work crew, stirring the pot of beans or the barrow full of wood chips, mingling with a roster of new pals from any number of states or foreign lands. The crafts bazaar area offers as many as 150 booths of woman-made products—art, pottery, books, haircuts, djembe drums, sexy toys, and hot new CDs autographed by the smiling musicians themselves.

The festival’s collective vibe remains harmonious, with nude bodies of all colors and shapes nestled together under the meteor-flecked night skies. In August 2002 well over 4,000 women and girls flocked to hear artists as diverse as Bitch and Animal, slam poet Alix Olson, mosh-pit faves Le Tigre and the Butchies, folksinger Cheryl Wheeler, pianist Mary Watkins, the Dance Brigade, the drum orchestra of Ubaka Hill, and the late, great Kay Gardner on flute. Economically speaking, however, those 4,000 tickets are about half of what the festival used to sell during the peak (and very crowded) years in the 1980’s, and 6,000 remains a target goal. Concerns about breaking even and attracting more paying festiegoers regularly surface during the worker community meetings of recent years. These discussions look closely at both festival finances and lesbian community values. One heartache is the growing number of thoughtless fans and trans-activist protesters who sneak in each year, chowing down on carefully budgeted food and entertainment without giving anything back. For Michigan to stay out of the red and continue bringing top production values to its three stages, music supporters will need to increase their ticket donations on the sliding scale, returning festies will have to bring along more first-time, full-paying pals—and educate the folks back home about the twin evils of Michigan-bashing and fence-hopping.

Regrettably, threats to Michigan’s survival now come from some radical LGBT activists as well as from right-wing religious groups. State family-values groups continue to probe the festival and its bulletin-board Internet communications for any proof of “child welfare endangerment” (casual public sex or illegal drug use on the land), so today’s festiegoers are warned not to create conditions under which conservative infiltrators—who do exist!—could move in swiftly and shut things down forever. This concern has placed limits on some of the more provocative workshops on sexuality, but it has also re-opened serious dialogue about what public behaviors are appropriate when so many children and adolescents are present with their moms.

Since 1994, when “Camp Trans” activists set up a presence at the festival’s front gates to challenge the woman-born-only policy, it has become fashionable for younger LGBT activists to bash Michigan in the name of progressive trans-friendliness. In recent years, activists have been observed fashioning fake admission wristbands in order to come in and disrupt “the system.” Other women, including well-known performers and crafts-women, have helped their friends sneak in, despite the festival’s existing options of financial assistance and work exchange for genuinely needy fans interested in attending. The big topic in Workerville 2002, as the festival began running out of food, was clear: what’s the deal with these lesbians who rip off lesbians? How did scamming Michigan become the new radicalism?

Long hours of discussion yielded few conclusions on this trend. Perhaps it comes from the more destructive wing of the anti-globalism street anarchist movement, or the sheer ease with which anyone can knock down an existing institution’s ideals and glass windows. Perhaps time has granted the festival sufficient status and notoriety to make it seem an established Goliath against which restless, younger dyke Davids consider taking aim. Yet such sport fails to take into account Michigan’s ongoing revolutionary aims: the collective work ethic; the extraordinary dedication to unlearning racism; the safe space for toddlers and adolescent girls; the opening ceremonies honoring Native land; the entirely ASL-interpreted stage program and the wheelchair-accessible forest; plus the 24-hour sober support, full medical care for workers and festiegoers, recycling, and vegan meals. No other institution in the world offers this range of services on such a large scale for a primarily (but not exclusively) lesbian consumer base. The festival is certainly not some well-financed behemoth like the IMF or Wal-Mart. Whatever one’s view on the transgender issue, Michigan ain’t “the Establishment.” The performers are risk-taking, mostly lesbian artists whose stands on race, sex, and class limit their ability to get mainstream bookings and to have financial security.

Then there are the longtime workers like me, usually over 600 of us, who hammer and nail and schlep and mediate and clean up after campers and performers, just because we dig being part of the story. We’re not paid much, and we’re not complaining; we donate our time and labor and the best of our skills in order to see our “field of dreams” continue. But when nonpaying campers rip off the dwindling supply of granola and bagels, there will be that much less for the workers in next year’s budget. Wherever Michigan’s meaning is being debated—in Ph.D. dissertations, in music zines, at trans venues, poetry slams, and LGBT centers—the message needs to be passed along that ripping off the festival’s music, melons, and massage care doesn’t equal “fighting the power” in corporate America. As one worker wailed succinctly, “We’re women! We’re dykes! We don’t have money!”

Cultural movements and revolutions have always had the challenging task of transmitting their radical values to the next generation—only to find that their ideals have fallen into the generation gap and vanished. For some of my own college students, the over-forty separatists representing festival culture appear as women of their mothers’ generation, the very demographic that they naturally resist. And the ageism cuts both ways, as women like me, who began attending Michigan at twenty, now enter our forties and snarl, “In my day we respected the established performers like Holly Near!”

An interview with festival producer Lisa Vogel that appeared in The Woman-Centered Economy (published in 1995 by Third Side Press) included observations that are now a decade old yet ring true for today’s situation. It seemed that, as Lisa comments,

 

Utopia lost its glow. The community had come to expect more—more polish, more access, more festival. … [O]ther festivals had sprung up all over the country, so boycotters could boycott and still get their music, while others simply went to festivals closer to home. … [W]ith dialog and trial-and-error, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has stabilized … about 20% each year are “festi-virgins”—women attending the festival for the first time.

 

Even as the festival’s long tenure makes it “retro,” an easy mark for those who might condescend to dismiss it, it remains the lesbian haj for an ever-delighted pool of first-timers—including, this year, my own girlfriend, who has never before camped in her life. This ritual of accompanying a new partner to buy a sleeping bag, lantern, and waterproof tampon kit for “her first Michigan” has no Hallmark-card equivalent, yet it is a recognizable rite of passage for many lesbian couples in America. As I suggested in my books, Eden Built By Eves and The Question of Sabotage, outdoor festivals can and do intimidate the noncamper at first—which is why built-in support systems like Michigan’s camping areas for older and disabled fans are so important. But when everything comes together perfectly at that opening-night celebration—the dancers onstage, the ritual fire-eaters, the lush tree foliage waving, the Northern lights or shooting stars overhead, the lover nestled in your lap, the giant bag of M&Ms being passed through a crowd of 4,000, the body-painted and punky-leather dykes dancing with new babies on their hips, and white-haired long-timers barking orders into walkie-talkies in thick Festivalese—it’s still Oz and Brigadoon. It is undeniably among the truly unique lesbian cultural contributions to American society.

 

For more information on the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, write: WWTMC, Box 22, Walhalla, MI 49458; or visit: www.michfest.com.

 

Bonnie J. Morris, who teaches women’s studies at George Washington University, is the author of Eden Built By Eves and The Question of Sabotage.

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