Dancing Wimmin: Lilith, the band


Dances for “wimmin only” became accepted events in the Valley as Lesbians were increasingly active in the Women’s Liberation Movement and, starting in 1974, began to create space for ourselves. They were very special events when the music was performed live by women’s bands.  First the Deadly Nightshade and, then, Lilith provided the sound track for bashes and benefits.

I informally interviewed Lilith founder Beth Caurant for the first time in 1998 at her home in Northampton. She generously provided a written personal remembrance and some photographs of the band. In 2004 she commented on a brief draft by me of the band’s history. In 2015, when I started the blog, I sent her a dusty post draft that prompted her to write more. In the meantime she had been interviewed for JD Doyle’s Queer Music Heritage  radio show broadcast in 2007, with many documents as well as music recordings made available online. This brief account of Lilith  draws on these multiple sources.

Lilith founder Beth Caurant recollects that in the early 1970s it was unthinkable to play music professionally without having men in the band. “You could be a lead singer or perhaps a folk duo, but it was assumed that only men could play the drums or electric instruments.” One evening when she was having dinner in a restaurant in Amherst, she heard the Deadly Nightshade play for the first time, “Three women playing together without men— and they sounded great!”

Inspired to look for other women who might want to form a rock band with her, she went to the Valley Women’s Center in Northampton to put up a notice. She found one from two other lesbians already posted:”Looking to jam, play some music and drink a little wine.” She called them immediately and they did just that. “We all played guitar and sang, with beautiful harmonics, and one who could sing lead vocals. We decided on ‘Lilith’ as a name, as the woman who defied Adam.”

Their first gig, with a very limited repertoire, was in 1973 at a lesbian party in Wendell. For a year they rented a house together on Perkins Avenue in Northampton, gradually adding other musicians. Because there were so few female rock musicians, they became a band of whatever combination of vocalists/players were interested at the time. A clarinet player was added because she was willing to eventually play the saxophone that the band really wanted, but she wouldn’t join without her girlfriend, so a keyboard was added as well. At one point, when they needed a bass guitar, Beth’s girlfriend Tatty Hodge learned to play one from scratch.

lilith first poster10222015
First Lilith poster. Back row left to right: Micki Faucher, drummer; Claire Frances, lead vocals; Beth Caurant, guitar and vocals; Peg Brewer, keyboard. Front row left to right: Belinda Star, vocals and guitar; Liz Knowles, saxophone; Tatty Hodge, bass. (Courtesy Beth Caurant)

 

Beth has written that they were also very young and into the drinking, pot-smoking bar scene. By the time they cut their LP in 1978, Lilith had grown from a trio to a seven-member band and gone through thirty personnel changes, with only two of the original members remaining. In spite of internal chaos, Beth recalls that when the band’s playing was tight, it was really exciting.

At the beginning of their career, Lilith played for women’s dances at Smith and Mt. Holyoke Colleges. Valley women were treated to double the dance when both Lilith and the Deadly Nightshade played a benefit dance at UMass in 1974. Lilith played many of the same venues in the Valley as the Deadlies including the Vermont  Bernardston Inn, but they also played Springfield’s gay Frontier Lounge and Arbor.

lilith business card10222015

Most of the performance venues available, however, were straight bars and dance clubs. The band played repeatedly at The Rusty Nail in Hadley. Lilith became regulars at two Pleasant Street establishments in Northampton: the Saint Regis, a restaurant with a large dance room; and the Lazy River. At both places, the band drew a large following of local lesbians who mixed in with the other clientele without a problem, according to Beth.

Beth still remembers, however, that this practice of playing for lesbians at straight clubs and playing music by men (for its dance-ability) drew comment from one Northampton Lesbian Separatist, at least in fictional form. In her 1976 collection of poetry and short fiction They Will Know Me By My Teeth, Elana Dykewoman included a short story entitled, “Without Love”, which was the name of a Doobie Brothers song that Lilith covered. In the fictional account, a woman who lives down the street from a bar hears a women’s band play mostly men’s music where a “cluster” of lesbians dance. The women, the story implies, are trying to pretend that the men in the bar aren’t watching them, identifying them as lesbians, and preparing to stalk them when they leave the bar. This fiction reflects the history of increasing violence against lesbians in Northampton starting in 1975 as they became more visible in bars and on the streets and the issues being raised by local Lesbian Separatists.[More on these issues in future posts.]

Safer, more comfortable women-only venues were rare but welcome opportunities for women to gather and dance. Very early in their career, Lilith played at a private party at the Northampton Colonial Hilton thrown by a Smith College residential house. Such resources were most available to campus groups in the Valley. One of the largest women’s dances may have happened when Lilith played at a packed Blue Wall Cafe for the 1975 University Women’s Conference at UMass. The first of these live band wimmin-only dances for Northampton townies may not have occurred, however, until 1977.

With time, the band enlarged their playing circuit outside the Valley to include Boston.  At the beginning of 1975, they provided the music for newly elected state representative Elaine Noble’s  inaugural ball. She was the first openly gay candidate in the country to win a state office, representing Boston’s Fenway and Back Bay neighborhoods in the Massachusetts Legislature for two terms.

Elaine Noble ( http://www.wgbh.org/articles/A-Portrait-of-Elaine-Noble-8182)

 

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Lilith playing at Elaine Noble’s Inauguration Ball. From left to right: Micki Faucher, Beth Caurant, Claire Frances, Belinda Star, Peg Brewer, Liz Knowles, Joy Barone. (Photos courtesy Michelle Faucher.)

 

The band also played a Susan Saxe  Defense Fund benefit in Boston at the Saints, a lesbian bar where they frequently played. Saxe was arrested in 1975 for alleged participation in a 1970 Weather Underground robberies of a Massachusetts armory and a bank, which involved the shooting death of a bank guard.

Susan_Saxe_Feminist_FBI

After her capture and arrest in Philadelphia, Saxe came out in feminist media as a lesbian and appealed to her “sisters” for support. Feminists and lesbians across the country did support her, including in the Valley, raising funds for her legal defense. After the Saints benefit in Boston, Beth Caurant believes the band came under investigation by the FBI. She says that men were seen taking photographs of her car and house and agents questioned her landlord about the band.

In 1975, Lilith cut a single demo 45rpm record, covers of Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff”, to begin to promote themselves. Starting in 1976 the band began to get some critical mainstream press as they took their rock, soul, and swing north into Maine and south to Rhode Island and points in between.

 

Lilith Photos 75-76 Northampton
Lilith 1975-76. Back: Lou Crimmins, Peg Brewer, Beth Caurant, Myanna Pontopidan, Kathy Piccus. Front: Lynn O’Neill, Joy Barone. Photo courtesy Beth Caurant.

 

A newspaper review of their appearances in Hartford CT described them warming up the crowd with “Reggae Woman” disco-soul sound; moving more people onto the dance floor with “Money,” a pure disco sound, hard and bright; then to their cover of “Mr. Big Stuff.” Dancers rested while Joy Barone did a Janis Joplin–like “Total Blues,” then Marianna on sax surrounded Cathy and Lou’s vocals to send folks back up to the dance floor to bump and hustle. Reviewer Susan Rand Brown concluded in the Hartford Advocate, “Lilith is a whole band of rock musicians really doing it.”

Lilith spent the early six months of 1977 on an experimental southern tour. They embarked without a bassist or drummer, so they had to fill in along the way: Debbie Campbell, bass; Laurel Blanchard, drums. They added a new vocalist as well, Janice Warner. When they returned north, they settled in the Boston area with another new sound. The band that once again played at the Rusty Nail in Hadley was described by a male reviewer as “a middling-fair bar band playing cover versions of Stevie Wonder, bump and boogie of Wild Cherry, Pick Up the Pieces funk and the occasional ballad.” The Springfield Morning Union reviewer did note two original pieces, and wrote that the dance floor was two-thirds occupied by women couples.

In 1978, they released their first LP, “Boston Ride,” under the new Galaxia label. Two–thirds of the album was original music. The album was well received. Reviews made the mainstream as well as alternative press.

 

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LilithLPb

 

Despite high points such as opening for Bonnie Riatt, and good sales of the album, even in Europe, the high energy group couldn’t stay together past 1978. Karen Kane, the “Boston Ride” engineer, commented in a 2009 interview. ”The band (Lilith) dynamics were very hard and Beth and I basically mixed that album and made it happen. And now I listen to it and it’s like, hmmm, not too bad for 1978. You know it helped them, for a while, with their career, but they were having such terrible band dynamics that they didn’t last, unfortunately.”

Beth Caurant has still kept herself in music with women, a little bit, over the years. Most recently she appeared with the Girl Gang at Luthiers in Easthampton. After their show, she remarked to me on the number of old Lilith fans who attended and commented fondly on those old times that women danced together to music by women.

SOURCES:

__Caurant, Beth. Interviewed by Kaymarion Raymond, handwritten notes. Jan. 6, 1998.

__Caurant, Beth. Untitled [Lilith remembrance to Kaymarion private file.] Jan. 4, 1998.

__[Raymond,} Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline, editors. The Valley Women’s Movement: A Herstorical Chronology 1968-1978. Ceres Inc. Northampton. 1978. Add linkMORE

__Caurant, Beth. Email correspondence with Kaymarion. May 14-30, 2004 and Nov 21-28, 2015.

__Nachman [Nachmon], Elana. They Will Know Me By My Teeth: stories and poems of lesbian struggle, celebration, and survival. Megaera Press. Northampton MA. 1976.

__Brown, Susan Rand. “Lilith: Rock and Role.” Hartford (CT) Advocate. Feb. 11, 1976.

__Danckert, Peter. “Lilith: Hunting Identity.” Morning Union, Springfield MA. Jul 29, 1977.

__Kane, Karen. Interview Queer Music Heritage.

May 2009.http://queermusicheritage.com/may2009s.html

__To hear some of Lilith’s music, read clippings, listen or read more of their history through an interview of Beth Caurant on Queer Music Heritage by JD Doyle follow these links below;

__Radio interview with Beth Caurant March 2007 by JD Doyle

http://www.queermusicheritage.com/mar2007.html

__ Transcript of Radio interview with Beth Caurant  http://www.queermusicheritage.com/mar2007s.html

__Elaine Noble. http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/out-and-elected/1970s/elaine-noble

 

 

Beginning to Create Lesbian Space 1974-75


The Valley Women’s Center was at 200 Main Street in Northampton. In 1974 the Center reorganized itself along socialist feminist lines into a union: Valley Women’s Union (VWU). When a coordinating board was formed to represent the various enterprises and action groups* comprising the VWU, Lesbians asked for and were given an at-large seat. While very present in various activities Lesbians did not yet have a formal group, but shortly after getting a seat on the board  a Lesbian Issues Discussion Group formed. It met weekly, and grew to include thirty to forty women, mostly lesbians, some of whom hadn’t previously been part of VWU.

In May of 1974, the CLIT (Collective Lesbian International Terrors) Papers were circulating nationally. Initially, the CLIT Collective called for lesbians to withhold their energy from straight media, which continued to define and co-opt lesbians. The Collective advocated the creation of a separate Lesbian media. The idea was further expanded to mean withdrawing from the straight world as much as possible, including straight feminists, and creating a separate Lesbian community and culture.

CLIT intro para OOB May 75
CLIT Papers opening paragraph from Off Our Backs May 1974

The CLIT Papers, by a NYC group, caused a furor in feminist communities from coast to coast, including the feminist community in Northampton. They resonated particularly with Lesbians such as myself, who had devoted a lot of energy to women’s issues, but whose needs as lesbians were largely unrecognized. As a result of this new thinking some VWU Lesbians wrote a position paper asking for separate space at 200 Main Street. They began scheduling Lesbian-only events in the third-floor general meeting room, calling it “Lesbian Gardens.”

Increasing numbers of Lesbians began to identify themselves with this radical thinking and literally spelled it out. The different usage of lesbian (lower case) as a sexual identity and Lesbian (capitalized) as a political identity began to appear. If you see it here it is as carefully deliberate reflection of how it began to appear in local Lesbian writing and publications starting in 1974.

While still a student at UMass I helped start Everywoman’s Center, housed initially in 1972 in one large room in Munson Annex. In the beginning we pretty much invented our jobs, even as volunteers, and I wound up coordinating publications (a newsletter) and educational programming. We had inherited a workshop program for women designed to encourage continuing education, Project S.E.L.F. and in one of the first series Cindy Shamban and I co-facilitated a four week workshop in 1972 called “the Woman-Identified Woman.”  The topic and title came from a 1970 position paper by NYC Radicalesbians which I found and brought back from the second Christopher Street Liberation March. This may have been the first such offering in the Valley.

After I graduated from UMass I continued to work at Everywoman’s Center as paid part time staff with no benefits. The eight week long workshop program was one of my main responsibilities and  continued to be for several years, growing to an attendance of 350-400 women enrolled every semester, half of them non-students. Every semester I was able to include at least one with lesbian focus. The most popular was Julia Demmin’s “Lesbians in Literature,” which she offered numerous times, often with her partner Nancy Schroeder.

1975 began with the last program I coordinated for Everywoman’s Center, what may have been the largest gathering up to that time of Valley women, a week long University (UMass) Women’s Conference in Amherst attended by over 700 students, staff, faculty and community women. It also included the largest gathering of lesbians, more than sixty, who attended one or more of the three lesbian workshops.

75 womens conf

At the end of the conference, energized by this response, planning began for a similar conference for Lesbians in a collaboration of the UMass Gay Women’s Caucus; Lesbian Gardens; and UMass, Springfield, and Northampton women’s centers. The BiMillenial Lesbian Week was held in May 1975 with events in Springfield, Amherst and Northampton, culminating in a weekend retreat in Cummington which I attended. “BiMillenial” referred to two thousand years of Lesbian culture since Sappho.

BiMi ihead CCI_000027

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This happening, as we used to say, was advertised in Lesbian Gardens’ first publication. Old Maid: the Lesbian Magazine. The BiMillennial Lesbian Week marked the beginning of a proliferation of Lesbian activities. An increasing number of these took place at Lesbian Gardens, including a Saturday Night Coffeehouse with music by Lou Crimmins and other local musicians, the showing of the first U.S. Lesbian-made films, the formation of the Magical Lesbian Playgroup (a mother-daughter group?) , and the convening of the first Skills Exchanges and Winter Solstice Celebrations. Lesbian Gardens  also provided space for the initial  meetings of what became new enterprises; the women’s restaurant project, the women’s self-defense and karate school, and the Lesbian back to the land movement.

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slightly used cover of the Old Maid by Laura Kaye,  by permission of the artist
definitionold maid
From the Old Maid, Spring 1975

In the late Fall of 1975, the Lesbians coordinating the use of Lesbian Gardens proclaimed it to be 24-hour Lesbian space, contentiously precluding its use by straight VWU feminists. The Sweet Coming Bookstore (more like a bookshelf) was established there to sell the scant but growing number of Lesbian publications from around the country: the first mimeographed and stapled issues of Lesbian Connection, coming out stories, health information, news and discussions by and about Lesbians. A Lesbian distributor, Old Lady Blue Jeans, also began to have locally created products for sale there. An album by local musician Linda Shear, as well as some coloring pages by me as Great Hera’s Incunabula, were listed in Old Lady Blue Jeans’ catalog.

The BiMillennial Lesbian Week collaboration between Northampton, Springfield, Amherst, and hilltown Lesbians provided a supportive base for a Lesbian cultural flowering and new level of feminist activism over the next decade.  A significant portion of it was to happen in Northampton, which seemed to have a population explosion of newly-out lesbians. Though this Valley Lesbian Movement was to be fraught with struggle, both internal and external, its very depth and breadth was to exhibit a maturity that reflected the same pains, questions, doubts, and resolve experienced across Lesbian Nation.

*Valley Women’s Union initial coordinating board represented Mother Jones Press, Women’s Film Coop, Employment, Staffing, Newsletter, Childcare, Study and Research work groups.

SOURCES:

__[Raymond}, Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline E., editors.  The Valley Women’s Movement: A Herstorical Chronology 1968-1978.  Northampton, Ceres Inc. 1978.

__Collective Lesbian International Terrors. “CLIT Papers, Part One and Two” and OOB Staff editorial. Off Our Backs. Washington DC. May and July 1974.

__Conference Evaluation Committee.  “1975 University Women’s Conference January 21-25: Report and Evaluation”. EWC, UMass Amherst Mar. 1975. I coordinated this conference and wrote parts of the evaluation including that about lesbians.

__Old Maid: A lesbian magazine. Northampton. Spring 1975.

__Old South St. Study Group. “Analysis of a Lesbian Community-Part One” and “-Part Two.” Lesbian Connection [E. Lansing MI]. Jul.1977.

__Kraft, Stephanie.  “BiMillenial Celebration: 2000 Years From Sappho.” Valley Advocate. 30 Apr. 1975.

__[Raymond],Kaymarion.  “The Cloning of Old Lady Blue Jeans.” Sharer’s Notes #3. Great Hera’s Incunabula. Nov. 1975.

_________. “Valley Women’s History”, Meeting notes. Common Womon Club, Northampton. 15 Apr. 1980.