Did the FBI Come To Town?


In early 1975, Northampton lesbians began to see and hear about strange men in town taking photographs and recording license plate numbers. At least one lesbian home was mysteriously broken into. Many in the Northampton lesbian community feared that the community was under scrutiny by the FBI.

Already that year, at least seven lesbian/women’s communities nationwide were being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in hand with Federal Grand Juries, ostensibly to track down Weather Underground fugitives Susan Saxe and Kathy Power.  Warnings spread through alternative media, including the hand-stapled, mimeographed Lesbian Connection that had begun to be read in Northampton’s Lesbian Community. Here’s an excerpt from the May 1975 issue:

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Across the country, those refusing to talk to FBI agents were often subpoenaed to appear before a Grand Jury. Anyone who  continued to fail to cooperate was jailed indefinitely for “contempt.” Even after Saxe was arrested in Philadelphia in March of 1975, radical news media reported that investigations had been expanded and, nationwide, at least seven lesbians and one gay man were imprisoned for their silence.

Saxe’s letter after her arrest was circulated nationwide. It was published in Northampton in Old Maid, Lesbian Gardens’ first publication, Spring 1975.

old maid spr 75 saxe letter_edited-1
calligraphy by laura kaye

 

Many feared the Government was attempting to infiltrate and destroy the Lesbian/Women’s Movement as it was doing to other progressive groups. Fear of being outed as lesbian or gay, or loss of child custody by single mothers, was being exploited in these “fishing” expeditions. According to reports in radical media, the questions being asked included details about others, not only their names and roommates but also their political and sexual activity, bars visited, meetings attended, who else was there and the content of discussions.

In this climate, a local Grand Jury Information Project was begun in May 1975 in Northampton. It was a cooperative effort housed at the Northampton Women’s Law Collective on Main Street with volunteers, as well, from the Valley Women’s Union, Springfield Women’s Union and UMass Everywoman’s Center.

Over a four month period, the Project did rumor control in the Valley and circulated printed material at events and information meetings on FBI and Grand Jury abuses and individual legal rights, including the right not to talk to investigators. As awareness spread, local lesbians and feminists began to take precautions, educating housemates and neighbors, and reporting suspicious behavior to the Project. Some feminist therapists and counselors went so far as to destroy or otherwise secure client records to further protect confidentiality.

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The increasing paranoia had a humorous side. Peggy Cookson recalls that lesbians at Green Street took apart their MaBell black bakelite telephone handsets to cut out suspicious looking little green phone components thinking they were ”bugs” (recording devices). The resulting increase in static was taken as confirmation that the phone lines were indeed being tapped, rather than that the green bits were actually anti-static devices.bakelite phone

At the end of summer, tension was eased a bit when a Northampton Lesbian issued a letter to the community stating she had been subpoenaed and appeared before a Grand Jury in New York. She said she had refused to answer any questions and the queries seemed to be connected to her past involvement with Irish politics and not focused on lesbians. Though this investigation appeared to focus on an individual, it was only the first of several attempts by the authorities to gain information about local lesbians and the community in order to identify “subversive” elements.

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pamphlet from the new york city grand jury information project, circulated in the valley

SOURCES:

__ [Raymond], Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline, editors. “A Herstorical Chronology of the Valley Women’s Movement 1968-1978. Ceres Inc. Northampton. 1978.

__Old Maid.  Northampton. Spring 1975.

__Grand Jury Information Project. Flyer. July 16, 1975.

__”Remember Grand Juries?” Quash: Newsletter of the Grand Jury Project. May-June 1977.

__Ann McCord. Remarks to author about client records. Ann was a counselor at Everywoman’s Center and member of the Feminist Counselors’ Collective.

 

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.

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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.

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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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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