Script for September 2008, QMH

"Walls To Roses: Songs of Changing Men"

Charlie Murphy - Gay Spirit (1979)

This is JD Doyle and you're listening to Queer Music Heritage, a part of Queer Voices on KPFT. That opening song is called "Gay Spirit" and is by Charlie Murphy, and it's from an album that I'm paying special tribute to this month. The album was released in 1979 and was called "Walls To Roses: Songs of Changing Men," and I have always considered it a landmark album, in that not only was it the first various artists album including both gay and straight men, but for the focus of the album. In the over eight years of doing QMH I've never done a show featuring just one album. That's how important I think this recording is. The album was conceived by folk artist Willie Sordillo, with the broad goal of presenting music as a vehicle to unify men against sexism and to examine and express more positively what it could mean to be a man in our society.

So this show will not only include the music and story of the album, but also the voices. I've interviewed several of the artists from the Walls To Roses Music Collective, and the logical place to start is with the album's producer, so I asked Willie Sordillo to tell me about the making of the album "Walls To Roses."

Tell me about the making of the album "Walls to Roses"

WS: Well, my friend, George Fulginiti-Shakar, who was part of the collective, always says that if we had known what we were doing, we would never have been able to make the recording. But because we didn't know anything, we kind of did the almost impossible. The long story is, I started going to some national conferences on Men & Masculinity, which were starting to take place in different places around the country. They were pro-feminist and pro-gay and lesbian conferences, focusing on all sorts of issues related to sexuality, sexual identity and the treatment of women in our culture. At the first one of these that I went to, which was in Iowa, which was in 1977, in Des Moines, the third one of these conferences, I heard a man named Geof Morgan singing songs. Geof was an established country songwriter in Nashville, Tennessee. He had written hit songs for major artists, Dolly Parton and people like that, but had become very active in the burgeoning men's movement, and started putting his songwriting talents to work around issues related to that.

So I heard him sing and I was very, very moved by it. It was the start of something that was the male version of what Holly Near was doing, and I'd been listening to Holly and some of the other movement songwriters. And I started writing songs…I'm not sure if I had started writing songs before I heard Geof. I know that hearing Geof was an important part for me. And he inspired a number of us to start writing more songs in that direction. It certainly occurred to me that there was a male voice to be heard in the cultures wars, in the issues around sexual politics. So not too long after I started looking for other men who were musicians, who were dealing with these kinds of issues, and put together a loose collective of men from around the country, most of whom had not met each other, with the idea of getting together, in one location, and in a few days, meeting each other, working collectively to determine a repertoire, learning and rehearsing and arranging songs, and recording an album.

Even before we got together Moses Asch at Folkways Records, when I approached him about this idea, was immediately very positive and said he would distribute this recording, would put it out on his label, and so we went about to try to do some fundraising, to get the money together to make this thing happen, both to help with transportation expenses for people who were coming from a long distance, and also to pay for the recording cost. It was just unheard of to do anything that fast. In four days we did a benefit concert to help pay for the recording, we met each other for the first time, we chose the songs, did all the rehearsing, arranging and recording. It was kind of a real whirlwind. Most recording processes take much more time in the studio. So that's basically. We got together in my apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time, and had an intense few days in 1978, in August of 1978.

One of the resources I'm very pleased to have in doing this show is a radio documentary produced in 1978 by Eric Gordon, on the making of the album. He was one of the members of the Collective, and as he had been doing radio, recorded some of the weekend's activities, so this is a valuable capturing of a piece of our history. I'll use bits of that production later in the show but wanted to let you hear right off his reading the introduction he wrote for the booklet that came with the album.

Eric Gordon - Introduction

Most of us had never met before we began work at 9 am on a steamy Saturday, August 12, 1978, in a Cambridge living room. We had come from as far away as Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco, from as close as around the corner. After our all too brief initial introductions, we started the process of selecting the ten songs for the album, out of the sixty that men had sent in from around the country. We looked for songs showing the variety of our experiences as men, and for an exciting mix of musical and lyrical styles. We tried to include songs that reflect some of our other concerns, too, for as a collective we are unified in our commitment to replace a society which values white, male heterosexual perogatives with one which is truly egalitarian with regard not only to sex and sexual orientation, but to race, ethnic background, age, creed and class.

Back to Willie, as I wanted to flesh out how the artists were chosen and how the songs were chosen.

WS: Well, the artists were chosen, a lot of was word of mouth. I think I put out some advertising in things like Gay Community News, and The Real Paper in the Boston area, and so I started to meet, and I went to a lot of concerts and I would be looking and I had my eyes open for men who were doing something that was related. I knew Fred Small already. I met some people through placing these ads. I got some phone calls. I think that's how I met George, and George then knew some other people, Kenny Arkin. Michael Hussin I met through hearing him play with Marcia Taylor. It was kind of like one person would lead to another, and I also when I would hear about somebody I would call or write them, try to get in touch with them, or you know, I knew about Jeff Langley though his work with Holly Near. I figured somebody working with Holly Near would probably be pretty sympathetic to this whole idea, so I was able to get in touch with him and he and I met in New York a couple of times. Although he didn't actually come to participate in the recording sessions. He was more experienced than most of us, and was very supportive and gave us a lot of knowledge behind the scenes, and did come up to the Boston area to help do some of the mixing.

And his song became the title song.

WS: Yes, even though he wasn't there for the actual recording sessions, his presence was very strongly felt. So those of us who did get together, got together at my apartment in Cambridge. We had circulated cassette tapes before that of possible repertoire, just so that we could hear what each other was doing, so we could have an idea of some of the possible songs, though we didn't make any decisions about the repertoire until we actually got together. When we got together we played the songs live for each other, and then went though endless discussions to try to hone down the repertoire that seemed like it was most, most powerful, and that covered a range of issues.

The majority of men who were part of this were gay men and a lot of the material that they were singing, writing was reflective of that particular experience point of view, and that was certainly consistent with the message that we wanted to put out. So there was a very strong gay liberation component to the recording. But it's also, I think, important to point out that it's…obviously the gay community is very, very diverse. You can't pin it down to one way of thinking or looking at the world. The unifying factor in this particular project for the gay and the straight men was that there was a pro-feminist understanding and vision behind all of our song choices and all that we were doing.

There were 17 members of the Walls to Roses Collective and of course not everyone could get their song on the album, but many of them sang or played instruments on the songs while others sang lead. I want to acknowledge the names of all of the members, as they all contributed to the process. Willie has mentioned some but the complete list is: Tom Aalfs, Kenny Arkin, Blackberri, George Fulginiti-Shakar, Jonny Golden, Eric Gordon, Christopher Hershey, Michael Hussin, Charlie King, Jeff Langley, Ray Makeever, Geof Morgan, Charlie Murphy, Robbie Rosenberg, Fred Small, Willie Sordillo, and Chris Tanner. If you visit my website you'll find additional information about the individual careers of these artists.

Okay, we've gone too long without music, and it's important to hear the title track that Willie mentioned, Jeff Langley's song "Walls To Roses." On the album singing lead was Kenny Arkin, but I've got a special treat. I've got a demo recording of the song sung by Jeff Langley, so this is how the Collective would have heard it. Yes, the album version is more polished, with backing vocals, but here is real history, the original song "Walls To Roses."

Jeff Langley - Walls To Roses (1978)

"Walls To Roses," by Jeff Langley. And as Willie mentioned Jeff is probably most known to my listeners for his association with Holly Near, playing piano on her early recordings and on tour.

One nice aspect of the project was that the Collective made a conscious decision to use women in support of the recording whenever possible, as musicians, engineer and photographer. I see Karen Kane's name on so many albums in my collection, and this was one of her first projects.

WS: Yes, Karen was wonderful. She was great. I learned about Karen from Joanna Cazden, she had engineered Joanna's album ("Hatching," 1976) so Joanna put me in touch with Karen. Karen was totally into the whole idea. It was great. She was wonderful to work with.

Willie Sordillo was one of several straight artists involved with the project, and the song of his that was used indeed is an unusual one to come from a straight man. Tell me about your song from the album "For My Men Friends."

WS: Well, that song, each verse speaks about a different friendship with a man who had been an important friend to me. The verse about fishing with a friend was just before I left Indiana to come to the Boston area to try to make my mark as a musician, as it were. I had this little farewell fishing trip with a friend, a close friend, John, one of the men who I was in a men's consciousness raising group with, when that first came about. The verse where the man kisses me is an old high school friend who I also worked a summer job with, a couple of summers, and this little scene described in that verse took place at this summer camp where we were counselors together. It was just an attempt to express my deep affection for my men friends, something that particularly straight men were not expressing a whole lot. There were all the unspoken elements of closeness but not often given voice to, at least in the culture that I grew up in.

Willie Sordillo - For My Men Friends (1979)

That was a bit of "For My Men Friends," by Willie Sordillo, and some of you may have this album and notice that on it, his name is given as Sordill. Well, Sordillo was a family name and after the album he decided to reclaim it, and his current band is the Willie Sordillo Trio.

Do you remember any particular song that you really wished had fit on the album, that really stood out?

WS: Actually I don't but, you know, I would say that there were people who were involved in the project who I wished had a song on the album, and in particular, I really wish that Charlie King…Charlie was part of the whole project. He was there for the recording process, and yet his voice is not heard in any way, except for group chorus kinds of things. Charlie is one of the better singer-songwriters in the social justice movement…been out there doing it for years and years and years, is still out there doing it. He was a great songwriter then and he continues to be. Unfortunately none of the songs that he presented to us really seemed to address the issues as concretely as we wanted them addressed. You know, one of things that I wish was different is that I wish there was one of his songs on the recording.

Yes, I have interviewed him, seen him several times. He's marvelous.

WS: But I can't remember a particular song that didn't make it. I don't really remember a lot about the songs that didn't make it. We really were going for what we thought were the strongest songs of those presented and that's why there are some people like…Chris Tanner has a couple of his songs on there, and Blackberri has a couple of songs. We did talk about, do we want to limit it to one per person, make it more inclusive, or do we want to go with what we think is the strongest material and we opted for the latter. I don't know if we were to do it again, I don't know if I would argue to do it that way. I mean, obviously you want the strongest album possible, but it's an interesting project because the process was as important as the product, and again I think we're missing something by not having Charlie King more visible on this recording.

It must have been quite an experience for 17 very different artists to, for this weekend, form a collective and make decisions on picking only ten songs among the 60 submitted. And, thanks to Eric Gordon's radio documentary I've got a bit of that to share with you, concerning a song that did not make the final cut. Remember, this recording was done on the fly during the meetings, so you'll have to forgive the sound quality of this 30-year old recording. You'll first hear Geof Morgan singing a bit of his song "Homophobia," and then comments from several collective members, including himself, discussing the song.

Geof Morgan - Homophobia (1978)
Comments by Geof Morgan and others

(unknown) I think it's a terrific song and definitely ought to be on the album, I mean, the incredible beat to it, it's singable, it's danceable, it's danceable, my God, it's going to be a Top 40. I enjoyed it. I love it, and I think it should be on the album.

(unknown) I feel just the opposite. I don't think it's got a whole lot of depth of thought to it. The point about homophobia when the album is over it's not really clear to me how all those connections are made. The homophobia, I don't think that it is consistently present in the verses, if it is it's not clear to me. I mean, it's unevenly portrayed from lyric to lyric. And when I heard that that was one of the songs that Geof had submitted I was wondering if he was holding back some of his better ones. I was really disappointed.

(Geof Morgan) I normally perform that song and like it a lot in general. I consider it, and I voted for it the first time around…considering while I was listening to the other songs I'm not as enthusiastic about it as I was. It doesn't seem as strong as many of the other songs that people are submitting, even though I think it's an important song. It doesn't seem as strong as the other material.

(unknown) there's a couple things in the song that were offensive to me. The general tone of it was offensive to me, in particular the use of, he uses the phrase 'sissy fools,' and I didn't like that.

I understand both sides of those comments, and never fear, the song was released a couple years later on Geof Morgan's 1980 album, "It Comes With the Plumbing."

And this is a good time to invite you to check out my website. If you visit it while you're listening you can see the playlist and follow along, while looking at photos of the artists and recordings. I've always considered our music history as a visual as well as an audio experience. Again, that's at www.queermusicheritage.com, Also, for more very queer programming, please listen to After Hours with Jimmy Carper, every Saturday night/Sunday morning from 1 to 4 am, on KPFT, it's Queer Radio, with attitude.

In the "Walls to Roses" project there was a controversial song that did make it to the final album, and it was a song that was debated because, if I can take the liberty of summing it up, it expressed the story of a sissy fag. The song was called "The Sensitive Little Boy," written and sung by Chris Tanner, and I talked to Chris about those times.

The recording of the album happened over the weekend of August 12th, 1978. What are you main memories of those few days?

CVT: Oh, gosh, this is an anniversary date, isn't it, 30 years ago. Hot. Wonderful people and really, really hard. Working a collective process was really, really difficult, and when we did our final vote to put the songs on, what songs we were going to put on it, "The Sensitive Little Boy" was up against some other song that I didn't think had that much to say about anything, anyway, and they didn't want to put "The Sensitive Little Boy" on…there was this whole little group in there that fought against putting it on the album, and I said, "that's exactly why it needs to be on there, cause you guys are afraid of it," and they were. And I think because they thought nobody would buy it, and when it premiered, after our concerts in Boston, they wouldn't play that song on the radio. Maybe they were right, but that even made it more important. So there was this little group of us sissy fags there that just sat and said, we're not going to do anything, we pulled a diva thing on them, and said we're not going to do anything until that song's going to be on there.

Let's pause and talk about that song. Tell me about "Sensitive Little Boy"

CVT: That's my life story. That's growing up grade school, high school, college and finally realizing that it was okay. I mean one of the…the first one about grade school. Trying to play baseball and my wrists were too limp, or whatever. My dad was a coach for little league. And I was centerfield or left field, whichever one where the guy gets to go out and play in, where they never hit the ball. That's where I played. That's what that song was about, different sections of my life, and that I was the reject, the femme.

Chris Tanner - The Sensitive Little Boy (1979)

When you preformed that song what was the reaction?

CVT: Ah, it was very interesting. If it was a gay audience or women's audience they absolutely loved it. Women were always supportive of me, in fact, for a long time I would do concerts and probably 75% or 80% of the people there would be women, just a direct spillover from the women's movement, women's songs, and back in the Holly Near days, and Meg Christian and Cris Williamson and all those people I love still. Anyway, so, I sought out crowds that would like me, pretty much, except for when I would do colleges and stuff, there's be some people getting pretty freaky. I've been booed, tried to beat me up, and some guy said he was going to kill me if I performed in San Francisco this one time, and I performed anyway, and that was scary but you know, you got to do it. It was a pretty radical song. I didn't realize it when I wrote it. I just said, well, that's about me right there. And then I just started singing it, and that's the "Walls to Roses" album that I came out to my parents with, so, can you imagine?

I'd like to hear about the coming out part.

CVT: They didn't know I was gay and I told them that I was going to Boston to record an album on Folkways, and they were excited for me, and stuff, well then the album came out and they kept saying "when's the album coming out?" "Oh, pretty soon, there's a few delays." And about a year and a half later, "when's that album coming out?" Okay, it's already out, and I gave it to them and I wrote them a long letter and stuck it inside and said, "Here you go." And, I didn't talk to them for about two years after that. They totally flipped out about it. Cause not only was I gay…they probably could have dealt with talking to me about that. I came out publicly, like, on a record. And that was too much for them to deal with.

You were gay to the world.

CVT: Yup, and now, it's kind of funny how all that turned around, and when The Smithsonian bought all the Folkways records, I'm now in The Smithsonian, so Michael and I went out to tell my parents, "you know, that album of shame, we called it. It's now in The Smithsonian now." And they were really excited about it, and it was really great.

Chris Tanner mentioned his partner Michael in that comment. They combined their names and for a number of years have been recording under the name VonTanner, and I just love the name of their website, ScreamLikeAGirl.com. And he mentioned something I wanted to bring up. A few years ago the Smithsonian Institute acquired the entire catalog of Folkways Records, and here's the incredible part, you can order from them on CD every Folkways record ever released. So Chris is right, the "Walls to Roses" album is in the Smithsonian.

I want to talk more about the Collective. It sounds like it was not all…roses…that weekend.

CVT: No, it wasn't and I sure wish I knew what Charlie and Willie said before you talked to me, because I hope I don't burst anyone's bubble. There's was lots of really nice people there and there were just undertones of what straight men are like, excuse me, and some gay men that they had to please the straight man, whatever. It was Robbie and I and, oh gosh one other guy, Kenny Arkin, that's who the other guy was who was in our group. There were three of us and we became this like little groupie thing and we just like hung out with each other and talked with each other about our experiences and because really good friends. Charlie was one of those people. We just kind of like stood up to those boys and said, "no, we're not falling for your crap, you know, you got to really deal with this." A lot of them did, and a couple of them kind of walked away from the experience of not really liking it cause they were threatened or something. It was a tough one.

With all the artists involved, and I've been told there were some 60 songs submitted, two of yours and two of Blackberri's were chosen, was there jealousy about that?

CVT: Yeah, jealousy yes, and also an excuse of why we couldn't vote for you to have another song…"we'll just leave that one out, cause you've already got one." So I think it worked both ways. I feel like there's a purpose to those songs, and when I still listen to it, the whole album, there's like three or four songs that make me go "oh, wow, there's something." Maybe because it's me but I think my songs speak to what we were trying to do, and that was talk about sexism.

What did you learn from the Walls To Roses experience?

CVT: I learned that gay men are universal, that no matter where you come from, or what part of the country or whatever that you grew up in, what kind of family you had and stuff, that we all have this certain something about being gay that's just undescribable. I had met a lot of gay men that I liked up to that point, I slept with them, cause you got to do what you got to do, but I didn't really find in a lot of gay men, and I found friends there.

From a different angle, looking back now at that album from 30 years later, what are your thoughts?

CVT: Fabulous. I like it a lot. I feel like it helped me grow. It helped me get a bit of notoriety so people took me a little more serious. I'm happen that I did it. I mean, I'm in The Smithsonian, c'mon.

That is indeed an honor.

CVT: It really is, I mean, I never…when I got the letter on that I went, "the what, what is it now?" And Michael goes "read that again, would you, you're not paying attention." I went, "Oh, wow, I have two songs in The Smithsonian."

During our talk I asked Chris about some of the other artists, for example, Blackberri.

CVT: Blackberri…I knew Blackberri from before, I knew him from San Francisco, when I would go there to visit, shared bills several times in different events, on Gay Day we would be on the same stage, and stuff. To me his songs on the album are the best. I think his "When Will the Ignorance End?" is so poignantly simple and perfect, and the way he sings it is oh so cool. And if you've ever gotten to hear him live, he's beautiful.

The song Chris was talking about is called "When Will The Ignorance End" and before you hear it I want to give just a thumbnail history on a couple of the references, since some of my listeners may not know about the politics of 1978. The Briggs Amendment in California was defeated that year, but if passed it would have banned gays from teaching in public schools. And the Bakke Supreme Court decision held that for college admissions Affirmative Action was constitutional, but a quota system based on race was not.

I interviewed Blackberri for my November 2001 show, but at that time I did not have the Eric Gordon documentary, so I'll like to share from it Blackberri talking about his song "When Will The Ignorance End." Remember, please be kind considering the sound quality of this quote, as it's from the weekend the album was created.

Blackberri comments (1978)

"When Will the Ignorance" came about…around the Briggs work that I was doing with people who were doing Briggs work in San Francisco. Some people were, seemed to be…about the only concern was gay rights. And being a third world person and being a person who was also conscious of sexism I realized that gay rights is just a part of it. There's a lot of other things that tie into it. There's racism that ties into it and it's just real hard to separate those struggles, and I didn't feel real single issue oriented. And I kind of wrote the song for them…stating, it mentions Bakke and gay rights and ERA, which is all these new ways of oppression that are happening, and I mean, that's just, it's part of the attack. I mean, the attack on gay people, it's just part of the attack. I think white gay people have to realize that, have to start aligning themselves with women, and the struggles of third world people if we're going to get any kind of strength, at all. Because there's a lot of divisions and when one minority loses everybody loses. Nobody wins till everybody wins.

Blackberri - When Will the Ignorance End? (1979)

And Chris Tanner had some fond comments on Willie.

CVT: Yeah, give Willie my love, too. He was great. I mean, he had a full deck, let me tell you, when all we showed up, this room full of men. And he handled it really well, he was very organized and a blessing that he got the whole thing going and got it done. He figured out how we would sort of do the whole process and stuff. He just did a really good job.

I want to mention again that the recording included an amazing 12-page booklet, with a lengthy introduction that gives a candid recounting of the evolution of the project, and what goals were met, and not met, and how that changed. The booklet includes lyrics to all the songs, and photos of the artists, and of course, you can see it all on my site.

The booklet also discusses how they changed the original working title for the project, "Men Against Sexism," because they felt the material did not reach that goal strongly enough. Going back to the Eric Gordon documentary, here's a short clip where they discussed the album title.

(Ray Makeever?) I don't know what the title would be. I have an idea what the subtitle would be Stories of Changing men, or something like that.
(Chris Tanner?) Hey, why don't you put that on the title.
(Ray Makeever?)
No, that would be the subtitle, cause I like a title that's…not that. "Walls to Roses, Stories of Changing Men," or something like that.

And the album became exactly that.

Kenny Arkin - Walls to Roses (1978)

Earlier you heard Jeff Langley's demo of the song, but that was a little of the ultimate version, sung by Kenny Arkin.

I want to get back to the album's producer, Willie Sordillo, for one more question from him.

Well, I think you've probably touched on my next question, but what did you learn from the "Walls to Roses" experience?

WS: Well, I learned….oh, boy, that's big question. I certainly learned a lot about collective work, about the need, the need to let go of my vision in favor of a group kind of consciousness.

Let me shift that question a different way. Looking back now at that album from almost 30 years later, what are your thoughts?

WS: Well, it was a glorious time. It was very intense. You know, it was a bit trippy in many ways, and there wasn't a lot of sleeping going on in those four days we were together. You know, I love it, I was one of those great, crazy things you do when you don't know any better. I'm really glad that we did it.

I opened the show with Charlie Murphy, and I love his work, so I am very pleased to also share with you some of an interview I did with him.

In the 70s there was a well-established Women's Music Movement. Why do you think nothing similar ever developed for Men's Music?

CM: No, I think that there were attempts. You know, there were men's conferences around that time that which became a platform for me and my music, and but it never developed in a similar way as women's music movement did.

Personally I think that the women had the need for the feminine bonding, so they were more organized.

CM: Yeah, there was more behind what they were doing, maybe more of a need.

What was it like touring in those early days, what kind of gigs and crowds?

CM: It was a lot of fun. Gosh, you know, you're taking me way back, cause we're talking, we are talking the 70's. Um, you know, I did a lot of touring on my own, and then I did touring with friends, people like Blackberri and Chris Tanner and other folks connected with the people in the "Walls To Roses" record. I think that's the first recording I ever did.

That was my next question, how did you get involved with "Walls To Roses"?

CM: Good question, I'm trying to remember, cause I was living in Virginia at the time. I had left my position with the Mental Health Services of Virginia, and living in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and had more spacious time on my hands, so got much more into songwriting, and I actually, totally…how did I connect with that? I can't even remember. Somebody involved with that heard me or heard of me and invited me to be a part of it.

Well, I know that Willie Sordillo said that they were seeking out submissions.

CM: Yeah, I think I heard of it and maybe I submitted something and I think that's how I got involved. I'll have to think about that, it was so long ago.

What did you learn from that experience?

CM: Ah, what did I learn? I learned that there was a network of caring supportive men, both gay and straight, that were capable of supporting one another, and I learned more about my own voice as a musician. It was my first project. I mean, this is something that I have not thought about in such a long time.

It's been about 30 years. Looking back now at that album from almost 30 years later, what are your thoughts?

CM: My thought about it are that it was a really sincere, heartfelt offering, and I thought, for its time it broke some ground.

I do, too. I've always considered it a landmark album, because it was gay and straight, openly queer material in a various artists album.

CM: Yeah, yeah, I really appreciated the gay and straight part of it. I think that that was unique and important at the time.

During those few days of working with that collective was there a particular artist you bonded with?

CM: Oh, gosh. You know, I just remember…for me it was just kind of like a feast of wonderful people. You know, Charlie King, Geof Morgan, Willie was just a wonderful man, Fred Small, you know, all of these people, and all of the people involved, it was a very, very good natured group of people.

Well, unfortunately I could not share with you every one of the ten songs on the album, but I hope I gave you a good taste of both the music and the message of "Walls To Roses." I'm down to the last song, but before I get to it I want to thank you all for listening, and I want to especially thank Willie Sordillo, Chris VonTanner and Charlie Murphy for the wonderful interviews, and I'm grateful to the Pacifica Archives for providing me with Eric Gordon's radio documentary. I want to mention that this hour show could not possibly contain all the thoughtful and interesting comments I got in the interviews, but you can hear complete versions on my website. And that includes a special feature covering all of Charlie Murphy's music career. Of course, that's at www.queermusicheritage.com. And, as always if you have questions or comments about any of the music I've featured, please write me. This is JD Doyle for Queer Voices on KPFT in Houston.

I'm going to close the show with the way I opened it, with Charlie Murphy's song "Gay Spirit," this time letting you hear the entire song, and of course I asked him to comment on the song.

When I first started doing my show Queer Music Heritage, for almost the first three years I used your song "Gay Spirit" to open the show. Can you tell me about that song.

CM: Ah, you know, again, it was simply an expression of my exuberance and an enthusiasm at the time for my own, you know, self-discovery and what I thought gay people could offer to the wider world.

Charlie Murphy - Gay Spirit (1979)


Charlie Murphy Interview

Charlie Murphy QMH ID

Charlie Murphy - Gay Spirit (1981)

This is JD Doyle and welcome to a special feature interview of Queer Music Heritage. My September 2008 show focused on the history of the landmark album "Walls To Roses," and as part of that I interviewed Charlie Murphy. Now, there's much more to his music career than that album, so naturally I took that opportunity to ask him about all of it. This segment opened with his song "Gay Spirit," but if you've already listened to the "Walls To Roses" segment this month, you'll know right away that his is a different version of that song, faster and more rock oriented in its production. That came from Charlie's 1981 album "Catch the Fire." But I'm getting a little ahead of myself, so let's get to my interview with Charlie.

I caught up with him when he was working in London, and asked him if he was there for his work with the organization Power of Hope.

CM: Well, yeah, I started a youth organization about thirteen years ago that brings artists and activists and creative people together with young people from all walks of life. And it's about helping youth find their voice and their sense of purpose. And it's spread in the region of the country where I've been living for the past 20 years, near Seattle, and into Canada and so now that organization's up and running and I'm working internationally with different organizations that work with youth. So I do trainings and programs with teens, so in Uganda I'm working with organizations that work with teenagers with HIV AIDS and orphans.

Wow, that sounds like great work.

CM: It's an honor to do it.

How did you get started in music?

CM: How did I get started in music? I think from an early age I was interested in music. I started playing the guitar when I was a kid, and you know, I was impacted by not just music but how music connected with the times, and you know, I'm 55 now, so people like Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel were big influences when I was growing up, and I just learned to play the guitar and I think in my college years I began writing songs, never considered a career in music, however, and then moved to Virginia after college and began working there and started writing more songs and decided to do that more full time, and that was around the time that the gay movement and other movements were starting, and I felt that music was a good way to participate in helping make change.

These next three questions are part of the "Walls To Roses" segment, but as there may be folks just listening to this segment, and for completeness, I'm including them here as well.

In the 70s there was a well-established Women's Music Movement. Why do you think nothing similar ever developed for Men's Music?

CM: No, I think that there were attempts. You know, there were men's conferences around that time that which became a platform for me and my music, and but it never developed in a similar way as women's music movement did.

Personally I think that the women had the need for the feminine bonding, so they were more organized.

CM: Yeah, there was more behind what they were doing, maybe more of a need.

What was it like touring in those early days, what kind of gigs and crowds?

CM: It was a lot of fun. Gosh, you know, you're taking me way back, cause we're talking, we are talking the 70's. Um, you know, I did a lot of touring on my own, and then I did touring with friends, people like Blackberri and Chris Tanner and other folks connected with the people in the "Walls To Roses" record. I think that's the first recording I ever did.

That was my next question, how did you get involved with "Walls To Roses"?

CM: Good question, I'm trying to remember, cause I was living in Virginia at the time. I had left my position with the Mental Health Services of Virginia, and living in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and had more spacious time on my hands, so got much more into songwriting, and I actually, totally…how did I connect with that? I can't even remember. Somebody involved with that heard me or heard of me and invited me to be a part of it.

Well, I know that Willie Sordillo said that they were seeking out submissions.

CM: Yeah, I think I heard of it and maybe I submitted something and I think that's how I got involved. I'll have to think about that, it was so long ago.

What did you learn from that experience?

CM: Ah, what did I learn? I learned that there was a network of caring supportive men, both gay and straight, that were capable of supporting one another, and I learned more about my own voice as a musician. It was my first project. I mean, this is something that I have not thought about in such a long time.

It's been about 30 years. Looking back now at that album from almost 30 years later, what are your thoughts?

CM: My thought about it are that it was a really sincere, heartfelt offering, and I thought, for its time it broke some ground.

I do, too. I've always considered it a landmark album, because it was gay and straight, openly queer material in a various artists album.

CM: Yeah, yeah, I really appreciated the gay and straight part of it. I think that that was unique and important at the time.

During those few days of working with that collective was there a particular artist you bonded with?

CM: Oh, gosh. You know, I just remember…for me it was just kind of like a feast of wonderful people. You know, Charlie King, Geof Morgan, Willie was just a wonderful man, Fred Small, you know, all of these people, and all of the people involved, it was a very, very good natured group of people.

In 1980 Ginni Clemmins produced an album project called "Gay and Straight Together," and it again was a blend of, as the title tells us, both gay and straight artists, including Charlie King, Kristin Lems, Paula Walowitz, and others, and it was also released on the Folkways label. You contributed the song "If You've Got Gayness." Can you tell us about it?

CM: Ah, it was nothing more than it was an expression of how I felt at the time. You know, it was the time for me of…of coming out and not only that, not just that sort of personal process, but feeling that, you know, in a broader perspective gay men's voices were important in the broader sphere of redefining masculinity, and making more spaces and more ways for men to be men. And I felt like the voice of gay people was important not just for ourselves but in that broader movement.

Charlie Murphy - If You've Got Gayness (1980)

Tell me about your album "Catch the Fire"

CM: Yeah, "Catch the Fire"…"Catch the Fire," yeah, I just developed a body of material, and became friends with Geof Morgan. Geof who invited, offered to produce the record, invited me to Nashville where he was living at the time. You know, Geof was really instrumental in setting that up. And it was a great experience. We recorded that in the Pete Drake Studios, which was I've discovered kind of a landmark in Nashville. It was where Elvis started recording. And so Geof being well known as a songwriter in Nashville was able to connect with other studio musicians there, and I just remember just the excitement and just good feeling among the whole group of people who came together. Some of the musicians I had never met before. Some I brought with me. And so what I remember about that was what a great experience it was.

When I first started doing my show Queer Music Heritage, for almost the first three years I used your song "Gay Spirit" to open the show. Can you tell me about that song.

CM: Ah, you know, again, it was simply an expression of my exuberance and an enthusiasm at the time for my own, you know, self-discovery and what I thought gay people could offer to the wider world.

Can you tell me about the song "Double Love"

CM: Yeah, that came out of some reading and correspondence at the time with a guy named Mitch Walker who was writing about gay spirituality. And I think that's a term that he created, but this idea that there's a different archetype involved when two men come together. You know, that sort of traditional archetype for a union is a union of opposites, and double-love was more of an idea of just trying to describe that different archetype of when two men come together.

Charlie Murphy - Double Love (1981)

Can you tell me about "Dear Men"

CM: Yeah, that was inspired by a poem by a gay poet named Aaron Shurin. Gosh I might even remember…"The Midnight Sun"? A book of poetry that he wrote at the time and I forget what exactly sparked me about that, but I do remember, you know, it was sort of a plea to men in general to look at the ways that we were behaving in the world that wasn't serving this life.

Aaron Shurin, 2008

Charlie Murphy - Dear Men (1981)

What is the significance of the album title "Catch the Fire"?

CM: You know, sometimes titles are just an energetic frame, you know, for me it was, I feel like that album had a lot of spirit and I look at myself in my early days and just sort of how on fire I was, and you know, I'm still on fire but in different ways. You mature through the years so I think it was just sort of an expression of wanting to spread a certain spirit.

I like that you called your label Good Fairy Productions.

CM: Yeah, that was a collective that I formed in Seattle when I moved there and we produced concerts and distributed records.

I want to slip in another song from the "Catch the Fire" album, and it's a short one, called "No More."

Charlie Murphy - No More (1981)

By 1984 you were working with Jami Sieber. As she is very important to your music from this point can you tell me a little about her.

CM: Yeah, Jamie and I met through a mutual friend in Seattle. I just thought her cello playing was gorgeous, and she's a classically trained cellist. She'd been working in a small folk trio at the time and we got together and there was a tremendous personal sympatico and she's still a very dear friend. And it began a long musical relationship, and she's put out several CDs of her work, since the band ended, and she's a magnificent composer and performer and somebody that's very dear to me, and we had just many many great adventures together with our band.

You and she did "Canticles of Light" in 1984. According to the liner notes, it was a cross-cultural experience.

CM: Totally, yeah, I had written a lot of songs for group singing and I thought an interesting way of recording them would be to work with a black gospel choir. I've always had a love for gospel music. I just find it so energetic and passionate, and I heard a black youth choir led by a woman named Patrinell Wright and approached her with the material and she thought it was great, and we recorded that with an ensemble from the gospel choir and that began a wonderful relationship with that group.

From that album a song that I kind of think is typical of the collaboration is "Calling on the Spirits." Can you talk about that?

CM: I don't know, I feel like the song is sort of self-explanatory. It's more of a prayer, more of a plea, depositing the notion that there are spirits of the future waiting to come in, and they are hoping that we keep it together and it's a plea to those who came before us, you know, trying to connect the sense of humanity along the continuum.

Charlie Murphy & Jami Sieber - Calling on the Spirits (1984)

"Fierce Love" was a 3-song 12" record that came out in 1985. There was quite a musical change, a bit of a dance beat behind a couple of them.

CM: Well, you have…you have really followed my music. You are well researched here. So you are asking about "Fierce Love"? Well, "Fierce Love" is kind of an example of the kind of passionate political songs….I mean, I feel like I've always wanted to use music to help spread a movement, to encourage people to engage with the world outside of themselves. And this idea of finding hope in despairing times has always been kind of a central issue with me in my music. I think that, you know, humanity continues…I mean…the threats are mounting, but we live in very unique times, and I think "Fierce Love" is a sort of reaching for a sort of core passion or sort of compassion for humanity in our condition.

Charlie Murphy - Fierce Love (1985)
Rumors of the Big Wave, with The Total Experience Gospel Choir - Free South Africa (1987)

Rumors of the Big Wave, with The Total Experience Gospel Choir.

CM: Yeah, that won song of the year in the Northwest Area Music Awards. [a major gospel touch there] yeah, definitely.

Okay, now we're up to "Burning Times." Tell me about that group and the name of the group.

CM: Well, the name of the group…the group that I formed with Jamie, and we had quite a fun run of it, in Seattle, and toured Central America. Jamie and I toured in China, the band and I toured in the Soviet Union and other places. We seemed to make it to Nicaragua. We seemed to hit all the communist countries. That wasn't our plan but that's kind of how it worked out. Let's see…the name of the band…tried to come up with kind of a poetic frame for what the heart and soul of the music was about, which was somehow speaking to the nature of the times that we live in, a time of transition, of major transition.

The band toured all over the world, and I've seen the music called political pop.

CM: Hmm, yeah, though not all of it was political, it kind of ran the gamut, and certainly not all of it was pop. We always had a hard time to describe what we did. I called it poetic eclectic rock.

Did the message carry well to other countries?

CM: Yeah, it did.

The song "Burning Times" appears on "Catch the Fire," and again in 1990 on the Rumors of the Big Wave album. Can you tell us about that song.

CM: So, "Burning Times" was about the inquisition. You know I had heard…I think through Aaron Surin was the first one who wrote about this that I became aware of, that gay men were part of the inquisition too, and that really peaked my interest, and I began to see how the rise of organized Christianity, in particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, historically how that uprooted an earth-centered spirituality, which was prevalent throughout Europe. You know, we talk about sort of getting back to our more indigent roots, and I think that for me the inquisition explained a lot in terms then of how European people behaved in the world. We went through our own sort of holocaust experience in Europe with the inquisition and I think that had a decisive imprint on how we developed, in our separation from the earth, and our defining of female as evil, and looking at a sort of a sky-father centered spirituality which negated a reverence for the earth and I think it explained so much what happened in Europe in the inquisition, so I wanted to write about that, and so I did.

Rumors of the Big Wave - Burning Times (1990)

Is that the best-known song by Rumors of the Big Wave?

CM: I would probably have to say "Burning Times" has gotten the most exposure around the world.

I've read that "Burning Times" was called the unofficial Pagan National Anthem.

CM: That's the other thing, you know, I wrote that one song and I became the pagan anthem writer, and my spirituality, you know, evolved along with other parts of me and I'm drawn to wisdom from a variety of sources that have been very popular in the pagan scene. And I appreciate that. I've met wonderful people through that community.

How did the focus of your music evolve from "Walls to Roses" to "Rumors of the Big Wave"?

CM: Well, you know, over time there's all these different influences come in, and I think I matured as a person and as a songwriter and my influences grew. You know, I was really influenced by, gosh, people like the Talking Heads. I loved the Talking Heads. Joan Armatrading, Bruce Coburn, and so I evolved from more of an acoustic folk influenced musician to more world influences…Sting, U2…people like that, and that's why I wanted to form the band. I wanted to make a bigger and different and maybe more modern sound. I wanted to play with more sounds. Also I wanted to take the music out of a more ghettoized political, both gay and wider political sense and try to make music of meaning that could compete in wider circles.

Yeah, I noticed that you haven't sung, in a recording, about gay issues really since "Catch the Fire."

CM: Well, you know, let me see, is that true? Hmm. Yeah, there reached a point for me personally where it wasn't what was churning for me. You know. I felt that the early music that I made was a reflection of a process of awareness and discovery that I was going through. And I also did not want to categorized. I never hid the fact that I was, gay, and continued to do concerts in support of all sorts of gay-related causes and issues, but it wasn't what was motivating my writing.

Is there a song of yours you're most proud of?

CM: Oh, gosh, you know one song I love a lot. It's a love song called "Spirit in the Wasteland," and that's on the Rumors of the Big Wave "Burning Times" CD. I think that's a beautiful song. I wrote a song that I haven't recorded yet, that's about Gulf War One, called "No Heroes," and I'm proud of the message and the song craft in that song. You know, my partner Eric keeps challenging and encouraging me to record another record, and I'm so immersed in the work that I'm doing around the world that I can't foresee how I would ever find time for it, but the desire is there. So maybe when I'm 65 I'll come out with another record.

Where do you live, stateside?

CM: I live on an island near Seattle, on Woodbe Island, and I live with the love of my life, and I'm a pretty lucky man.

Is there a question I should have asked you, and didn't?

CM: Oh, what a great question. A question you should have asked me…No, I think you've asked a bunch of great questions, and you're so well informed. I really appreciate it.

Usually by the time I get to the "question I should have asked you" point, people are so worn out from me, cause I ask them everything.

CM: No, you haven't worn me out. No, you've asked me to reflect on things that I haven't thought about in a while. You know, ever since I left music, left music full time, and started working with young people, and in engaging sort of creative invisionary people in working with young people, it has been like…now in music it was fabulous, I had such an interesting life during that time, but it just shifted to a whole other level when I started working with young people, and started developing some ideas. And so I get…I feel very fortunate that in the work that I do puts me in the presence of transformation on a regular basis. And the places that it's taking me, are places I could never imagine. So I just feel like a very, very fortunate man to have had the life that I've had through music and have the life that I have now.

Again, this is JD Doyle and you've been listening to Queer Music Heritage. Let's close this segment Charlie Murphy with the song he said he was most proud of, "Spirit in the Wasteland," from the 1990 CD "Burning Times."

Rumors of the Big Wave - Spirit in the Wasteland (1990)



Willie Sordillo Inerview


Willie Sordillo - For My Men Friends (1979)

That was "For My Men Friends" by Willie Sordillo, from the album "Walls to Roses." This is JD Doyle, and I interviewed Willie for my September 2008 show that paid a tribute to that album. He gave me some wonderful comments on the making of that album, that dealt with the conception of the project and how the ideas evolved, and some fascinating background information that comments not only on the collective process used, but on the culture of those times. Due to the time constraints of the broadcast version of that show I was only able to use about a third of the interview. But it is far too good not to share the rest. And for completeness, and as some of you may not choose to listen the main show, I'm giving the entire interview here. I contacted Willie just prior to the 30th anniversary of the recording of the album.

Tell me about the making of the album "Walls to Roses"

WS: Well, my friend, George Fulginiti-Shakar, who was part of the collective, always says that if we had known what we were doing, we would never have been able to make the recording. But because we didn't know anything, we kind of did the almost impossible. The long story is, I started going to some national conferences on Men & Masculinity, which were starting to take place in different places around the country. They were pro-feminist and pro-gay and lesbian conferences, focusing on all sorts of issues related to sexuality, sexual identity and the treatment of women in our culture. At the first one of these that I went to, which was in Iowa, which was in 1977, in Des Moines, the third one of these conferences, I heard a man named Geof Morgan singing songs. Geof was an established country songwriter in Nashville, Tennessee. He had written hit songs for major artists, Dolly Parton and people like that, but had become very active in the burgeoning men's movement, and started putting his songwriting talents to work around issues related to that.

So I heard him sing and I was very, very moved by it. It was the start of something that was the male version of what Holly Near was doing, and I'd been listening to Holly and some of the other movement songwriters. And I started writing songs…I'm not sure if I had started writing songs before I heard Geof. I know that hearing Geof was an important part for me. And he inspired a number of us to start writing more songs in that direction. It certainly occurred to me that there was a male voice to be heard in the cultures wars, in the issues around sexual politics. So not too long after I started looking for other men who were musicians, who were dealing with these kinds of issues, and put together a loose collective of men from around the country, most of whom had not met each other, with the idea of getting together, in one location, and in a few days, meeting each other, working collectively to determine a repertoire, learning and rehearsing and arranging songs, and recording an album.

Even before we got together Moses Asch at Folkways Records, when I approached him about this idea, was immediately very positive and said he would distribute this recording, would put it out on his label, and so we went about to try to do some fundraising, to get the money together to make this thing happen, both to help with transportation expenses for people who were coming from a long distance, and also to pay for the recording cost. It was just unheard of to do anything that fast. In four days we did a benefit concert to help pay for the recording, we met each other for the first time, we chose the songs, did all the rehearsing, arranging and recording. It was kind of a real whirlwind. Most recording processes take much more time in the studio. So that's basically. We got together in my apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time, and had an intense few days in 1978, in August of 1978.

How were the artists chosen and how were the songs chosen?

WS: Well, the artists were chosen, a lot of was word of mouth. I think I put out some advertising in things like Gay Community News, and The Real Paper in the Boston area, and so I started to meet, and I went to a lot of concerts and I would be looking and I had my eyes open for men who were doing something that was related. I knew Fred Small already. I met some people through placing these ads. I got some phone calls. I think that's how I met George, and George then knew some other people, Kenny Arkin. Michael Hussin I met through hearing him play with Marcia Taylor. It was kind of like one person would lead to another, and I also when I would hear about somebody I would call or write them, try to get in touch with them, or you know, I knew about Jeff Langley though his work with Holly Near. I figured somebody working with Holly Near would probably be pretty sympathetic to this whole idea, so I was able to get in touch with him and he and I met in New York a couple of times. Although he didn't actually come to participate in the recording sessions. He was more experienced than most of us, and was very supportive and gave us a lot of knowledge behind the scenes, and did come up to the Boston area to help do some of the mixing.

And his song became the title song.

WS: Yes, even though he wasn't there for the actual recording sessions, his presence was very strongly felt. So those of us who did get together, got together at my apartment in Cambridge. We had circulated cassette tapes before that of possible repertoire, just so that we could hear what each other was doing, so we could have an idea of some of the possible songs, though we didn't make any decisions about the repertoire until we actually got together. When we got together we played the songs live for each other, and then went though endless discussions to try to hone down the repertoire that seemed like it was most, most powerful, and that covered a range of issues.

The majority of men who were part of this were gay men and a lot of the material that they were singing, writing was reflective of that particular experience point of view, and that was certainly consistent with the message that we wanted to put out. So there was a very strong gay liberation component to the recording. But it's also, I think, important to point out that it's…obviously the gay community is very, very diverse. You can't pin it down to one way of thinking or looking at the world. The unifying factor in this particular project for the gay and the straight men was that there was a pro-feminist understanding and vision behind all of our song choices and all that we were doing.

I've long considered this a landmark album because of the strength of the gay material on it and the fact that it was a various artists album which had never been done up to that point, and I've always thought it interesting that it was produced by a straight artist, and how did being straight factor into the project?

WS: Well, that's an interesting question. My relationships with different men who were part of this vary. I was getting to know to become very close with some gay men in the Boston area through working on this project, in the lead-up to the actual gathering from around the country, and I had been active in the men's movement for a couple of years by this time, I was active in a men's consciousness raising group even before going to my first national men's gathering. Back when I was living in Indiana…

A lot of people would be surprised that there even was a men's movement.

WS: Yes, absolutely, yup. And recently I was involved in a concert in Framingham here where I live with several other men who I met through the men's movement and who attended these conferences also, and, and in publicizing this event that we just had, you know, I got the same reaction now that I did when we were first were doing this back in the late 70s and early 80s, which was "Men's Movement? What the hell is that? Isn't the whole world a men's movement?"

You know, back to your original question, I would say it was working with gay men in a close way and getting to become very close in my personal relationships with a number of gay men was a growth experience for me. It was a really positive experience over all. I certainly had learning to do, but it was learning in a supportive environment, and again, all of shared a pro-feminist perspective that was a uniting perspective. Not to dish dirt, but there was one or two guys who I didn't know before we got together, who I think had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder in terms of me helping coordinate this and not being a gay man, maybe thought I wasn't qualified to do it or just was resentful in some way. We worked through it enough that we could work together. So our relationships certainly varied, depending on where other people were coming from. You know, my…

Yeah, I can kind of see that happening, like, how can you identify with the gay issues and know how to get this across.

WS: But the advantage of it being…the big decisions being made were made collectively, so I was a coordinator in a logistical sense and I certainly had a certain vision in mind for what the project could be. But I also knew that ultimately it was the collective vision that would be represented, and that would probably not be exactly be the same vision that I had. It may be a related vision, but wouldn't be the same. And I had to go into it being prepared to let go of it being my project, my baby, it really had to be a collective idea that was going to be expressed.

You know I don't have to know somebody's experience in order to be able to be part of a collective decision. I can certainly try to understand someone else's experience, as much as I can as an outsider. I'm never going to know what it's like to be a gay men. I haven't lived that. I'm never going to know what it's like to be a woman. I'll never live that. On the other hand, I have experienced through my associations with gay men some of the ugly expressions of homophobia. You know, when you hang around with a group of gay men in public places, the average gay-bashing person doesn't necessarily make a distinction between who's gay and who's straight. We're all gay in their minds. And I certainly experienced some ugliness in that regard.

Again, George (Fulginiti-Shaker) was then, remains a very close friend, although he's now living in the Washington DC area and I only see him a couple times a year. When we were both living in Cambridge we spent a lot of time together, and George is a very brave and strong guy and he was very clear that he never wanted to compromise on who he was in any public situation, and I remember walking with him at night through the streets of Cambridge, and there being a group of straight, seemingly straight men, you know, sort of tough-ish sort of guys on a street corner that we had to go past, and him taking my hand and holding my hand as we walked by and saying, you know, I refuse to compromise on who I am for anybody, and why don't you experience this, too. And so we walked past this group of men and dealt with whatever they had to throw at us. They didn't physically attack us. But from experiences like that I think I gained a certain amount of empathy for what gay men were experiencing as a rather regular assault in that time.

Was that the genesis of the song "While Walking"?

WS: Actually, it wasn't, "While Walking"…I think what had happened. Geof Morgan came to visit me once during this period of time. It was after "Walls to Roses" came out. He came and visited me and we had some kind of a gathering, a song sharing, he may have even led a workshop on songwriting. And then he and I stayed up late talking and then he didn't spend the night here. He went somewhere else, and late at night I walked him out to his car, and we kissed goodbye. Two straight men kissing in the street is an unusual scene. And I think some of the neighbors witnessed that, and when I walked on the street after that there were people that would, you know, yell the usual epithets that are yelled at gay men by homophobic men. They just assumed I was gay, so that was the genesis of that song.

On my July show I interviewed Elliot Pilshaw. [Oh, Elliot!] and on the show I played his recording of "While Walking" and he really praised the sensitivity of it coming from a straight artist and also how the song was able to capture and emotions and also being political without being preachy.

WS: Well, I appreciate his supportive comments and I loved that he recorded that because he's a wonderful singer and wonderful person, so I'm honored that he felt that it spoke to his experiences.

Did you ever record it?

WS: I didn't. That was written after my second solo album came out, and right after that I became involved in playing in a Latin American band, that ended up being my full time job for about ten years. So I never recorded another album as a singer-songwriter. There's a whole lot of songs that I've written that have not been recorded, and that's one of them.

I wonder how he got a hold of it, from a song circle or something?

WS: Well, Elliot lived for a while in Cambridge and we were friends and he also was somebody who went to some of these Men & Masculinity conferences, was where I first met him before he lived in Cambridge. He was performing as a duo with Lorin Schlamberg and that was when I met him, so I'm pretty sure Elliot was living in Cambridge when I wrote that song, and we were friends and we shared songs back and forth and that was how that came about.

You can hear Willie's song "While Walking," sung by Elliot Pilshaw on my July 2008 QMH show.

People may not immediately think of it, but there were also women involved in the project, can you tell me about that?

WS: Sure. These were women, mostly were from the Boston area, there was one woman, Ginny Bales, who lived in Connecticut, but was friends with the women that we knew in the Boston area. There was a thriving women's music scene, in particular, I would say there were two major groupings of women's scenes. There was a group of women who specifically identified as lesbian and were writing songs about that experience. People like Jade and Sarsapirilla was a successful duo at that time. There was a group called Lilith at that time. But who were not identified necessarily outside of lesbian and some feminist circles. And then there was another group of women who…many of whom also identified as lesbian, and were singing about that experience, but who had a broader identification as social activists, singer/songwriters and musicians. And that was the group of women that I was getting to know in the Boston area when I came here. There was a wonderful band called the New Harmony Sisterhood Band, which was one of the really early women's bands. I think the New Haven's Women's Rock Ensemble, I think it was (New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band), I think predated them, but New Harmony was one of the first bands of political singer/songwriter pro-feminist lesbian and straight women's bands that got recorded back in the early days. And I got to know them through a house…I was living in a collective housing situation at the time.

And as soon as I moved here and got involved in that living situation one of my housemates, a woman said, "You've got to meet the woman from New Harmony," and introduced me to them. So, Marcia Diehl, who was one of the New Harmony sisters, Marcia Taylor was performing around the Boston area, I used to see her in coffee houses. Michael Hussin, who I mentioned earlier, who was the percussionist on "Walls to Roses," was accompanying her. Just introduced myself to them after one of their concerts, got to know them. I think Marcia knew Cercie Miller, invited her in. Joanna Cazden again was a feminist singer songwriter doing socially conscious songs.

So it was a circle of people who had similar perspectives and you know, we felt that the recording needed more, more instrumental variation than what we were offering as singer/songwriters. I mean, most of us were people who strummed the guitar. It would have been I think a much less interesting album if we had left it to the guitar and voice. So we set about looking for other musicians who would fill out the arrangements, and we made it a priority to support women musicians in the area. That's how we got these women involved. So they weren't part of the collective process. The decision-making were made by the men, but we hired the women, we paid them, and that's how that came about.

I see Karen Kane's name on so many albums in my collection. And it appears this was one of her first projects.

WS: Yes, Karen was wonderful. She was great. I learned about Karen from Joanna Cazden, she had engineered Joanna's album ("Hatching," 1976) so Joanna put me in touch with Karen. Karen was totally into the whole idea. It was great. She was wonderful to work with.

Tell me about your song from the album, "For My Men Friends"

WS: Well, that song, each verse speaks about a different friendship with a man who had been an important friend to me. The verse about fishing with a friend was just before I left Indiana to come to the Boston area to try to make my mark as a musician, as it were. I had this little farewell fishing trip with a friend, a close friend, John, one of the men who I was in a men's consciousness raising group with, when that first came about. The verse where the man kisses me is an old high school friend who I also worked a summer job with, a couple of summers, and this little scene described in that verse took place at this summer camp where we were counselors together. It was just an attempt to express my deep affection for my men friends, something that particularly straight men were not expressing a whole lot. There were all the unspoken elements of closeness but not often given voice to, at least in the culture that I grew up in.

Is there a song that stands out for you from that album?

WS: Ah, that's an interesting spirit. Certainly "Gay Spirit" is a wonderful anthem that Charlie Murphy wrote that I think all of immediately responded to. I would say that if any song stand out for me it was probably that one, because it captured so well the feeling of the times, the joy involved with being gay. You know, Charlie, when he talked about this song, he said, you know, this is not a song only about gay men. When I talk about a gay spirit, I'm talking about something much broader, that other people can participate in besides gay men. He was saying there's something positive…there's a positive energy in being gay that we can all share in…I'm not articulating it well, but he was using the word gay in that context in a very inclusive way. I guess that's the best, the closest I can come to describing it.

I got the impression from studying his music that he maybe incorrectly got associated with being very, very gay and that may have not been his focus.

WS: Well, it was certainly a strong focus, but like a number of us there, we were interested…we were concerned about social justice in a very broad sense, while this was one particular aspect of the social fabric that we were dealing with in this recording, it wasn't our only concern. And certainly those of us with that perspective, you know, felt that there was symbiosis between different social movements, you know, that eco justice and gay justice are not entirely separate issues. Justice is the issue, and we're not going to attain justice if we're not attaining it on all fronts, and that means sexual equality, it means equality for gay and lesbian and transgender people, it means concern for the environment, it means defeating racism, it means working for peace. All that is connected and Charlie certainly is coming from that kind of a place. But he is a gay man, and proudly so, and that was…he certainly wrote a number of songs that were related to a gay consciousness. So I don't know. I wouldn't say it was unfair to call him a gay singer/songwriter, he certainly is that, but his perspective is, again, wildly and widely inclusive, and he's not limited to being defined as a gay man.

Right, certainly, after his solo album, there's nothing lyrically or content gay that he ever recorded again.

WS: Hmm, I hadn't thought about that, but it's interesting.

You know, the Rumors of the Big Wave, and all that, not gay.

WS: But inclusive in many ways and certainly very strongly pro-feminist. You know, again I think it goes back to the whole idea of how he viewed a gay spirit. I think that his perspective is broad and inclusive and, I don't know what was going through his mind, I don't want to speak for him, but he is someone who…I think he was trying to weave together a whole lot of different influences and his overall perspective was of justice for everyone, and that certainly includes all kinds of groups of people including his own experience but not limited to it.

Do you remember any particular song that you really wished had fit on the album, that stood out, but it just didn't fit?

WS: Actually I don't but, you know, I would say that there were people who were involved in the project who I wished had a song on the album, and in particular, I really wish that Charlie King…Charlie was part of the whole project. He was there for the recording process, and yet his voice is not heard in any way, except for group chorus kinds of things. Charlie is one of the better singer-songwriters in the social justice movement…been out there doing it for years and years and years, is still out there doing it. He was a great songwriter then and he continues to be. Unfortunately none of the songs that he presented to us really seemed to address the issues as concretely as we wanted them addressed. You know, one of things that I wish was different is that I wish there was one of his songs on the recording.

Yes, I have interviewed him, seen him several times. He's marvelous.

WS: But I can't remember a particular song that didn't make it. I don't really remember a lot about the songs that didn't make it. We really were going for what we thought were the strongest songs of those presented and that's why there are some people like…Chris Tanner has a couple of his songs on there, and Blackberri has a couple of songs. We did talk about, do we want to limit it to one per person, make it more inclusive, or do we want to go with what we think is the strongest material and we opted for the latter. I don't know if we were to do it again, I don't know if I would argue to do it that way. I mean, obviously you want the strongest album possible, but it's an interesting project because the process was as important as the product, and again I think we're missing something by not having Charlie King more visible on this recording.

Tell me a little about your own music career.

WS: Well, it's been pretty varied. You know, when I was growing up I was basically a saxophone player, I dabbled with other instruments, the guitar in particular, but also the piano a little bit. I was interested in jazz. I did that through high school. In college I started getting interested in North American folk music, got very fascinated with the guitar, guitar-folk styles, acoustic-folk styles. I started writing songs when I was in college. I didn't perform at all in public. I would play these songs for my friends. I got kind of into this thing of having a guitar pretty much with me at all times, so wherever I was if I had a new song, I would play it for people, whether they wanted to hear it or not. And that was sort of my honing of my craft, or at least the beginning of it.

I started performing a little bit at that point. This is where Fred Small and I connected. And Fred had already done some performing, and he and I started to do some performing together. We'd each do our own set, but we'd so some songs together as well. Both in Ft Wayne, Indiana, where I was living and teaching and in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Fred was in graduate school.

And I started performing in part, not so much because I wanted to be a performer, but because as a teacher I was constantly asking my students to take risks, to try things that were uncomfortable for them, make a leap. And performing was actually very uncomfortable for me at that point. I didn't consider myself a very good singer at all in particular, and yet I was interested in words and interested in the message of a song. And so it wouldn't do to not have a vocal part to these songs that I was writing. And I started playing at little coffee houses in and around Ft. Wayne. But the more I did it, the more I kind of got hooked on the idea of performing, and also became sort of frustrated with the fact that I'd spent my entire life in school, either as a student or as a teacher. I thought I really needed to get out into the real world to try something else.

So I left my teaching job in Ft. Wayne, and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and set out to become a folk musician and singer/songwriter. And that's what I was doing when we did "Walls to Roses" and on the strength of "Walls to Roses" and my relationship that I had developed with Moses Asch and Folkways Records, I was able to both do some touring, which gave me more experience, and record my first solo recording.

Let's take a break here. Willie released two solo albums on Folkways, "Please Tip Your Waitress," in 1980, and "Silent Highways," in 1983, and both were engineered by Karen Kane. And helping him out on those albums were many names I recognize, from the "Walls to Roses" project and from other releases in my collection. Some of these folks are Marcia Taylor, George Fulginiti-Shakar, Debbie Lempke (who I know of from the Berkeley Women's Music Collective), Betsy Rose, Cathy Winter, Fred Small, Martha Leader, and Susan Abod. I want to share with you a song from each album, so from "Please Tip Your Waitress" is "Old Friend's Song" and from "Silent Highways" is one with a definite change of pace, called "Gone, Gone, Gone."

Willie Sordillo - Old Friend's Song (1980)
Willie Sordillo - Gone, Gone, Gone (1983)

That was "Old Friend's Song" and "Gone, Gone, Gone." And now back to Willie, talking about his music career.

So I worked as a singer/songwriter for several years. I also started working with two other musicians as part of a blue grass trio. And we toured some, and I toured some as a solo artist. And this was going on for a few years when in 1984 when early brigades of North Americans were going to Nicaragua following the Sandinista revolution, doing support work there. Most of the early groups of North Americans that went, went on coffee-picking brigades, and I considered going on one of these but for various reasons didn't, one of the reasons being I knew nothing about picking coffee. But when someone called me up and said we're putting together a group of musicians and artists to go to Nicaragua, would you be interested? I leapt at that because I felt like…

Something down your street…

WS: Something down my street, yeah, and that was another life changing turning point for me, going to Nicaragua. Came back from that, and for a while I was still doing my singer/songwriter thing, although at that point I was much more interested in collaborating with other musicians. Coming back from Nicaragua we would travel, this group of musicians would get together whenever we could get somebody to invite us to do a slide show and talk about the situation in Nicaragua, and since we were musicians we would always sing a few songs. And after a few months of doing that, the songs just started to take over, the slides got lost, and we decided to become a band.

So that became the band, Flor de Cana, which I was part of for its ten year existence, and that was also when I started making a transition toward being more of a saxophone player and less of a string instrument player, although I did play string instruments in that group as well. I was studying jazz at that point and playing Latin music and when that band broke up, ten years later, I started making a transition into being more of a straight-ahead jazz musician, although I still play a few Latin gigs a year. I would play more if the opportunity was there, but at this point I would say I'm basically a jazz saxophone player who occasionally plays the guitar. I still produce some recordings for other musicians, and they tend to be folk musicians who hired me to do that, and I'll usually play guitar on some of those recordings.

Well, I think you've probably touched on my next question, but what did you learn from the "Walls to Roses" experience?

WS: Well, I learned….oh, boy, that's big question. I certainly learned a lot about collective work, about the need, the need to let go of my vision in favor of a group kind of consciousness. I think I also learned not to make assumptions. You know, there was one incident we had that is mentioned briefly in some of the liner notes, where we wanted, I wanted a cello player on my song and hired a cellist, a woman cellist, a professional musician in the area. I did not know her. Someone recommended her. When I spoke to her on the phone about the project, it was before the songs were chosen, and I talked about the pro-feminist viewpoint of the recording. At that point the songs hadn't been chosen. I had no idea what the…you know, how strong the gay-positive message would be.

Well, she got into the recording studio and heard some of the songs, and it turned out she had all kinds of problems with the gay material. She was a member of a conservative church and felt that homosexuality was wrong. She didn't tell me this until after she had recorded her part on my song. We recorded pretty much live, as opposed to the more usual technique of overdubbing, recording in layers, where the cello would probably normally be recorded as a later stage in the recording process, that could have been removed from the recording, cause it was done on a separate track in an isolated room. So after she recorded on my part she told me that she was very, very uncomfortable with the whole thing, and didn't want to be associated with it, didn't want her name to appear on it, and in fact she never cashed the check even. I started a checking account…at the time the working title for the group before we got together and called ourselves the Walls to Roses Collective was Men Against Sexism, and I had a bank account with checks printed with "Men Against Sexism" on the checks, and she refused to even cash the check. So it was my assumption in speaking about pro-feminist issues that equality for people regardless of their sexual orientation and identity would be included in that, and that as a woman she would be sensitive to what was going on, and you know, it was a wrong assumption on my part. That was one of the things I learned, not to make those kinds of assumptions. And then on a practical level, I just learned an enormous amount about recording.

Let me shift that question a different way. Looking back now at that album from almost 30 years later, what are your thoughts?

WS: Well, it was a glorious time. It was very intense. You know, it was a bit trippy in many ways, and there wasn't a lot of sleeping going on in those four days we were together. You know, I love it, I was one of those great, crazy things you do when you don't know any better. I'm really glad that we did it.

I did a follow up, about ten years later, which was "Feeding the Flame, Men by songs…" [Songs by Men to End AIDS.] Thank you. I went about that one differently simply because it felt too cumbersome to try to recreate the whole thing, to try to…at that point I'd done more recording and I knew it was impossible to do what we'd done, so I did it a much simpler way, which was to invite a group of men to submit a song that they would record wherever they happened to be living and then send me the recording and I would compile it into a CD. And so at least looking back on it I would say at that point I wanted to do it in a way that felt a little more manageable, a little less crazy, a little less wild. But I have no regrets at all. In fact I would have regrets if I hadn't been involved in the first one with all it's craziness and wildness.

Well I want to ask more directly about "Feeding the Flame." I can't pass up this. Here was another various artists album reaching to the heart of our community in a very special way.

WS: By this time the AIDS epidemic was just in full bloom, and I felt compelled to try to do something to [this was 1990 when it came out] yeah, so, you know, I also wanted to follow up with "Walls to Roses," to see how we all…some of us from that group had evolved, as well as including other songwriters who had emerged during the time, many of who had attributed their start in writing these kinds of songs to "Walls to Roses," which was great. So it seemed like those two things really needed to come together. So that project began with the knowledge that it was going to be a benefit for AIDS work.

And you've got a lot of my favorite folks on this album, Tom Wilson Weinberg, The Flirtations, Romanovsky & Phillips, Michael Callen…

WS: yeah, you know, it was wonderful, it was wonderful. There was some reimbursement for recording expenses, but not a lot, and people did it because they supported the message and they supported the AIDS work we were doing, so it was a wonderful thing, and it was great to get to know those men, and although we didn't record together in the same way, we didn't operate as a collective, we did do a concert in San Francisco, to celebrate the release of the album, that included a number of us from the recording…not everyone, but a number of us.

So were some of these recorded especially for this album? [Yes, some were, others weren't] as opposed to just sending tracks they already had.

WS: Yes, and I asked people to send something that had not been released on another album, so it could have been recorded previously, but not released…that was the idea, new music for people.

Okay, looking back on it, as I approached it, I knew many of the songs from their own releases, but that must have been later.

Again, this is JD Doyle and you've been listening to Queer Music Heritage. I'm closing this segment with Willie Sordillo with another very special song by him.

Tell me about your track on the album, "Feeding the Flame"

WS: Well, at this point I was in this Latin band that I was playing in for ten years, Flor de Cana, and you know, that was just one of those songs that just sort of happened. I find that songwriting has taken two major forms for me. One is where I have a concrete idea, and I set about to try to write a song that uses that idea, and I often will labor over these songs, you know, work on these songs for a period of time, and try to hone it, and those usually aren't the best songs. I have other songs that kind of just spring out full blown, and my job is basically to just write it down and then learn it, sing it, and this was one of the latter, so it wasn't one that I sat down and pondered in advance and thought really hard about. It was just came out, and I didn't try to over analyze it or overwork it. It was just an expression of almost stream of consciousness.

So many artists tell me that a particular song just flowed through them.

WS: Usually the good ones are that way.

Willie Sordillo & Flor De Cana - Feeding the Flame (1990)