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Real Music - I Am Willing - May 2016


Real Music - I Am Willing - May 2016

by Robert Feuer

It’s not often that a Nobel Prize nominee takes the stage for a Sonoma County musical performance. But, that’s exactly what will happen this month, when Holly Near sings at the Occidental Center for the Arts and the French Garden Restaurant in Sebastopol. Near, a veteran of many solo appearances at Carnegie Hall, describes these shows as “joint concerts” with Grammy-nominated Barbara Higbie, during a recent phone interview. Each will perform their own songs and join together in duets, something they’ve been discussing for years. Higbie, along with Jan Martinelli, will provide backup on an assortment of instruments.

“It’s been a surprising life, that’s for sure,” Near says. Until age 13, she lived on a Potter Valley “ranch/farm,” home to cattle, turkeys and pigs, where she had the freedom to play in creeks, hike the hills, and be part of a community of kindly neighbors.

In high school, the Vietnam War inspired her activism. She became involved in movements to get the military off campus and change the girl’s dress code. “I was trying to figure out who I was,” Near says. Involvements in school stage productions and choral groups led to non-singing roles in stage, film, and TV, including the Broadway production of Hair, the film Slaughterhouse Five, and the TV show All in the Family, where she played the role of a pregnant neighbor. 

Near, who began writing songs at 16, later turned to more critical themes – including the women’s movement, racism and war – written from a woman’s point of view, she says. When she couldn’t get her songs recorded, due to their political nature, she started Redwood Records in 1973, using her parent’s dining room table as the distribution center. The initial release, the first of 30 Holly Near recordings, “took off and had a life of its own.” For nearly 20 years, Redwood added many other artists deemed too political for the mainstream.

In 1974, she traveled to Vietnam as a guest of the Vietnamese Musicians Union, part of a group effort to find a non-military solution by “trying to get to know the Vietnamese people as human beings,” she says. 

Near received a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2005, as part of a group of 1,000 women selected for actively creating peace in the world. Her portrait is one of 16 hanging on “a wall of artists who have actively worked against racism” at the Harriet Tubman Theater at The Freedom Center in Cincinnati, she says. Others include Paul Robeson, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie.

After a lifetime of singing and speaking at rallies, union halls, churches, prisons, and universities, Near, now 66, continues, but adds, “I’m not on the road all the time like I used to be. 

“I’ve enjoyed being around people who care about the world from a place of kindness, people trying to find the good, opening doors rather than closing them.”

Show details at 

Photo credit – Irene Young