Holly Near,
And Still We Sing:
The Outspoken Collection

(Calico Tracks, 2002)

When I look around at the world today, I find myself surrounded by talk of war. The British prime minister is backing the American president, although the news presenter tells me that more Britons are opposed to an out-and-out war than are for it. The media covers protests in various countries. People find themselves having to make up their minds: are they for this possible battle or against it? If they're opposed, will they attend a protest and let their voice be heard?

While for some marchers, it might be the first time protesting such an issue, there are veterans in their midst. They haven't given up the struggle over the years, whether the issue is war or various other causes. What an appropriate time for Holly Near to release a "best of" double CD. Near, who has spent her career letting her voice be heard, has a message that is as relevant today as it was when she started singing in the '60s.

Near could have been a singer on Broadway. She'd trained in musical theatre, and its impression left on her voice is obvious. After all these years of songs with lyrics that sound very folk-oriented, there's still a feeling that they could be part of a show. Perhaps that's why, while the first CD is mainly studio work, the second CD highlights her live shows. Near admits that "studio work was 'unnatural' to me." It took her until 2000 to begin "to have fun in the studio."

It's not that the first CD is of poor quality, but the second CD, taken from live performances, truly demonstrates her full strength. More than a songwriter and a record label owner (in 1971, at age 22, Near started her first independent label), she is a consummate performer and spokesperson through her songs. The live CD captures her at her most powerful, whether she's performing her own material or covers.

Covers on both albums include songs written by artists such as Phil Ochs, Sting, Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Cuban musician Silvio Rodriguez. Old friendships with performers including Cris Williamson, Ronnie Gilbert, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie are represented. Gilbert, Seeger and Guthrie perform on "Pallet on the Floor" and Rhiannon sings backing vocals on Near's cover of Williamson's "Waterfall."

And Still We Sing is subtitled "the outspoken collection." Songs included here cover a spectrum of causes. Near is an advocate of women's rights, gay rights, peace movements, anti-nuclear movements and human rights in general. Perhaps it's her cover of Bernice Johnson Reagon's "They Are Falling All Around Me" that sums up how valuable this collection of Near's work is.

"Every paper brings the news that
The teachers of my sounds are moving on."

But as both Reagon and Near reflect, "But you're not really going to leave me/It is your path I walk/It is your song I sing."

If nothing else, may this compilation inspire a younger generation of singer-songwriters, particularly in these trying times.

- Rambles
written by Ellen Rawson
published 22 February 2003

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