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    Gerri Gribi

Musician and women's historian

"There had to be woman-positive songs."
 

Gerri Gribi is a musician and historian who has created a program called "A Musical Romp Through Women's History." "I'm from Kentucky and southern Ohio originally, and I'd grown up singing a lot of these songs," she notes, "and it wasn't until I was older that I realized that in a lot of them, the women were always getting killed. But I believed there had to be songs where women did something beside kill themselves over men."

Like many artists, she finds her work is a passion. "When I write a song, it's more that I can't not write; it just kind of like comes flying out of me, because there's something burning in my head," she says. "I am a historian, and I collect old, traditional folk songs that are by and about women. On a first listen, someone might think, What on earth are they talking about? because they use archaic words.

"Where creativity comes in for me is picking the songs, and then using stories and historical anecdotes and things like that, to putting them into a contemporary context, so that when I sing the song, they understand the relevance of it.

"In my women's history programs, I don't tend to do songs that I wrote, other than when people want an encore." For her major program ("A Musical Romp...") Gerri notes, she will sometimes change the specific contents, to fit the audience. "Let's say it's a technical college, so they want to focus more on women as workers, so I change it to have that theme," she says.

"Or the children's program, which is called 'Foremothers' and I don't cover nearly as much material as in an adult program. Mostly I'm just trying to give them the understanding that women were there. 'Foremothers' -- they all giggle at that, and think it's like saying 'person-hole cover' or something. But I tell them, Now think about it: you can't have forefathers if you didn't have foremothers, and they go, Oh, yeah."

Gerri gets a lot of positive response to her programs. "One of the things that's kind of fun is that I'm being discovered by a whole new generation of college age women, who are at the same point I was when I was in college, which is that I thought we invented feminism, back in the seventies. And I remember how odd it was to me to be twenty five, and find out there were sixty year old feminists out there. And now I'm fourty six, and becoming one of these 'old women' and these young girls are finding out that I'm singing about the same things that Jewel and others are singing about.

"I've been very helped by the fact there seems to be a growing interest in acoustic music on campuses. For a while, when you said 'folk music,' people right away pictured Bob Dylan and sitting in a coffee house. In fact, I've even tried to stop using the name 'folk music' because I've found it's almost like a Rorschach test; it tells me more about the person, by what they think 'folk music' is.

"And young men on campuses -- that's what's really fun, because now, with the internet, it's so much easier for people to communicate with me. I just love it, after I've done a performance on a campus, and I get an email. I've got one in my drawer that just cracks me up, where a guy said, 'I thought this was going to be one of those things we got dragged to and I'd be forced to sit through; but I loved it!'" Gerri laughs. "It's always nice to exceed people's low expectations, you know."

In addition to her touring music programs, Gerri sometimes crafts satires and essays, such as a piece about 'The Real Annie Oakley" and also designs web pages and teaches internet classes. "I got on the internet about six years ago," she notes, "and my mind just functions the way it functions, which kind of terrifies me.

"I use historical material as far as shaping the different workshops and lectures and classes that I do, but as far as what inspires me when composing my own music. Thinking of the songs I've written over the past twenty years or whatever, they tend to be more immediate issues kinds of things.

"One is the hunting song, which is a spoof on the hunting season in Wisconsin, and one of the things that inspired me to write it was the fact that everybody would tell me stories about the hunting season, and I began to realize that this is contemporary urban folklore. Everybody knows about the guy who shot at the tractor because it said 'John Deere' on the side. Everybody knows these stories, no matter what part of the country you go to.

"So that intrigued me, and also that old folklore begins, 'A long time ago, in a place far away...' and contemporary urban folklore begins with something like, 'A guy my brother in law knows at work, this happened to; it's true, it's absolutely true' and then they go on with the story. So that inspired The Hunting Song, which for most people is their most favorite song I've written, or the most hated, depending on if they're an avid hunter or not. It does poke fun at the foibles of hunting. It has a chorus, 'Animals Love Vegetarians': 'I don't shoot at the animals and they don't shoot at me,' that kind of thing.

"Another song I've written that gets a lot of airplay is called 'The Hills of Kentucky.' That's a song I wrote the first year after I moved to Wisconsin. I was just feeling really depressed in the winter, and basically it's a mental flight down there, seeing the racehorses in Lexington, and going up into the mountains, and seeing the coal in the black hills and things like that. That's more how I tend to write songs, because something kind of nestles inside me, and kicks around in my head, and eventually I pick up the guitar and I start to sing it.

"I'm one of those uncategorizable people that really annoy marketers, because I don't really put any label on my music. When I say 'folk' I think of folk style, and I think of acoustic, with no electrified instruments. The other thing that makes me think of myself as more of a traditional singer is the fact that folk songs were written in times when people didn't make money off music, for the most part. The musicians entered by the back door, and they were poor, and wrote songs because they had a story to tell."

"I belong to Songs.com, which used to be the National Online Music Alliance, and whenever they do a compilation of artists, they want to know what category I am, and I say, 'I don't know. Where would you put me.'" One of the labels her music gets is "contemporary adult acoustic."

"I have been hired to write commercially, and I've written music for documentaries and other things, and they've turned out great. One of the films won awards. But I hated the process, being sat down and told, Okay, here's our video, now make some music to go with it. The one that won an award was a little different, because it was a subject that was close to my heart. It was called 'Poverty Shock: Any Woman's Story' and it was guided by an executive producing team of women who had been on welfare and had gotten themselves off.

"So I was privy to these meetings where they were discussing their situations, and I was jotting down these phrases they were saying, like 'People think of us as welfare queens waiting for Prince Charming' and I realized there were all these allusions to fairy tales here. So I ended the song with a line saying, 'I'm not a princess or a welfare queen, and I've learned how to fight' – that kind of thing. That song was easy because it was a matter of all that information going into my head, and then boom, out came the song.

"For a very brief period, I wrote commercial jingles, and these are easy as sin to write, but it's like vomiting. Who wants to do it? Who wants to use talent to make people buy pop? When I first graduated from college, I thought it might be a great way to make money, but as I've gotten older, I think it's a horrible way to make a living.

"I have two CDs, and three children's tapes, some of it original and some of it other people's stuff. And ultimately I did two women's albums, and on both of those about a fourth of the music is my originals. I combine those two into one of the CDs. After concerts, people always tell me they like my songs the best. I guess I feel like over the years of trying to create a niche for myself, there are a zillion and one singer-songwriters out there... when I hit about thirty, I realized I really can't support myself playing in these little clubs.

"So structuring this women's program, where it's more the kind of show a performing arts center would bring in, that to me seemed a better way to go. rather than being out there trying to compete, going to Nashville or whatever."

Inspiration for writing new songs comes and goes, she finds. "There will be times when suddenly in a week I'll have written three songs, but then I'll go a year and not write anything. But I think every song I've written, and every song I've recorded, is really good and has gotten really good reaction from people. I don't produce as many as others, but I think it's a matter that I'm not putting out all my 'rough drafts.'"

One of her songs is titled 'Share Your Gift' and is "about how you have to look inside to find out what your strengths are, and then be that," Gerri says. "It's kind of a gender-crossing piece. I published it as sheet music, because choirs wanted to sing it, and it's now being sung by choirs in at least twenty states. People are saying they're using it for funerals, for confirmations, for fundraising.

She wrote a song called "The Best of Friends" after a friend had died: "I was really having trouble dealing with this thought of like, 'I hate life; why do people get taken away' – and so I wrote this children's song where this child loses a puppy, and then their older sister goes off to school. And I'm hearing back that people are using this in hospice programs and things like that. And I just love that, when a song comes out of a need of my own, and I write it as therapy.

"There's a song on my new CD that I wasn't even going to record because I thought it was too personal. It was from when my parents sold the only house I had ever known, to move into an apartment, and suddenly I'm down there for two weeks helping them clear out all the detritus of your life. I wrote a song called 'The Wings of a Song' that talks about giving anything to have just one night back in my old bedroom and all this kind of stuff.

"So I wrote this, and I cried, and thought, okay, this is a song I could never play for anybody because they'll think I'm nuts. Well, I played it for a couple of friends, then they cried, and now it's the song I probably get the most comments on when people get the CD. From middle aged women, who are clearing out their house, to college kids who are homesick.

"So here's this feminist album with all this stuff, and then here's this little song at the end about me whining because I want to be nine again, you know. And it's the one that just connects to everyone. I guess we're all nine year old whiners."

Asked about other artists who also use "woman-positive" songs and material, Gerri says, "You notice it more in rock or what you'd call the folk rock kind of thing, like Ani DiFranco and Jewel and people like that. And there are some real hidden gems among country western women, like Dolly Parton. You look at the songs that didn't make it to number one, you find it on the B sides of her albums.

"And her song '9 to 5' that was a hit. And I'd like to point out that the classic country hit 'Stand By Your Man' was not written by a woman at all, but a man. But I think there is more awareness of it, especially among younger performers.

"I'm from Kentucky and southern Ohio originally, and I'd grown up singing a lot of these songs, and it wasn't until I was older that I realized that in a lot of songs I knew, the women were always getting killed, or killing themselves. So in the early seventies, you had the first development of what has been called 'Women's Music' with a capital 'w' and in a lot of ways is women-identified music, like lesbian love songs and things like that, but it was also a reaction to these old songs, and women saying there wasn't anything they could sing with a clear conscience.

"I guess I took a different approach, in that I believed there had to be songs where women did something beside kill themselves over men, so that's where I set out to do my research. I've got a song where a woman disguises herself as a man and sneaks into the British Navy. There's another song, 'Equinoxial and Phoebe,' where the husband and wife switch roles for the day, and at the end of the day, he's singing about how she could do more work in a day than she could do in seven."

Asked about what might be helpful for encouraging her creative work, such as reading other authors, listening to other people's music, exercise, going to movies etc., Gerri responds, "All of the above. For me, songwriting is such an integrated part of my life, and I think that's why I never wanted it to become 'work' and have a deadline and so on.

"When people talk about retirement, I don't even understand the meaning of that word. Why would I stop doing this? I love yoga, and biking. I love independent films, no matter what kind, just because I love being taken off in whole different directions. And I read a lot, all kinds of things."

She is about to start a distance learning graduate program. "I'm going to get a Masters Degree in Liberal Studies, which is basically what I've been studying the last twenty years, and I decided I want some accreditation. I'm really excited about that."

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More information about her programs and music (such as her CD titled The Womansong Collection) may be found on her site:  http://creativefolk.com/

Gerri Gribi's page on songs.com  http://songs.com/gerri/index.html

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CDs 

Respect: A Century Of Women In Music [BOX SET]

The Womansong Collection  "..featuring 24 woman-positive traditional and composed songs with historical notes and lyrics"

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